Heisei Megadisasters: Driving Home the Need for Preparation

Society Disaster

Japan experienced two highly destructive earthquakes—the Hanshin-Awaji temblor in 1995 and the 2011 Great East Japan megaquake—during the Heisei years. There were also several floods and volcanic eruptions in those decades. The 30 years of Heisei will no doubt be remembered as a time of natural calamities.

Quiet on the Natural Disaster Front in the Early Postwar Years

Let’s begin with an overview of the four postwar decades from 1945 to the end of the Shōwa era in 1989. In the 15 years between the end of World War II in 1945 and 1960, natural disasters regularly occurred, claiming a total of over 1,000 lives almost every year. During the war years, few resources had been available to carry out measures for forestry conservation and flood control, leaving the country virtually defenseless against natural disasters.

It took the Ise Bay typhoon in 1959, which caused 5,098 deaths, for the government to act, which it did in 1961 with the enactment of the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act. But this legislation’s biggest flaw was that it focused only on disasters that actually occurred and made no provisions for preparing for possible future disasters. The 1960s were a time when Japan’s economy was going strong, growing at over 10% a year; it would not have been difficult to fund disaster preparedness measures as public works projects. Ironically, no major natural disasters happened during those years, and forward-looking investment that could have been devoted to disaster countermeasures was neglected.

From 1959 to 1989, the biggest natural disaster to occur was torrential rainfall that triggered landslides in Nagasaki in 1982, killing 299 people. However, no major typhoons struck the archipelago and were there no severe earthquakes in those decades. This lulled the government into believing that the country was fully prepared to face natural disasters, even giving rise to a false sense of security that there would be no more major natural disasters. That mindset led Japan, brimming with confidence that it could contribute to international disaster preparedness, to propose making 1990 the first year of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction to the United Nations, a proposal accepted unanimously by UN member states.

Turbulent Heisei Times

Heisei, the name of the imperial era that began in 1989, was described in terms of “achieving peace on heaven and earth, and at home and throughout the world.” But nature chose that time to start exhibiting violent behavior. In the United States, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused extensive damage around the San Francisco Bay and Santa Cruz areas. A devastating storm surge in Bangladesh killed 143,000 people in 1991, and the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo erupted the same year, in the largest volcanic explosion of the twentieth century. In retrospect, the 1990s were a decade of major natural calamities around the world.

That same decade was also one of severe natural disasters in Japan. In 1991, dozens of people died in the pyroclastic flows triggered by the eruption of Mount Fugen in Kyūshū. In Hokkaidō, the southwestern Hokkaidō offshore earthquake in 1993 stirred up a tsunami that reached Okushiri Island in five minutes and killed over 200 people there. The Hanshin-Awaji earthquake in 1995 caused unprecedented damage and exposed the weaknesses of urban neighborhoods filled with old wooden structures that the economy’s go-go years in the 1950s and 1960s had neglected.

Until then, the authorities, going on what had been learned at the time of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, had believed that as long as fires did not break out, there would be no massive deaths in urban areas. But the old wooden buildings still standing in and around Kobe became deathtraps, causing around 5,000 fatalities. For the first time, it became clear that social resilience—in other words, the country’s preparedness for dealing with natural disasters—could mitigate damage.

The Niigata Chūetsu Earthquake, which struck in 2004, caused numerous landslides, demonstrating that hilly rural areas were not immune to damage either. And the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake generated a huge tsunami that caused over 22,000 deaths, including later deaths indirectly related to the disaster.

As for wind- or rain-related disasters, none causing over 100 fatalities had occurred in three-and-a-half decades since the 1980s. But that changed in 2018, with landslides and floods in western Japan that claimed the lives of over 240 people. The country was still not well prepared to withstand that kind of calamity. This succession of natural disasters made Heisei a truly turbulent era.

Disaster Preparedness Measures Need Urgent Review

Until the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, there had been little awareness that the Nankai earthquakes—shakes originating along the Nankai Trough running offshore from the Kii Peninsula to offshore southern Shikoku—had once again entered an active period. Seismologists had been focusing only on the Tōkai earthquakes, which strike farther to the northeast in the Nankai Trough, from Suruga Bay to inland Shizuoka Prefecture. In addition, ever since the enactment of the Act on Special Measures for Large-Scale Earthquakes in 1978, it was mistakenly believed that such earthquakes could be predicted.

But the unexpected devastation caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake led scientists to reevaluate the scale of possible future earthquakes. Now both a major Nankai Trough earthquake, encompassing both the Nankai and Tōkai seismic regions, and a devastating earthquake striking directly under Tokyo are judged to have the potential to develop into national emergencies threatening the country’s survival. Similarly, a storm surge in Tokyo Bay or flooding along the Tone River in Chiba or the Arakawa, which flows through the eastern part of Tokyo, also have the potential to set off a national emergency.

The Kumamoto earthquakes of 2016 showed that the Disaster Relief Act and the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act would not suffice for dealing with far more destructive earthquakes and would be ineffective in a national emergency due to a natural disaster. The Act Concerning Support for Reconstructing Livelihoods of Disaster Victims could also not be applied, because the damage would be too widespread. The relevant laws need to be amended soon, but the Cabinet Office section in charge of dealing with disaster preparedness lacks the resources to accumulate knowledge about the issues in the form of explicit knowledge (in writing, visually, as mathematical expressions, and as knowledge compiled in manuals).

More natural disasters occurred in rapid succession between June and September 2018: the northern Osaka earthquake, deluges and flooding in western Japan, typhoon Jebi, and the Hokkaidō Eastern Iburi Earthquake. The authorities were kept busy dealing with these disasters and there was no time to attend to amending disaster-related laws. The flooding in western Japan also brought to light a new issue requiring urgent action: the numerous fatalities among residents, mainly the elderly, who needed help to evacuate in timely fashion.

Birth of Volunteerism

Beginning in the Meiji era (1868–1912), when Japan’s transformation into a modern state began, disaster preparedness measures were handled mainly by the central government. This changed radically with the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, when more than 1.4 million volunteers pitched in to help restore and revitalize the affected areas. That disaster made it clear that helping oneself and working together with others to help the community were essential, and highlighted the importance of creating a new framework for working together with the central and local governments. The organized activities of nonprofit groups and nongovernmental organizations later greatly helped disaster victims get back on their feet after the Great East Japan earthquake, and the authorities now recognize that these organizations’ help will be indispensable in future disasters. 

Engineering and the natural sciences have given us flood-control dams, diversion channels, levees, seawalls, and floodgates, seismic dampers or seismic isolation equipment for large structures, more localized weather information, and much more. These elements are part of the nation’s physical infrastructure, which I think of as the “civilization” of disasters. On the other hand, the wisdom acquired by living through repeated disasters, passed down and shared by local communities—what I call the “culture” of disasters—develops through human relationships. But overreliance on public infrastructure and top-down help blunts our innate sense of danger, and we also fail to keep disaster-related wisdom alive and evolving.

Human Connections Fragile in Urban Areas

Society is built on civilization, after which culture develops and flourishes. But today, while more and more infrastructure is being created to mitigate damage from natural disasters, the human bonds that foster resilience are fraying as populations grow older and residents dwindle in number. Meanwhile, overconcentration of the population in Tokyo is only making the gap between physical infrastructure and human connections wider.

For example, high-rise apartment buildings are springing up everywhere in Tokyo. Each one of those buildings brings a thousand or more new residents into local communities. But the new residents have very little contact with people who have been living there for decades, and community interaction is nonexistent. Meanwhile, essential services like water and electricity are for the whole community, not just the high-rises, but if services are interrupted by an earthquake, multistory apartment buildings, while undamaged, will have no electricity. Elevators will stop and water will cease to flow, so living there will become difficult if not impossible.

The alternative will be to go to a public shelter, but how can the local public schools or other designated shelters cope with such a huge influx of people? Citizens are meant to help operate shelters, but new residents in the apartment buildings have not taken part in any related drills. It seems to me that Tokyo and its central cities have not thought about how to deal with the crowds that may overwhelm the shelters, which are open to all. The traditional wisdom that local residents have developed for coping with calamities is breaking down, a situation that can worsen the damage inflicted by natural disasters. Meanwhile, the danger of an earthquake striking directly under Tokyo continues to grow by the day.

Principal Natural Disasters of the Heisei Era (1989–2019)

Date Description Fatalities/missing persons
June 1991 Mt. Fugen volcanic eruption 44
July 1993 Southwestern Hokkaidō offshore earthquake 230
January 1995 Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake 6,437
March 2000 Mt. Usu volcanic eruption 0
June 2000 Miyakejima volcanic eruption 1
October 2004 Typhoon Tokage 98
October 2004 Niigata Chūetsu earthquake 68
July 2007 Niigata Chūetsu offshore earthquake 15
March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake 22,199
September 2011 Heavy rainfall over the Kii Peninsula 98
August 2014 Landslides in Hiroshima 77
September 2014 Mt. Ontake volcanic eruption 63
April 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes 267
July 2017 Heavy rains in northern Kyūshū 41
June 2018 Northern Osaka earthquake 4
July 2018 Landslides and floods in Okayama and Hiroshima Prefectures 245
September 2018 Typhoon Jebi 14
September 2018 Hokkaidō Eastern Iburi Earthquake 42

(Originally published in Japanese on April 2, 2019. Banner photo: The Hamayuri tourist boat, left atop a building by the tsunami after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Akahama, Ōtsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, April 8, 2011. © Jiji.)

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