Japan’s Disaster Response Management: Lessons for the World

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • January 2012


    The massive earthquake (known as the Tohoku earthquake) and the subsequent tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, and the following release of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, constitute one of the greatest disasters to strike Japan in recent times. This triple disaster falls within the risk profile of Japan’s disaster management programme. There were no contributing factors that could not or should not have been predicted and accounted for. As it transpired however, Japan’s disaster response management failed because of systemic weaknesses, that had been identified in previous similar events, including the 1995 Kobe–Hanshin earthquake. The inexperience of the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and domestic political compulsions led them to withhold information from the public and this made them the target of accusations over the mishandling of a crisis of such gigantic proportions.

    The events of March 11 reminded the world of how quickly new situations challenge the fundamental rules and principles developed by crisis response managers. The systemic failures of the Japanese government represented almost the same weaknesses that were identified in the US following Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. Despite human frailty and nature’s unpredictable behaviour, the Big Event was an inevitable consequence of Japan’s geographical positioning across major tectonic faults. It is because of this vulnerability that earthquakes and tsunamis are factored into disaster planning in Japan at every level from the central government to local village disaster committees. The truism, however, is that once the disaster hits, the enormity of the event leads to failures at every level of the crisis response management system.

    Though the scale of the crisis is often described as unprecedented, the problems of response management were the same as those identified disaster response programmes across the world. The tragedy took place in an advanced, technologically-enabled nation and should have been predicted because Japan has a 100-year-old tradition of national disaster response planning? Moreover, its prediction of such a devastating scenario should have led to proper planning to face challenges like a high-magnitude earthquake and tsunami when they occur. The Japanese people, therefore, are seeking answers to legitimate questions as to why the government’s response capability proved to be ineffective, and what are the fundamental flaws that render it ineffective when faced with the realities of actual disaster management.

    It is often reported that the earthquake had been predicted well in advance and, to the outside world,

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