Despite the record amounts of snow dumped chiefly over eastern Japan in the past several days, no emergency warnings were issued by the Meteorological Agency as it stuck rigidly to criteria it set last year, prompting an expert to urge the agency to be more flexible.
The central government, meanwhile, has drawn flak for failing to respond quickly enough to weather-related incidents, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe taken to task by an opposition lawmaker for dining out on the weekend as reports came in of blizzards cutting off villages and stranding vehicles on highways.
The weather agency started implementing a new set of criteria for issuing an “emergency warning” — deemed graver than an “advisory” or simple “warning” — in August.
In winter, the criteria call for issuing an emergency warning when “snow accumulates to a level seen only once every 50 years in an extensive area approximate to a prefecture, and when warning-level snow is anticipated to continue for at least one full day.”
The city of Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, logged a record 114 cm of snow through Saturday, more than twice as much as the previous record. For this city, the “once every 50 years” figure for snowfall was 41 cm, which was exceeded at 5 p.m. Friday.
In Saitama Prefecture, the benchmark figure for the city of Kumagaya was passed a few hours later at 10 p.m. and for Maebashi at 1 a.m. Saturday.
Despite the storm-hit area expanding to the size of a typical prefecture, the agency did not issue an emergency warning, apparently because it did not see prospects for snow continuing for another full day.
In Kofu, snowfall weakened Saturday morning. The period of intense snowfall was around 24 hours, but this included hours leading up to when it reached the 50-year benchmark.
In fact, a typical winter low-pressure system off the Pacific coast rarely brings snow for an extended number of hours.
“We haven’t had such heavy snow on the Pacific coast before,” an official at the weather agency said. “It didn’t occur to us to consider (such a possibility) when we worked out criteria for emergency warnings.”
Those criteria are based on weather conditions that produced extensive damage in the past. For snow, the agency took note of a range of pressure patterns that dumped heavy snow on the Sea of Japan side of the archipelago, including the winter storms of 1963 and 1981.
The unexpected heavy snow from Friday killed more than 20 people, including those crushed under collapsed garage ceilings. It also blocked roads and railway tracks. Over 6,000 people remained stranded mostly in the Kanto and Koshin regions as of Tuesday, more than three days after it stopped snowing, according to local governments. Damage could turn out to be even more extensive as time passes.
“The Japan Meteorological Agency needs to consider a more flexible approach, considering disaster mitigation measures in the real world,” said Toshitaka Katada, professor of disaster mitigation engineering at Gunma University Graduate School. “It would’ve been better if they had issued (the warning) this time.”
But Katada added that “sporadic disasters owing to abnormal weather” are becoming more frequent. “It’s necessary for residents to understand that there are unpredictable elements and to actively engage in disaster mitigation measures.”
The agency said it will examine whether there is any room for improvement not just for emergency warnings but also weather information overall by listening to local government officials.
The government, meanwhile, came under fire for its apparent slow response to the disaster. A disaster measures headquarters was set up only Tuesday morning, four days after snow started pounding the Kanto and Koshin areas covering Tokyo, Saitama and Yamanashi on Friday.
At its first meeting, Abe instructed government officials to “take every possible measure” to handle the situation.
A senior lawmaker of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan expressed scorn about the prime minister’s show of leadership, saying it was intended to fend off criticism that the government had been “inadequate in taking action at an early stage.”
On Facebook, Abe said, “The government confirmed preliminary measures with relevant ministries and agencies starting Friday before snow started falling.”
Jin Matsubara, the DPJ’s Diet affairs chief, took a stab at Abe’s dining out on tempura Sunday evening while snow damage was expanding. Speaking to reporters Monday, Matsubara said: “There was no sense of urgency. There were already communities and cars stranded in snow as of Sunday. It’s really regrettable.”
Abe is said to have visited a tempura restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka district from just before 6 p.m. Sunday for a dinner with supporters. He returned home at around 8 p.m. Comments critical of the leader’s outing were also seen on the Internet.
In Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, some residents were cut off by snow, prompting the municipal government to call on the prefecture repeatedly to dispatch Self-Defense Forces troops to help from Saturday.
Mayor Kuniyasu Kuki wrote on his blog, “We made repeated requests to Saitama Prefecture but were only turned down.” A city official said the urgency of the situation was not apparently understood.
The prefectural government did finally request the SDF to send troops. Gov. Kiyoshi Ueda said, “It’s not that we turned them away but the situation was not urgent enough.”
In a stranded community in Chichibu, Seiichi Chishima, who runs a diner, said, “Perhaps because we’ve never experienced a disaster this bad, I felt the measures taken were one step behind.
“I was told the Self-Defense Forces were coming with food, medicine and kerosene, but snow has not been removed. I wonder if they can deliver them to every household,” Chishima, 66, said.
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