In the wake of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake, local and prefectural governments around the country rushed to assist the Tohoku region, sending material aid and personnel, while private firms and individuals arrived to volunteer their services wherever they were needed.

Few were as quick to respond as Hyogo Prefecture and the city of Kobe, which had experienced their own earthquake in January 1995, and had worked in the intervening years to become Japan’s premier center for disaster response-related knowledge, and an example that towns, cities and prefectures in Tohoku could use as they attempted to rebuild.

At a recent symposium, held ahead of the 20th anniversary this Saturday of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and attended by officials and representatives of nonprofit organizations from Iwate and Hyogo prefectures, Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido and Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso spoke on the administrative and planning challenges governments face when dealing with a large-scale natural disaster.

Ido was quick to stress that while the Jan. 17, 1995 Hanshin quake and the response to it by local authorities could be used as a starting point for Tohoku, the scale of the 2011 disasters was much bigger, and thus created different challenges.

“The Hanshin quake produced heavy damage in a relatively concentrated area in and around Kobe, while the damage in Tohoku was spread out over a 500-km-long area from north to south.

“In addition, while aging city streets were hit hard in the 1995 quake, in Tohoku, many harbor areas were wiped out by the tsunami, destroying farmlands and fishing harbors, the economic base of local economies,” Ido said.

In the wake of the Hanshin earthquake, the central government was heavily criticized for its slow response and bureaucratic red tape that delayed the arrival of official rescue efforts from within Japan and overseas.

Afterwards, the central government made numerous changes to allow for a more speedy recovery, but the Kansai region, led by Hyogo, also accelerated efforts at regional cooperation in the event of another natural disaster.

When the Tohoku quake hit, Ido said, Kansai leaders met and drew up a plan for prefecture-to-prefecture assistance.

“Through the seven-prefecture Union of Kansai Governments, it was agreed that Osaka and Wakayama prefectures would be responsible for aiding Iwate Prefecture, that Hyogo, Tottori and Tokushima prefectures would be responsible for helping Miyagi Prefecture, and that Shiga and Kyoto prefectures would help Fukushima Prefecture,” Ido said.

Using the experience of the 1995 earthquake, Hyogo and Kansai officials responded with not only immediate rescue needs, but also assistance with the establishment of a recovery fund, policy advice for making use of donated money for reconstruction, and help in establishing centers for better coordination of volunteers who often needed direction on where they were needed.

“By pairing up Kansai prefectures with Tohoku prefectures, we were able to create a degree of continuity of assistance and clearer lines of responsibility,” Ido said.

Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso said that nearly four years after the quake there has been progress in a number of local areas.

“Thanks to an influx of tourists, hotels and ryokan (Japanese-style inns) have returned to pre-quake levels. However, around some train stations, homes have not been rebuilt,” he said.

Both Ido and Tasso stressed the importance of localities moving quickly not only to deal with evacuees in temporary housing or basic infrastructure-rebuilding projects, but also to make plans for economic and industrial recovery.

In Iwate’s case, this has, as Tasso indicated, meant a greater emphasis on local tourism and efforts by residents to both spruce up disaster areas and come up with new tourism opportunities.

Jun Sasaki, a fisherman from the Ayasato district in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, said he and local fisherman’s unions have worked hard since 3/11 to turn their town into a destination for foodie travelers, especially those who love scallops, an area specialty.

“Scallop farming was heavily damaged by the quake. But we now offer tourists the chance to do their own fishing and learn more about scallops, as we try to build our local brand,” Sasaki said.

For Hyogo and Kobe residents who went to Tohoku as volunteers, one of the lessons they learned was that simply talking about their own experiences in the 1995 quake, or explaining how Kobe rebuilt afterward, helped get Tohoku victims to open up to them.

“It’s important that the connections between the people of Iwate, and Tohoku, and Hyogo continue to develop, because our experiences with a natural disaster can help each other,” said Migiwa Ojima, a Kansai University student who lost her father in the 1995 quake and has done a lot of volunteer work in Japan and abroad.

Kobe and Hyogo officials, NGOs and businesses all agree, however, that one of the biggest lessons learned from the 1995 quake and subsequent natural disasters around Japan is that while there is much the central government can and should do, it’s up to local governments not to wait on Tokyo and show leadership by forging disaster cooperation agreements with different regions. In other words, don’t wait for Tokyo to do everything.

In addition to drawing up response plans for Tohoku, the Union of Kansai Governments has signed agreements with prefectural-level officials in Kyushu and nine governments in Kanto to provide mutual assistance in the event of a disaster. Hyogo Prefecture has also attempted to prepare for a feared quake in the Nankai Trough off the Pacific coast, which scientists say will heavily damage the Kansai region.

The importance of having not only official local plans for cooperation in place, but also teams of rescue and medical personnel and experienced volunteers on hand and in communication with relevant national and local authorities is probably the biggest lesson learned since 1995.

But it’s also crucial for local and prefectural governments to have short-, mid- and long-term reconstruction and redevelopment strategies in place. Ido outlined Hyogo and Kobe’s experience as the “3-3-10” model.

“It took about three months to conduct emergency operations. For rebuilding the basic transportation and industrial infrastructure, it took three years. But it took about 10 years for most people’s lifestyles to return to normal,” he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.