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News outlets in Japan question belated flood response

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe probably regrets attending a drinking party thrown by some Liberal Democratic Party colleagues on July 5. Even if he didn’t suffer a hangover, as some reports implied, he was forced to dodge media brickbats over his colleagues’ seeming inability to “read the air,” as the Japanese say.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa, the designated “hostess” of the party, had two days earlier signed off on the execution of seven members of the religious group Aum Shinrikyo, including leader Shoko Asahara, which took place the next morning. It looked to members of the press as if the politicians were celebrating the hangings, even if the public seemed relieved that the two-decade-long Aum ordeal was over.

More significantly, the Meteorological Agency held an extraordinary news conference on the afternoon of July 5, announcing that western Japan would be hit by “unprecedented” rain for several days. Even before the partygoers hoisted their glasses, around 200,000 people in Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures were “warned” to evacuate.

It seems obvious that there were enough indications of impending disaster to give Abe and his friends reason to monitor the progress of the storm that night, but according to freelance writer Satetsu Takeda during a discussion of the matter on a Bunka Hoso talk show on July 10, they didn’t. Even worse, their reaction to the scope of the disaster was slow. Indeed, it wasn’t until 9 a.m. on Sunday that an emergency response was finally approved by the government, a full 66 hours after the Meteorological Agency’s news conference.

The LDP and its supporters have since blasted opposition parties and the press for blaming the government for something that “couldn’t be predicted,” which sounds awfully similar to the situation following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, when the then-opposition LDP attacked the ruling Democratic Party of Japan for its insufficient response to that disaster. In this case, however, there were so many layers of responsibility that it seems short-sighted to make Abe and his fellow revelers the primary scapegoats. Or is it?

In its in-depth coverage of the disaster on July 8, the Mainichi Shimbun’s Osaka edition pointed out that the heaviest rain fell at night. Local authorities in the worst-hit areas initially issued hinan kankoku (evacuation advisories), which many people ignored. It wasn’t until after nightfall that these notices were changed to hinan shiji (evacuation orders) but, as it turns out, people didn’t evacuate then either.

The city of Kure in Hiroshima Prefecture didn’t issue an evacuation order until 9 p.m. Traveling to evacuation centers in the dark was going to be difficult for many people, especially the elderly. In hindsight it seems obvious that Kure should have issued the order earlier, but local governments, who are responsible for such notices, often hesitate to do so because if a disaster doesn’t materialize, residents might become angry.

This sounds like blaming the victims, and in many of the Mainichi stories it seems residents didn’t take the situation seriously enough. One man in his 30s living in Kurashiki said he ignored the order because he wanted to watch the soccer World Cup. Fortunately he was rescued by boat the next morning. Others weren’t as fortunate. One man in Kure went out to inspect the river at 8 p.m. and saw two elderly people get swept away. Since they were walking in the opposite direction from the evacuation center, he assumed they had tried to go there but gave up when the rain became too intense.

This failure to evacuate in time was the main theme of NHK’s disaster coverage in a special program aired July 12. Millions of affected people were ultimately ordered to evacuate but, according to NHK, only 40,000 made it to shelters. Given that these kinds of weather events are projected to increase in frequency, experts on the show said residents must be made to understand that an advisory means to get out as soon as possible. What the experts didn’t discuss is why people are so reluctant to do that.

Attorney Osamu Omae, writing in the July 10 issue of Gendai Business, points out that local governments are in charge of evacuation facilities, and they almost always put evacuees in school gymnasiums, where they sleep on floors in cramped conditions with no privacy or air conditioning, and with insufficient sanitation.

Other countries have permanent countermeasures in place to deal with natural disasters. In 2009, Italy set up thousands of six-person tents with air conditioning for victims of an earthquake within 48 hours that provided enough bathroom and kitchen facilities for 18,000 people. Remaining victims were put up in hotels.

Omae stressed that these resources were provided by the Italian government. Local governments in Japan don’t have the money or resources to handle disasters of this magnitude and always have to improvise. Following the Kumamoto earthquake of 2016, 95 people reportedly died in evacuation facilities or in their cars.

Former lawmaker Nobuhiko Suto, who has lobbied for better disaster preparedness for 30 years, said on the July 14 edition of the web news program DemocraTV that Japan must establish a full-time emergency management agency. As it stands, emergencies are handled by various ministries who never work together properly because of their respective vertical structures.

The government has said it must respond to local calls for stronger anti-disaster infrastructure, but dams and levees are not always effective. A dam completed in February to stop mudslides in Hiroshima’s Aki Ward didn’t prevent 20 houses from being buried.

Evacuation measures are the only solution in a disaster-prone country such as Japan and, according to Suto, only the central government can make them happen. Abe and his fellow partygoers can’t be blamed for not properly responding to the budding disaster on July 5, because they had no tools with which to effectively respond. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not responsible.