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Deadly rains in western Japan revive calls for disaster prevention ministry

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The fatal rains and flooding in western Japan — and the ongoing difficulties caused by the extent of the damage and record high temperatures — have revived calls for creating a disaster prevention ministry that can coordinate and streamline rescue and relief efforts.

The question is one that may influence the outcome of the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential race in September, with a key member and tough challenger to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joining local politicians in calling for a ministry-level organization.

Over the past few weeks, Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP secretary-general from Tottori Prefecture who is quite popular among local LDP chapters for promoting regional economic revitalization, has spoken and written about the need for a new ministry or agency to handle disasters. He outlined the idea in a book of policy proposals that was published on July 14.

“Japan is a country with a lot of different kinds of natural disasters, and we’re very experienced in dealing with them. Isn’t it necessary to scale things up by centralizing this knowledge in one location, including knowledge gained from infrastructure issues and evacuations?” Ishiba wrote.

He added that the idea for a disaster prevention ministry had been proposed back in 2015 and 2016, when he was regional revitalization minister, but that discussions within the government didn’t go anywhere.

With concern about an earthquake leveling Tokyo — or striking in an area known as the Nankai trough off the Pacific coast — Ishiba says a ministry that would train experts, promote a culture of disaster prevention and conduct evacuation drills is necessary.

Furthermore, Ishiba suggests the ministry could play a role in economic stimulation and technological innovation of a kind most Japanese embrace.

“The development of scientific technologies for military use is strongly opposed in Japan. But the development of scientific technologies for disaster prevention would receive a lot of support. As a national policy, putting efforts into making this sector would lead to new industries and make Japan a world leader in innovation with regards to disaster prevention techniques,” Ishiba wrote.

The idea for a full-scale ministry, or at least an agency, dates back to the January 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which killed over 6,300 people.

At the time, there was great frustration within the Kobe Municipal Government and the Hyogo Prefectural Government over national laws, rules, and policies that resulted in bureaucratic delays and the lack of quick coordination on rescue and relief efforts between various organs in Tokyo and local governments and disaster response teams.

Since then, Hyogo Prefecture, and more generally the Kansai region, has urged the central government to become more proactive and efficient in disaster prevention and response, including support from a disaster prevention ministry or agency.

The most recent proposal was made in July 2017 by a panel of disaster response experts. They presented their recommendations to the Union of Kansai Governments, which includes the governors of eight prefectures and the mayors of four cities. The committee had been appointed by the union in July 2016 to investigate ways to improve national and local government responses to natural disaster.

The committee agreed that a new ministry or agency for disaster prevention was needed for five reasons:

To strengthen national policies from the viewpoint of preventing and reducing natural disasters.

To have a bureaucratic organ that supports groups of disaster experts, who can share their knowledge and experience formally.

To coordinate human resource and material needs.

To improve local government response capabilities and create national standards for all local governments.

To offer back-up support.

“Does the current system for disaster response in Japan allow for responding to a giant natural disaster? You can’t just extend past policies if there is an unprecedented natural disaster,” the committee’s report said.

One of those who served on the committee is Yoshiaki Kawata, a disaster expert at Kansai University and a longtime advocate for a new ministry.

“The headquarters of the ministry or agency would be located in Tokyo, with a deputy headquarters in Kobe and regional bureaus in Sapporo, Sendai, Niigata, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Takamatsu, and Kumamoto. In the event of the largest scale of disaster, the prime minister would serve as head of an emergency response team, while in a smaller disaster, the Disaster Prevention Minister would be in charge. Dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces would be done by the Defense Minister,” Kawata said in an email interview.

In addition to the Union of Kansai Governments, the National Governors’ Association is also supportive of a new ministry.

But the central government remains wary, at the very least, over the idea.

At a regular news briefing on July 17, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed caution about the idea of a new disaster ministry or agency.

“Usually, bureaucrats at related agencies are first trained, and in the event of a disaster, are immediately dispatched to the affected site. It’s critical that, based on the separation of roles for the national and local governments, a posture is adopted of making efforts for a speedy recovery,” Suga said.

Even with the flood damage and recent calls by Ishiba, other LDP members and local government leaders for a new entity, Kawata doubts there will be movement by the Diet anytime soon to pass a bill authorizing the creation of a new ministry or agency.

“This is because individual Diet members wouldn’t benefit from doing so. Most of them have a poor sense of mission and responsibility and a very poor ability to formulate policy,” he said.

But the larger problem, he added, is one of indifference.

“Japan is very lucky that it has no experience of being completely wiped out by a natural disaster or war. So nobody can imagine such a thing happening,” he said.

“There is a danger of an earthquake striking Tokyo during the Olympics, but even if you think about it, there’s nothing you can do. So people decide not to worry and don’t consider the possibility,” he said.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.