The Cabinet has approved a set of ground rules for protecting the people in the event of a military, terrorist or missile attack on Japan. The rules, officially called “Guidelines Concerning the Protection of the People,” state what protective measures the government will take in such an emergency.

Japan may not face a clear and present danger, but it is better to be prepared (the nation already has military emergency legislation). Preparedness requires crisis management, and those on the receiving end of protection — the people — should be more aware of potential dangers. At the same time, the nation must be better prepared for other types of emergencies, especially natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.

Disasters, natural or not, hit at unexpected moments. The earthquake that struck Fukuoka Prefecture earlier this month surprised even seismologists. The Great Hanshin Earthquake of 10 years ago and October’s Chuetsu Earthquake in Niigata Prefecture caught residents completely unaware. So it was with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

To prepare for such disasters is to build a comprehensive crisis management system. Measures to protect the people in a security emergency should be an integral part of such a system.

According to the guidelines, prefectural governments and designated administrative agencies must draw up “programs to protect people” by the end of fiscal 2005, while designated public institutions, including radio and TV stations, must draw up “business programs to protect people” by the same date. Other selected organizations, such as municipal offices, gas companies and local broadcasters, must work out similar programs by the end of fiscal 2006.

There is a possibility that these efforts — which will involve an enormous amount of administrative work — might be postponed under the pretext that security risks are much less likely than natural disasters. So it is necessary to map out protection programs and counterdisaster programs in an integrated manner, as if they were two wheels of a cart. Measures against natural and human disasters should be formulated within the same framework of crisis management. From this point of view, disaster-reduction programs or arrangements now in place should be improved so that they provide a practical foundation on which to build protection programs.

One area that needs improving is 24-hour duty. The guidelines call for designated organizations to maintain a round-the-clock rapid-response system. It is true that duty personnel are already posted in all prefectural governments to answer emergency calls at the time of a natural disaster, but this arrangement, partly dependent on main-office security guards, does not appear to be working as it should.

What is needed is a change of attitude. While the public at large needs to better understand the need for crisis management, prefectural and municipal employees — those directly responsible for frontline countermeasures — should be more crisis-conscious and do their utmost to get rid of the turf mentality that can block coordinated action. Sectionalism will be reduced, if not eliminated, if all employees do the duty shift, regardless of their sections. One simple but effective way of protecting people is to run 24-hour disaster hot lines.

Given the frequent occurrence of earthquakes and tsunamis, it is also necessary to create a general post in charge of people’s protection and disaster reduction — a post equivalent in rank to a bureau director. Some prefectures already have a similar position.

Sixty years after the end of World War II, there is broad public recognition of the need to prepare for national security crises. Perhaps few people associate it with the prewar general mobilization program. This is not to say, of course, that the Japanese need not learn from history. The lesson for the media is that reports about the war were distorted because of false announcements by the Imperial Headquarters. It is only natural that the guidelines should give maximum consideration to freedom of the press.

The Self-Defense Forces are expected to play a larger role not only at the time of security crisis but also in disaster rescue and relief. Rapid action is essential if the SDF is not to repeat its experience at the time of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Detailed rules, however desirable, are no guarantee that a crisis will be met speedily. The real challenge will be dealing with the crisis that defies the rules. In such a situation, action will depend largely on how the government and the people went about preparing for the worst in normal times.

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