Due to the geographic and geological characteristics of the Japanese archipelago, middle- to large-scale natural disasters can strike at any time. While military conflicts or terrorism may be thwarted through human efforts, typhoons and earthquakes are unstoppable, affecting all those residing in this nation.

Because natural disasters are inevitable, it is all the more important for the central and local governments, and the people, to make sufficient preparations in earnest to cope with them. The central government’s fiscal 2005 white paper on natural-disaster prevention spells out measures designed to minimize damage from natural disasters, especially from large-scale earthquakes. In fiscal 2004, the annual white paper began projecting human and property damage expected from future earthquakes and setting down goals for reducing damage from estimated levels.

The latest paper says that large-scale earthquakes with a magnitude of 8 could happen anytime off the Tokai Region. They may also occur east of Kii Peninsula and off Shikoku sometime in the first half of this century.

In anticipation of these powerful earthquakes, the white paper calls for measures aimed at halving, within 10 years, the number of estimated deaths and the amount of estimated property damage — from 9,200 deaths to 4,500 deaths and from 37 trillion yen to 19 trillion yen for the Tokai earthquake, and from 17,800 deaths to 9,100 deaths and from 57 trillion yen to 31 trillion yen for large quakes off Kii Peninsula and Shikoku.

As for Tokyo, the paper says that a quake measuring between magnitude 7 and 8 is more likely to occur beneath the metropolitan area this century than a magnitude-8 temblor (the scale of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923). Still, a Tokyo quake of magnitude 7.3 would be expected to cause about 11,000 deaths and some 112 trillion yen in property damage, including the destruction of 850,000 buildings. The white paper calls for laying down specific goals and strategies to cope with such an earthquake.

To minimize damage from large-scale quakes, the document stressed the importance of a three-pronged approach — active governmental measures to lessen damage, mutual assistance in communities and careful preparations by individuals. Citizens are advised to fasten furniture and keep enough food and water in stock for three days of consumption.

The Cabinet Office has launched a home page called Minna no Bosai (“Disaster Prevention for All”) to introduce to the public concrete antidisaster activities of certain community associations and civic organizations.

It goes without saying that efforts by the central and local governments are the most important. The central government’s antidisaster budget has trended slightly downward in recent years. In fiscal 2005, central government agencies will spend a total of 2.53 trillion yen for natural disaster-related research, national land conservation and rescue activities related to large-scale natural disasters.

Earthquake prediction may have some value, but more serious thought should be given to developing realistic antiquake plans on how to begin and carry out rescue and assistance operations in particular areas once a big one strikes.

As a way to minimize deaths from earthquakes, the white paper calls on individuals whose buildings were built in and before 1981 to check to what extent their property can resist seismic shocks. This year the government started a subsidy system for carrying out such checks and strengthening weak buildings or constructing new ones. But the fiscal 2005 budget does not include a preferential tax system to promote quake-proofing. The tax system is indispensable for achieving the government’s goal of increasing the percentage of quakeproof buildings from 75 percent at present to 90 percent in 10 years.

In developing antiquake strategies, the central and local governments must not forget the foreign residents in Japan who are not fluent in Japanese. Dissemination of information in many languages will be indispensable for helping them deal with emergency conditions and preventing them from succumbing to panic in the event of a powerful earthquake.

Japan must remember that it is in a position in which it can and must contribute lessons from its experience, technical knowledge and money to international efforts to cope with disastrous earthquakes. For example, after the magnitude-9 quake off Sumatra and the subsequent tsunami on Dec. 26, Japan pledged $500 million in grant aid for such efforts.

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