Commentary / Japan

The necessary calamity

by Robert D. Eldridge.

Contributing Writer

Sometimes good things come from bad events. People who truly know what happened in the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and other disasters that impacted Japan this year will attest to this. It may not be readily apparent in the aftermath of a traumatic event, but given time, it becomes a truism.

I believe, or at least hope, the recent Typhoon No. 21, known internationally as Typhoon Jebi, will be one of those events where some good will come from something bad. But it can not simply be a matter of seeing the silver lining. The silver lining has to be made, fixed and improved upon from time to time.

I did not have good vibes prior to this typhoon, which turned out to be the strongest storm to strike Japan in 25 years. I spent the day prior to it in Kobe, ironically working on the translation of “Daisaigai no Jidai” (Mainichi Shimbunsha, 2016), to be titled “The Age of Great Disasters,” with my former academic adviser, Makoto Iokibe, who served as the chairman of the Tohoku Reconstruction Design Council and was also involved in the post-Hanshin and post-Kumamoto reconstruction efforts.

We have experienced in different ways all three disasters together. I was a graduate student at Kobe University (and he a professor there) when the 1995 earthquake hit. In March 2011, he was one of the first people I contacted after arriving in Sendai, and I kept him regularly informed of the discussions and thinking of Japan and U.S. forces jointly responding in Operation Tomodachi and encouraged him to call Lt. Gen. Eiji Kimizuka, who was leading the overall response efforts and who had served as his deputy when Iokibe headed the National Defense Academy, to cheer him up. In 2016, he was serving as the chancellor of Kumamoto University and was tasked by the governor to help there, and I was assisting Kyushu in a variety of other ways.

There is a great difference between those who have experienced disasters and tragedies and those who have not. But once someone does, they usually become converts and allies, and understand afterward.

That is my hope for those especially in the Osaka area, but really throughout Japan, with this typhoon — that they realize and respect the destructive power of nature and the potential for added harm by poor human decisions (especially the lack of planning and preparedness), and proactively make amends to strengthen their collaborative ability to respond.

A year ago, for example, after using Kansai Airport, I had the chance to speak about the earthquake evacuation plans with a senior airport official and pointed out, with photos, the danger of the route they had outlined. Namely the gathering point was outside the building in the southern portion of the manmade island that is the airport.

That is also the area that faces the southern part of Osaka Bay, which would be one of the entrance points for a tsunami in the event of a Nankai Trough-like earthquake. What is more, the tsunami would easily gain height and force when funneled between Awaji Island and the Kii Peninsula (Kiisuido Strait), with the waves getting through displaying odd characteristics in Osaka Bay itself, trapped between Awaji Island, Kobe and Osaka. Kansai Airport does not stand a chance in a big one. Gone, too, is the city of Wakayama for starters, as well as coastal cities in the bay area.

My point is, however, that the disaster management (or lack thereof) experience following this typhoon will most certainly help officials in the area think in more imaginative and practical ways about how to respond in the future.

In other words, it is vital that lessons learned be honestly discussed and shared, and publicized. There is a tendency for organizations to be less than honest about their problems, slow in dissecting them, slower in implementing corrective measures and generally unwilling to share them. I saw this up close with the Defense Ministry in the aftermath of the March 2011 triple disaster.

Most of the problems this time at Kansai Airport, for example, could have been avoided. It was more human-caused than natural. Fortunately, there were no deaths. It is important that they take a hard look, however, at the situation.

This is true in other areas, such as Kobe, which saw containers crashing to the ground and eventually catching fire, or hundreds of automobiles damaged in Nishinomiya and other parts of the area.

Public utilities, especially Kansai Electric Power Co., at which I have senior inside connections, admitted later that night to me that it was impossible to estimate when power would be restored and that it was the greatest challenge they have faced to date. I do not mean to make light of the situation, but this is good practice for them in anticipation for the Nankai Trough earthquake and tsunami in a way that drills and other table-top exercises cannot replicate.

In addition to officials and leaders in all public and private organizations and associations to reexamine their handling of things, it is also important that each and every resident of the area becomes more attentive to the warnings and necessary preparations. If this is done, the typhoon — coming ironically (or fortunately) just three days after National Disaster Preparedness Day (Bosai no Hi) — might just be a blessing in disguise.

Robert D. Eldridge, a Kansai-based expert on disaster response and preparedness, is the author of numerous works on U.S.-Japan relations and disaster cooperation, including the recent “Before Operation Tomodachi” (Reed International, 2018), available on Kindle. He served as the political adviser to the forward command element of U.S. Forces Japan at Camp Sendai following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.