It’s good to see that the Japanese emergency responders are practicing their rescue skills in case of a disaster during the upcoming Olympics (“Preparing for the worst: How Tokyo will respond to an Olympic quake” in the Jan. 24 edition).

However, practicing rescue skills like this addresses only half the problem. The worst deficiencies in Japan’s disaster response, on 3/11 and in other incidents, have not been in the area of rescue skills.

The worst deficiencies have been in the area of overall response management, including things like situation assessment, hazard identification and warning (such as toxic substances, including nuclear radiation), interagency and intergovernmental coordination and communications, requesting or refusing outside assistance, decision-making with competing priorities, coordination with the private sector and the volunteer sector, public communications, etc.

These observations are based on my 20 years (1996 to 2016) of visiting Japan to conduct research and give lectures on disaster response.

My observations echo those of Haruki Murakami, who wrote in his excellent book, “Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche” that “the biggest lesson we learned from the Tokyo gas attack and the Matsumoto incident was that when something major strikes, the local units may be extremely swift to respond, but the overall picture is hopeless. There is no prompt and efficient system in Japan for dealing with a major catastrophe. There’s no clear-cut chain of command. It was exactly the same with the Kobe earthquake.”

Murakami made his observations in 1997; unfortunately, my observations and the observations of other researchers following the 3/11 disaster in 2011 were substantially the same. I think it’s time for Japanese authorities to move beyond practicing their rescue skills and face up to some of the real problems of disaster management that I have cited above.


The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

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