As we approach the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami – often referred to as 3/11 – there are many articles and webinars discussing the events themselves and also the legacy and lessons learnt. I attended two webinars last week on this topic, and may write a separate post about this, but what caught my eye this week was an article in The Japan Times.
The article, with the headline ‘Some 20% of local governments in Japan have no disaster specialists‘, as well as reporting some statistical facts on the situation across Japan, appears (and certainly the headline attempts to do this) to want to suggest that many local governments are not properly prepared in, what the article describes as, ‘the disaster-prone country.’ I see what the article may be trying to achieve, but it overlooks some important aspects related to disasters.
First, disasters are almost always a disaster due to the way in which society was or was not prepared to an event and then how it responds to it. There is nothing inherently disastrous about an earthquake or tsunami themselves. If people (and arguably the environment) are not impacted at all by such an event, it is not a disaster. That this is the case also points to why the distinction between ‘a natural disaster’ and ‘a man-made disasters’ is largely irrelevant and unhelpful.
Second, the article is clearly aiming to suggest that there is a problem that 20% have no specialist. This clearly dodges the fact that presumably 80% of local governments do have a specialist. As for the 20%, is a specialist necessary? Is it even possible? I don’t know whether Ueno-mura, a village I often visit due to my research about the JL123 plane crash, has a ‘disaster specialist’ or not – but when the population is now below 1,300, I cannot imagine that they have the resources for such a person. I am not even sure that they would need such a person.
When I wrote my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan, one of the conclusions that I came to was that perhaps one of the factors that leads to certain disasters happening in Japan is due to the lack of specialists. I still stand by this. And this would appear to agree with the thrust of The Japan Times article. However, the article may not have gone far enough. I suspect that many of the specialists that the article refer to are people who are in a particular role for a period of time before being rotated into another role. Such job rotation in Japan is commonplace and has many advantages, but I cannot help but feel that when quick decisions are needed and could be the difference between life and death, between a large event and a disaster, more specialism may be needed. As I discussed in Dealing with Disaster in Japan…
I subscribe to Mileti’s idea of disasters being designed (see my post on Creating Disasters) – a concept I extended when studying disaster movies. I also believe that this could be a particular issue in Japan. Not only due to cultural reasons, but also structural reasons. I have been involved in invigilating assessments for a Japanese organisation and despite this happening in the UK, the handbook that went with it had whole sections on the procedures to follow in the case of an earthquake (it was like a checklist menu to go through). Even The Japan Times article quotes a municipality not having the resources to draw up plans or manuals as though that should be a goal. Not all earthquakes (or other events) can be responded to using manuals. The delay in checking the list itself could be problematic. That is why I still believe that there are times where a specialist who stays in a particular role is likely to be necessary – but that doesn’t mean that every place needs such a person or that they cannot do more than one role.