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Seminar on 'Lessons from Disaster - Risk Management and the Compound Crisis presented by the Great East Japan Earthquake'

Date: 4 May 2012 (Friday)

Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.
Time: 10am – 12pm
Venue: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Nanyang Avenue, Block S4, Level B4, Seminar Rooms 4.2 and 4.3.
  • Prof. Heizo Takenaka – Professor, Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University; Former State Minister for Economic and Fiscal Policy, Japan
  • Prof. Yoichi Funabashi – Journalist; Chairman, Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation; and Guest Professor, Keio University
  • Prof. Jun Murai – Dean and Professor, Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, Keio University; and Founder of WIDE Project
Chairperson: Prof. Joseph Liow
Associate Dean, RSIS, NTU



On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake hit the Tohoku region of Japan, triggering powerful tsunami waves that reached as high as 40 metres. The natural disaster left 20,000 people dead or missing, and displaced 400,000. Infrastructure, industrial facilities and private residences were severely damaged. The economic loss was estimated at USD220 billion, equivalent to 3.4 per cent of Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP).

In addition, the crisis was compounded by the malfunction of the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The failure of the reactors’ cooling systems caused explosions and radioactive leakage, which led to the evacuation of 78,000 people. The threat of radioactive contamination stirred up strong opposition to nuclear power, which had accounted for 30 per cent of Japan’s total electricity generation capacity. Power shortages resulting from the disaster inhibited recovery efforts, especially on the economic front.

The three presenters examined Japan’s experience and conveyed lessons in relief and recovery activities during and after the crisis. The issue is discussed as it relates to the speakers’ areas of expertise – economy, governance and information communications technology.


Presentation I: The great disaster and the Japanese economy – Professor Heizo Takenaka

Despite the magnitude of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan’s early warning system functioned well, preventing further loss of life. The tsunami alarm was activated in a timely manner, which gave people in danger time to escape the tsunami waves. The trains on the New Tokaido Line stopped safely, and buildings withstood the shocks, even in cities that were hardest hit such as Sendai.

The multiple disasters inflicted extensive damage on the Japanese economy. GDP growth in the first quarter of 2011 contracted substantially, despite the earthquake occurring at the end of the quarter. The loss of personal properties and belongings and uncertainty over economic prospects led to a steep decline of personal consumption.

Exports – which have been the lifeblood of Japan’s economy – suffered considerable decrease, as supply chains were heavily disrupted by the earthquake and tsunami. Although large companies such as Toyota and Honda put in place Business Continuity Plans (BCPs) to resume operations as soon as possible, smaller companies, including automobile parts suppliers, did not have BCPs and their recovery was thus slower.

The subsequent nuclear crisis further aggravated the impacts of the natural disasters. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, lost 30 per cent of its generation capacity. The fear of future nuclear accidents caused strong opposition against nuclear energy, and this has since resulted in a temporary shut-down of all nuclear reactors in Japan as of 5 May 2012. As nuclear energy has been an important source of electricity generation, the damage to the nuclear industry inevitably resulted in an energy shortage, and this has become a bottleneck for Japan’s economic recovery.

A well-designed overall strategy for reconstruction is needed; and timely and effective implementation of reconstruction and recovery policies would be critical if the country is to avoid lingering negative impacts on Japan’s economy, such as the fate of Kobe which went from having the fifth largest port in the world to the seventh after the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995. Also, the serious damage to some cities have created opportunities for building eco-friendly cities and towns, and the reconstruction plan should take this into consideration.


Presentation II: Postmortem of a crisis in governance – Professor Yoichi Funabashi

The Fukushima nuclear crisis was triggered by the destructive earthquake and tsunami, but was worsened by incompetence on the part of the sector’s regulatory body and the government. The inadequacy of safety and preparedness measures by the various actors – TEPCO; the regulator of Japan’s nuclear energy, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) of Japan; as well as the Japanese government – should be scrutinised in light of the severity of this incident. Given Japan’s reputation for having a meticulous approach to safety, historical factors may explain neglect in the nuclear energy sector.

Before the use of nuclear power, Japan had been heavily dependent on oil imports. In 1973, there were strong campaigns for nuclear power so as to alleviate the country’s energy thirst and reduce Japan’s reliance on external energy sources. However, due to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the sentiment of the Japanese public towards nuclear energy is very negative. Hence, nuclear companies tend to handle information very cautiously. The news about the failure of the reactors was not disclosed in a timely manner, which presented TEPCO with a dilemma when information on the situation spread beyond their means of control.

The NISA should share the blame given that it had not paid sufficient attention to disaster preparedness and crisis management. In 2010, Niigata Prefecture – home to seven nuclear power plants – had planned to hold an emergency nuclear drill simulating a post-earthquake scenario. This plan was changed to a simulation of heavy snow instead, after advice from NISA that an earthquake-scenario drill would cause unnecessary anxiety. NISA also dismissed the warnings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to enhance nuclear safety, based on the belief that the Japanese nuclear industry had the most advanced technology in the world.

The Japanese government was also not well-prepared for a crisis of such scale and complexity. When TEPCO planned to give up the failed reactors and withdraw its workers from the frontline due to the excessively high level of radiation at the scene, the Japanese government rejected this idea and took over control of cooling efforts. However, this decision kept the workers working in a highly radioactive environment, which was detrimental to their health. The discord between TEPCO and the government also revealed the unpreparedness of relevant stakeholders in the Japanese nuclear industry.


Presentation III: Managing the information technology infrastructure during disaster – Professor Jun Murai

Internet connection and telecommunications were largely unaffected by the earthquake and became the lifeline for the rescue efforts in the immediate period of the earthquake. The government reallocated the volume of internet and telecommunications available so as to meet the needs of rescue efforts.

Internet services, mobile devices and satellite connections enabled people to send out messages to seek help. Mobile phones equipped with global positioning system (GPS) made the search for survivors easier. Internet connections also enabled the inflow of encouragement and wishes from around the world through social networks.

After the Fukushima nuclear crisis, government bodies and private companies conducted contamination investigation to monitor the variation of radioactivity. Due to the erosion of the government’s credibility, individuals also involved themselves in measuring the radioactive level, which proved even more useful than government information sources for many, particularly those in farming.

The Great East Japan Earthquake demonstrated the importance of information technology (IT) in disaster relief and management. Future construction of IT infrastructure needs to take disaster scenarios into consideration, so as to ensure normal operation amid natural disasters.


Review of the presentations: Dr Hooman Peimani

The three presentations converged on the point that the multiple disasters have caused tremendous damage to Japanese society yet also created opportunities for changes and reforms in economy, politics and technology. In particular, tax-cutting policies are needed to facilitate the recovery of businesses.

In addition to unpreparedness, the unsatisfactory response of the government to the crisis also exposed the lack of coordination among government agencies. To enhance the government’s ability to enforce decisions and policies, it would be necessary to address the root causes. Given the importance of IT in disaster rescue and relief, it is necessary to expand the capacity of IT infrastructure.

Despite the Fukushima nuclear crisis, nuclear energy remains an important source of clean energy for Japan. It is difficult to find an alternative clean energy source to meet Japan’s huge energy demand. Moreover, the risk and threat of nuclear energy has been exaggerated by media reports.

Given the importance of IT in disaster rescue and relief, it is necessary to expand the capacity of IT infrastructure. Japan’s experience demonstrated that adequate capacity in technology is crucial for disaster rescue. When dealing with crises that have transnational impacts such as the Fukushima crisis, communication and coordination between and among neighbours are crucial for containing the impacts.



The unfolding of the Fukushima nuclear crisis was triggered by the multiple disasters, but the crisis was aggravated by TEPCO’s ineffective disaster management. Tohoku Electric Power Company was much better prepared than TEPCO. The Onagawa nuclear power plant, which was also hit by the disasters, was eventually saved rather than abandoned like the Fukushima plant. Hence, improvement is needed in the disaster management of the Japanese nuclear power industry, given the high frequency of earthquakes and the wide use of nuclear power in Japan.

With regard to the disruption of industrial supply, two solutions were identified – overseas relocation and improvements to the resilience of companies. The first option is definitely not helpful for Japan’s economy in the long run; improving resilience would thus be a better choice. BCP should be expanded to small businesses so as to enhance their ability to maintain and recover their productivity after crises.

The response of the Japanese government to the multiple disasters revealed some deep-rooted weaknesses in Japan’s political system in regard to disaster management. The government adopted a passive rather than proactive approach in dealing with the disasters. The fragmentation of jurisdiction among government agencies added to the difficulties of managing the disasters. A more robust leadership would have provided better disaster response and management. The bureaucracy has been entrenched in Japanese politics for a long time, and it was particularly unhelpful during the crisis situation when a top-down contingency mode is preferred over the bottom-up democratic way. Institutional rebuilding is as important as economic recovery and infrastructure reconstruction, if not more. However, this root problem has yet to be recognised in the post-disaster discussion.

Many Southeast Asian countries are also prone to natural disasters. Since the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, there have been calls for the establishment of a disaster-resilient region. Japan’s disaster management scheme in the aftermath of the multiple disasters has provided useful lessons in this regard.

Click here for the seminar program.

Posted on: 4/5/2012 10:00:00 AM  |  Topic: Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters

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