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At Large

Lessons from Japan

A recent visitor to the country was Hatsuhisa Takashima, special adviser (and former president and CEO) of Japan International Broadcasting Inc., the English-language station of NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corp.

Takashima was in the country not as a television journalist, though, but as a special envoy (the “Ambassador of Recovery”) dispatched by the Japanese Foreign Ministry (for which he is also a former spokesman) to explain how Japan has coped with the aftermath of “the Great East Japan Earthquake,” the magnitude 9 earthquake that rocked that country’s northeastern region a year ago this month, setting off an unprecedented tsunami and plunging Japan into a nuclear crisis.

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He embarked on his Southeast Asian tour (he was in Malaysia before the Philippines) to share Japan’s experience not just with the 2011 earthquake, but also with many other disasters in the past decades, and the steps undertaken before and after the earthquake to keep casualties at a minimum and hasten the process of recovery.

On Sept. 1, 1923, recalled Takashima, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck Tokyo and environs and killed about 10,000 people. “But most died not because of falling buildings, but because of the many fires that followed,” he said. “At that time, electricity was still not common and most households relied on gas stoves and heaters. When these overturned, they set off fires which, given the flimsy materials of most homes, burned down whole neighborhoods.”

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Learning from the 1923 temblor, Japanese authorities, said Takashima, instituted measures that are still in place today: very strict building codes, regular earthquake drills and alerts, and emergency protocols. Takashima recalled going through those drills as a child, although he said the Japanese had by now considered these disasters “a part of life.”

No doubt all these helped prepare the residents of Fukushima prefecture and neighboring areas in coping with the sudden onslaught of the earthquake and tsunami. But even Takashima admitted that no amount of preparation could have prevented the loss of life and destruction that followed in the wake of the biggest natural disaster to hit Japan in recent memory.

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The official figures are disheartening in their stark reality: 15,800 dead, over 3,200 missing, and over 6,000 injured. Not to mention entire swaths of seaside towns and industrial centers devastated by the tsunami, and the still-considerable acreage considered part of the “no-entry zone,” a 20-kilometer radius around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant debilitated by the tsunami.

But consider the recovery. In June 2011, a total of 41,143 people (many of them seniors) were living in evacuation centers. By February this year, only 584 were still living in emergency shelters. In the same period of time, the number of people living in hotels and similar facilities dropped from 28,014 to 97, and those staying with friends and relatives from 32,483 to 16,901, while 324,927 individuals now live in temporary facilities, public housing or are in hospitals.

A big part of the recovery has been the swift response of the Japanese government, allocating funds not just for disaster response and relief, but also for longer-term recovery.

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In a talk at the commemoration ceremonies marking the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japanese Ambassador Toshinao Urabe noted that “more than 80 percent of disaster-affected local governments have completed the formulation of a ‘Reconstruction Plan,’ which includes ambitious targets to become ‘global models’ for the introduction of renewable energies and development of hubs for advanced medicine.”

“Through the realization of these plans, it is our aim to generate reconstruction-led demand in a tangible way,” he said.

In other words, Japan plans to use the reconstruction phase not just as a period for learning and applying these lessons, but also for leading the way in finding new economic models and using these to drive growth.

The “elephant in the room” not just during our dinner with Takashima, but perhaps in global discussions on the situation in Japan, is the state of the area surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which experienced a meltdown after a power failure following the tsunami. Fears had been aired about nuclear fallout not just in Japan but even in neighboring countries.

In his talk, Urabe said funds were being used to hasten decontamination in the area around the shuttered plant. “I would like to continue to request that import restrictions and travel advisories that remain in place in some countries be revised and relaxed, in view of the latest situation which is based on scientific evidence,” he said.

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Takashima, for his part, revealed that the Fukushima disaster had prompted a reexamination of Japan’s nuclear power policy and a safety review of the existing nuclear power plants in the country.

Out of the 54 nuclear power plants in Japan, 52 are out of service now, undergoing a review by the nuclear regulation agency, being refurbished and equipped with redundant safety features, Takashima said. But a nuclear-free Japan may be difficult to conceive as the country currently relies on nuclear power for 30 percent of its power needs, he said. Still, he admitted that “there is very strong anti-nuclear power sentiment in Japan today.”

Our own string of disasters should prompt us to learn as much as we can from Japan’s experience, not just to accept disaster as a “part of life,” but also to prepare as much as we can and to respond as swiftly and humanely to disaster as Japan did, with the help of the international community.

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TAGS: At Large, Earthquake, Hatsuhisa Takashima, Japan, opinion, Rina Jimenez-David
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