JIN-295 -- The Great Hanshin Earthquake: Lessons for Niigata

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Issue No. 295
Sunday, October 31, 2004

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@@ VIEWPOINT: The Great Hanshin Earthquake: Lessons for Niigata

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@@ VIEWPOINT: The Great Hanshin Earthquake: Lessons for Niigata

Tokage, the record 10th typhoon to make landfall on the Japanese
archipelago in a single season, was the most destructive in 25 years. But
no sooner had Tokage passed through the archipelago than an earthquake of
magnitude six on the Japanese scale rocked central Niigata Prefecture. As
of this moment thirty-six people have died and 80,000 - 90,000 are living
in automobiles or other makeshift shelters.

In ancient times such successive calamities would have induced the
Imperial Court to ask the priests to pray for the safety of nation. But
today the Japanese seek not hieratic solutions as much as rational ways to
minimize destruction from future natural disasters. The Niigata quake was
the most destructive since the Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated
Kobe and Awaji in 1995. Just how well did the Japanese Government apply
the lessons of the Great Hanshin Earthquake to the Niigata quake?

The Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) and fire departments responded with
comparative speed. But the delivery of food and other aid was late. The
government has yet to resolve weaknesses in its crisis management.

The SDF now has the authority to dispatch on its own volition helicopters
in case of an earthquake of magnitude 5 or greater and troops in case of
one of at least magnitude 6. Thirty-six minutes after the first quake
rocked Niigata at 17:56 on October 23rd the GSDF dispatched from Tachikawa
Base helicopters equipped with devices for transmission of aerial photos
from the earthquake scene.

From experience with the Hanshin disaster, the SDF revamped internal
regulations to permit "autonomous dispatch" before receipt of a
mobilization request from a governor. Autonomous dispatch allows rapid

Fire departments also applied the lessons of the Hanshin quake. The Fire
Fighting Organization Law confers great authority upon the fire station
chief in each city, town and village. This complicates inter-municipality
coordination. However, in response to the recent disaster, the Tokyo
metropolitan region acted as control center for the dispatch of
firefighters to Niigata, resulting in operations over a wide area.

Yet many problems remained. "Some supplies have not arrived," remarked
Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida to central government officials via a
teleconferencing system on the evening of October 25. "Damaged roads have
made some areas inaccessible."

Because food supply plans were inadequate, some quake victims went hungry.
At 14:00 on the 24th the Niigata Prefectural Government announced
sufficient supply of meals for dinner. In reality, however, there was a
shortage of 60,000 meals.

The Farm Ministry rushed 90,000 meals to the stricken prefecture, but they
did not arrive at the airport until after midnight. A government official
commented that it was necessary to enhance collaboration in order to
rapidly ascertain municipalities with reserves that could serve as
emergency rations.

The Prime Minister's Office, criticized for its slow initial response to
the Hanshin disaster, followed the manual, establishing an emergency
headquarters four minutes after the earthquake and then convening an
emergency team meeting of the relevant agency chiefs.

Although the Prime Minister's Office followed the manual,
some of its members were accused of poor political judgment.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi watched a movie in a theater for
about an hour after being informed of the Niigata calamity. Chief
Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda did not arrive at the Prime
Minister's Office until the next morning. Hosoda said he had
not exercised wrong judgment in not coming to Prime Minister's
Office earlier.

Four days after the earthquake, on October 27, two-year-old Yuta Minagawa
was pulled from a car buried under dirt and boulders from a landslide in
Niigata. His rescuers belonged to a Tokyo Fire Department special unit
consisting of firefighters distinguished by physical strength and rescue
techniques. The unit was formed after the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Yuta's rescue represented the application of a lesson learned well. It was
also a miracle -- something people have always prayed for

-- Burritt Sabin

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Written and edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)


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