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Japan Authorities, Firms Closed Eyes To Disaster Potential

Quoted From here.

Monday, May 2, 2011
Authorities, Firms Closed Eyes To Disaster Potential
TOKYO (Nikkei)–While the crisis continues, relief efforts are gradually getting underway in areas afflicted by the March 11 earthquake. But things should not simply be restored to their former state. Past lessons should be heeded in the building of a new country, a new Japan.

Nobuko Takeuchi, a 48-year-old housewife from the hard-hit Funakoshi district of the town of Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, recalls something she learned at school. “A teacher taught me that homes shouldn’t be built near breakwaters,” she said. “The teacher said that tsunami were scarier than war.”

A massive tsunami swallows up the coast in Miyagi Prefecture on March 11.
After a tsunami stemming from the 1896 Meiji-Sanriku Earthquake devastated the district, the deputy mayor at the time resettled local residents on a hilltop. But his advice was ignored, and town-managed housing was built in convenient areas along the coast, where people made their homes. The majority of these homes were swallowed up by the recent tsunami.

“Everyone forgets what happened in the past,” says a 63-year-old fish farmer.

Stone monuments stand several dozen meters above sea level in the Aneyoshi district of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. The district had twice been destroyed by huge tsunami during the Meiji (1868-1912) and Showa (1926-1989) eras. The monument is engraved with a bleak warning: “Remember the massive tsunami that caused disaster. Do not build homes on sites lower than where you stand…Bear this in mind even after many years have passed.”

Workers in Tokyo make their way home the same day.
The Aneyoshi residents heeded these warnings and their homes were not damaged by the tsunami. This, however, is a rare case. People do not tend to believe that tsunami will reach them.

Safety myth

Everyone believes Japan is a safe country. But even if people are warned this is nothing more than a myth, it has not lead to specific preparations being made.

At a meeting of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy in June 2009 (when the Liberal Democratic Party was in power), a seismologist pointed out the risks involved with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Yukinobu Okamura, head of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology’s Active Fault and Earthquake Research Center, said at the meeting, “The 869 Jogan Earthquake caused a much more massive tsunami than expected.”

A Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501) official retorted that the matter should be simply viewed as a topic for research. Less than two years later the huge tsunami struck. The utility said the cause of the nuclear accident was unexpected. But it was expected. The warning was just ignored.

“We don’t see what we don’t want to see. We don’t think what we don’t want to think,” says Yotaro Hatamura, a professor emeritus at University of Tokyo well known for his study of failure. “The U.S. is a country that tries to think about things. Japan is a country that leaves matters without considering them.”

An explosion blew away the roof of reactor 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Considering all scenarios

If you envisage a bad scenario, you know it will take time and money to fix matters. If you approach the safety issue directly, the explanation given to local people that something is absolutely safe will be revealed to be a fallacy. Japan is poor in natural resources and has implemented a national policy of promoting nuclear power. The backers of this policy — namely the government and Tepco — have treated the safety issue as something they do not want to see.

Crisis management that does not assume a worst case scenario is limited in scope. For example, Tepco conducted an evacuation drill last November in Fukushima Prefecture. The drill assumed that the Fukushima nuclear power plants all lose power, but under the scenario, emergency power is restored a few hours after the reactors lose their cooling function. “Such an evacuation drill turned out to be useless,” a local resident said.

Citizens in the area had been asking an emergency road to be constructed — something that has yet to materialize. Traffic jams on existing roads during the recent evacuation meant that it took more than two hours to complete what is normally a 15-minute journey.

Slack preparations

A crisis in one small area of Japan will spread across the country, and later throughout the world. The quake and subsequent nuclear crisis left workers in Tokyo — well away from the epicenter — stranded and caused bouts of panic buying in the capital.

Investors rushed to sell stocks to get their hands on cash. A record high 5.8 billion transactions were made on the Tokyo Stock Exchange on March 15. The system could crash if more data is processed than it can handle and any ensuing suspension of market functions could cause confusion across the world.

It was fortunate that the stock exchange began operating under a new system one year ago. “What would have happened if we hadn’t upgraded the system?” a bourse executive said.

A crisis management basic is to identify a crisis in ordinary times and make necessary preparations. A flexible response to unexpected situations is also essential if damage is to be minimized. Politicians, bureaucrats and businesses were slack in their preparations. We have to now learn from this crisis for the sake of the next generation.

(The Nikkei May 2 morning edition)

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