How Japan Combines History & Science To Prepare For Disasters
With India witnessing increasing frequency of climate change-induced natural disasters, we ask Satoru Nishikawa of the Nagoya University Disaster Mitigation Research Center about the lessons from Japan's long experience in disaster risk reduction
Mumbai: We are in the midst of unprecedented times, particularly in India. In Mumbai, on the western coast, we've been seeing unprecedented weather conditions, floods, loss of life and property. We've seen this time and again and maybe it's the way of life to come. How prepared is India for climate-led events or disasters which do not show any synchronicity with past events? How are we able to connect history and a scientific approach to policy-making to manage disaster and build resilient infrastructure? What kind of effort are public policy planners and town planners in cities like Mumbai putting into building resilient infrastructure, both in terms of money and resources? These are some of the questions we asked Satoru Nishikawa, professor at the Nagoya University Disaster Mitigation Research Center, Japan.
Nishikawa has held several senior positions in the Japanese government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and at the United Nations. He has studied many disasters on the ground in Japan and all over the Asian region, to gauge the response and what could have been done better. After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Nishikawa coordinated the Japanese government's technical assistance to affected countries and was also the onsite coordinator for the Niigata Chuetsu earthquake in 2004. In addition to other important roles he plays, he is an advisor to the Japan Bosai Platform, an important collaboration between the private sector and government to provide solutions to the questions we have been posing about disaster response and management.
Japan has faced typhoons and earthquakes, which are different kinds of natural disasters. Is the methodology of response to both similar? Have there been learnings from typhoon response that have been applied in earthquake response? How has the combined culture of response been shaped?
Regarding typhoons or heavy rains, we have meteorological forecasts so we can be prepared for upcoming heavy rainfall or landslides. But it's almost impossible to predict an earthquake. The response system is common because of the Kobe earthquake in 1995, which struck without any prior notice. The earthquake was of magnitude 7.3 and it was an epochal turning point. The city of Kobe was destroyed; more than 6,000 people were killed. There were many lessons from this earthquake. The first was that the collapse of old houses, built before the latest building standard [in 1981], was the main cause of death. Approximately 5,500 people were immediately killed by the earthquake. People in Kobe were prepared for typhoons or landslides, but they were not prepared for earthquakes. When the earthquake came, nobody was on duty in the local government offices. That was a big problem. It dented the initial response. So because of the lesson of the 1995 earthquake, we have tried to combine the response to typhoons, flooding and earthquakes as well. Now, it's more combined.
When you look back at disasters, you talk about epochs. Kobe seems to be the more defining turning point in terms of response than many other previous natural disasters. Is that correct?
The Ise-wan typhoon which hit Nagoya in 1959 was enormous. This typhoon landed at midnight. The flooding from upstream and the high tide and storm surge from the sea sandwiched the low-lying areas of Nagoya and resulted in huge casualties. This was really an epochal turning point which changed [Japan] from a response-oriented to a preventive approach. Prior to that typhoon, most of what the government did was to provide blankets and emergency food to the affected people. But because of the enormous damage, they found that no matter how many blankets or tents you provide, it doesn't save people. So they decided to really invest in pre-disaster [management]. So  was the first step up. The Kobe earthquake was another epochal turning point because it hit a major city without any prior notice.
[Editor's note: Please watch the presentation in the video]
So these two events, the Ise-wan typhoon and the Kobe earthquake seem to be the pivotal points around which [Japan's] disaster response has been shaped. Was the political leadership and their awareness or proactiveness also responsible for the policy response after 1959 and 1995?
Of course. Right after these two major disasters, there was a big argument in parliament [on] what should the government have done. Also, in 1995, there was a very strong criticism against the prime minister at that time, because he was late in the response [to the Kobe earthquake]. Because of the lessons [from Ise-wan and Kobe], starting from 2001, we have designated a specific minister of state for disaster management. And this really upgraded the Japanese political response to disasters. Nowadays, when we hear from the meteorological agencies that there is a very strong typhoon approaching Japan, the prime minister sometimes convenes an emergency meeting before the typhoon makes landfall. So it really changed from a receptive attitude to a more proactive attitude in political leaders.
Could you tell us a little more about the Ministry of Disaster Management? How is it staffed?
We don't have a ministry, we have a minister of state for disaster management, who is responsible for the coordination of various line ministries' actions. We need various elements to really decrease disasters. And in order to do that, we have to have a combination of various efforts. For example, if we want to have earthquake safety of housing, we have to have the knowledge of seismology and seismic engineering, but also public acceptance of the value of safety. We also have to have the local architects and masons duly make safe buildings. So, we need numerous efforts and we have to have a combination of these various elements for safety. Somebody has to bundle together these elements. I would say that a kind of elastic band is needed to bundle these elements and the minister of state for disaster management has the role of this elastic band. He has a small staff of about 100, who would liaise with other line ministries and agencies, and he would formulate the basic policies. So that's the setting.
We have something called the Central Disaster Management Council, which is chaired by the prime minister and the minister of state for disaster management is actually the secretariat of the council. So he has a delegation of authority from the prime minister and he works as the liaison among the various line ministries who do the actual work, for example for flood control, for fire safety, or rescue, etc.
In your presentation, you gave the example of Sendai, which was hit by an earthquake of magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, which was higher than Kobe, but actually did not see any casualties or even destruction the way we saw in Kobe. One reason, as you explained, was because there was investment in retrofitting. How is retrofitting scoped out? And who bears the cost? How is cost apportioned?
The cost is borne by the building owner. So if it is a private house, the household has to pay for it. If it's a private office building, the building owner has to pay for it. But there are subsidies for it. For example, in most Japanese cities, there are subsidy systems for maybe 100% of the cost for seismic analysis of old buildings. If a householder wants to check whether his building or house is safe or not, he can ask for subsidies to cover maybe 90% or 100% of the cost of the analysis. For the retrofitting work, it costs a fortune sometimes, but maybe 1/3rd or half of the cost might be covered by the subsidies from the local governments.
[Editor's note: Please watch the presentation in the video for information on preparations in the city of Sendai ahead of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami]
In Japan, like in any other country, you will have some regions which are well to do and some which are not so well to do, but maybe the regions which are not well to do are more disaster-prone. Does the government step in more actively there? What if the individual says that 'I cannot afford it'?
Right now, there's a very new system that has called for seismic retrofitting. For example, major movie theatres or shopping centres, which were built before the 1981 [building] standard are all obliged to do seismic safety checks and disclose the result to the public. Major hotels, as well. Now what happens, a very [old] traditional hotel has to check its seismic safety and has to disclose the result. If that old hotel is found to be very weak against earthquakes, they have to show it to the public. Do the tourists want to stay in the hotel? Probably no. So that's a kind of a stick. On the other hand, the major cities have prepared subsidies for these hotels to retrofit, maybe up to 1/3 or 1/4 of the cost. So with the carrot and the stick, they can make them rebuild or retrofit the hotels. So that kind of a system works.
This is top-down but you also refer to a bottom-up approach, working with community leaders, building monuments which create a sense of memory and history, and then response. Tell us what we in India could do along similar lines, if we were to look at bottom-up solutions and approaches as well.
In Japan, we have something called the 'Ichi-Nichi-Mae project', meaning 'the day before the disaster'. I started this in 2005 when I was working with the Cabinet Office. We tried to interview people who have experienced major earthquakes or floods, or who have responded for reconstruction. We visited the affected places, maybe five or 10 years after the event and we asked them a question: 'What would you do if you were back in the day before the disaster?'. They told us how they suffered, how they regretted not doing something right, and how they really struggled to rebuild. We edited these impressive stories into a short story and added an illustration, which we use for public awareness programmes.
Nowadays in Japan, there are so many teaching materials for children about disasters, like 'what is an earthquake', 'what is a typhoon'. Children are very good. They listen to what the teacher or parents say. But the problem is the adults. They are very busy, very stubborn, they say they don't have time to listen to these speeches. So we have tried to make these new materials. We have more than 800 stories. These vary from a housewife, or office worker, or worker in the construction industry, so many varieties of experiences, which we use for public awareness programmes. What your neighbours or your friends would experience in a disaster, that would give a sense of reality to people.
Also, I had a chance to interview a local mayor who responded to a volcanic eruption and he honestly confessed that when he first heard the news of an earthquake induced by volcanic eruption, he was drinking in a bar and was heavily drunk. When he was asked to come to the office, he was not able to stand on his feet. And he confessed that mayors should not over-consume alcohol. This was very impressive material for similar mayors to be prepared for future disasters. People who hear about stories similar to their circumstances, that makes them think seriously about things.
Another [idea] is to use the local history. People especially are concerned about local history. If you can find some records of disasters in that locality, that would convince the local community leaders that they have to be serious about disasters. I'm sure in India, with its long history, you must have various local stories or monuments. And if you can try to find the evidence of past disasters, that would be very convincing material for local leaders.
Natural disasters are not gender-neutral. How do you see women's participation and women leadership in disaster management and building resilience?
In many cases, women have a heavy burden because they have to take care of the children and also have to think about how to earn livelihoods. Single mothers especially are in a very difficult situation. Recently in Japan, we have recognised this problem. We are trying to especially alert the local governments to be more conscious about this.
We have seen extreme weather attributed to climate change in the last few weeks in India. How do you think the fight against disaster management and climate change converge?
Let me point out that the climate has never been stable in the history of the earth. We have only about 100 years of modern meteorological observation and 100 years is only a glimpse of time in the earth's history. So we have to always bear in mind that climate is never stable and it means that we are always facing new challenges. But we also have to be conscious about future climate fluctuations. So climate change and disaster management are always closely linked. For example, I'm sure in India, as also in Japan, every year we hear from the meteorological agency, 'this is a record-breaking rainfall', 'this is a record-breaking wind'. The record we have is only 100 years old.
Tell us about the Bosai platform initiative to bring in the private sector and large conglomerates in Japan. How did it come about and how does it work? How does the private sector contribute to disaster management as a whole?
This is a recent advertisement (see below) which came in my newspaper. It's an advertisement for a seismic house retrofit in Japan. It said that light and strong roof tiles [put vibration control] dampers on the columns and this makes an old house very strong. This shows that the people's demand for earthquake safety creates a new supply of affordable engineering methods. So, we have to create a good win-win with the private sector. If risk reduction is regarded as reliability and quality, if the public at large appreciate the added value of safety and resilience and understand the science and technology behind it, the additional expenditures for risk reduction would be regarded as investment for added value.
Now, we have the latest scientific and technical knowledge. If we can have good incentives to apply the science and technology and if we can raise personal interest and induce individual action, the investment for resilience in disaster risk reduction would be mobilised. The Japan Bosai platform is an association of Japanese private companies [offering] leading disaster risk reduction solutions. It's a public, private and academic partnership. We have more than 100 members of companies which have a very wide variety of common commodities or services to make our society safe. Some of them are engineering companies, some are mapping companies, some are construction or sensor companies. We thought that the real application of the latest science and technologies can be only done by the individual companies and they should not be alone, there should be a better combination to make the science and technology more useful to the general public. So the Japan Bosai platform is a kind of a convener and the catalyst to bring together the various expertise.
They now have something called the solution database. For example, if a city wants to do something about flood control, they would be able to propose the combination of this company's knowledge, that company's technique and this company's communication tools. By having the combination, the city may be able to find better solutions. That's the idea. So instead of having individual commercial activities, by combining the various good things, it would add value to reduce disasters. So that's the Japan Bosai platform, which I am serving as a voluntary advisor.
How important is applied research and innovation in disaster management? And how can India and Japan partner in this?
I would like to emphasise, the important thing is that in the university research rooms, the latest technologies are there, but how can they be applied to the normal life of people on the ground? For example, if we have the latest seismic engineering techniques, unless they are reflected in apartment houses, it really does not save people's lives. We have the meteorological observations by the meteorological satellites; that imagery has to reach the people or the local government headquarters in the low lying areas. So there has to be a good link between the latest scientific and technological knowledge and how it can be reflected in daily life.
On the other hand, people tend to be less conscious about disasters, so they should also be [made] aware of the potential danger. And they should also know that there are existing techniques to help them in case of major disasters. So there has to be a two-way communication between the latest technology, or the companies who have the solutions, and the people or the consumer who really benefit from this knowledge and expertise.
Often, citizens tend to blame cultures and systems in a generic sense. For instance, 'we can never change because we are not built to do this', or 'we don't have a culture of thinking about others', or 'we don't have a culture about thinking about tomorrow'. Is that true from your experience? Is this a matter of culture, or is it something that can be taught and people can be made aware of what their new responsibilities are in this era?
I think that's human nature, in any country. That's why we are trying to do various public awareness programmes. One example is the Ichi Nichi Mae 'day before the disaster' project, which I started. How to make people conscious about various things is important. For example, 30 years ago, when we were in an automobile, we did not wear seatbelts. Nowadays, everybody wears seatbelts. That's a very simple but very effective way to save people's lives. Seatbelts were not popular 30 years ago but nowadays, it's common sense. So if we can have similar steps to propagate the idea of disaster safety, we will be able to save future lives.
Tell us a little about the 2011 earthquake. You joined the government in 1982 and subsequently, you were working as a senior disaster relief coordinator in 1992, 10 years later. The earthquake happened in 2011, the biggest ever to hit. What did it teach you?
The biggest challenge was that we were prepared for magnitude 8, but what came was a magnitude 9 earthquake, and that was really difficult. We really felt the limits of modern science then. But I would say that we were fortunate that we were prepared, at least for a magnitude 8 earthquake. If we did not prepare, the damage would have been much heavier. Even if it was a magnitude 9 earthquake, there were many good pre investments, which saved lives. So it's always worth making the effort for preventive action.
These days, many disasters, particularly environmental, are not country-specific and you've seen that with the  tsunami as well. How is the global population being prepared for disaster mitigation and what are the problems there? While you could prevent disaster from affecting you and your country, if everyone around you is affected, then everyone suffers. The Covid-19 pandemic is a classic example, where till the virus is completely removed, all of us are going to continue to suffer.
Yes. I would like to emphasise the importance of international cooperation. We have to learn from other countries' experiences. We do not need to wait for every country to experience the tragedies; we should really share the experiences. We can learn from the India experience; India can learn from the Japan experience.
For example, when the Indian Ocean tsunami came, we made educational courses on tsunami early warning systems for the tsunami-affected countries. I'm a very strong believer in international cooperation for disaster reduction. In 2015, there was a big UN conference on disaster risk reduction in Sendai, four years after the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction was adopted by the UN member states. It's a kind of common guideline for all countries to follow in order to reduce future disaster risks. So we need to have more international cooperation, more international exchange regarding disaster reduction, because if we can reduce disasters, then we would be able to have more sustainable development.
As you look around the globe at the kinds of investments that are being made, the level of awareness about disaster management and building resilience, do you feel optimistic or do you feel we have a long way to go?
Yes, we have a long way to go, but the awareness is there. Especially with Covid-19, we all recognise the earth is one. And we really recognise that we need more international exchanges. I think we have better hope now.
(This conversation was part of an Ananta Aspen Centre special session on 'Disaster Management and Building Resilient Infrastructure' and includes questions from the audience. The session was part of a series on India-Japan partnership held by Ananta Aspen Centre with the support of the Nippon Foundation.)
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