Use 10th Anniversary of 2011 Disaster as Reminder to Reinforce Preparations

Japan, an archipelago known for its natural disasters, has been affected by earthquakes, torrential rain, typhoons and other calamities almost every year. A society that is resilient to disasters must be forged by utilizing lessons learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Relatively large earthquakes have occurred off the coast of the Tohoku region in cycles of decades, so precautions were in place. However, the scale of the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake was much larger than expected, resulting in severe tsunami damage.

It is not only in the Tohoku region that caution is necessary. A pressing issue is the threat of major damage caused by a huge earthquake in the Nankai Trough, which stretches along an area off the Pacific Coast from the Tokai to Kyushu regions. In the worst-case scenario, the death toll is estimated at 230,000. The central and local governments must make efforts to reduce the number of deaths, including drawing up evacuation plans.

Compared with the 2011 Tohoku disaster, in which most of the deaths were caused by tsunami, 80% of the about 6,500 deaths in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake were due to collapsed buildings. In the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, 90% of the about 100,000 victims were burned to death.

Every disaster has different aspects. It is important to carefully prepare and conduct drills to deal with the worst-case scenario, anticipating all possible situations, including the scale and time of occurrence.

Japan has been focusing on earthquake prediction by experts since the 1960s. However, the Great East Japan Earthquake made it clear that it is impossible to predict temblors with a high degree of accuracy.

In 2017, the government formally acknowledged this fact and shifted its policy to focus on realistic disaster prevention and mitigation measures. Even if a disaster cannot be prevented, measures to reduce damage and enable quick recovery after disasters are becoming increasingly important.

In addition to a massive ocean-trench earthquake, there is also the threat of a major earthquake occurring directly beneath the Tokyo metropolitan area. It is necessary to take precautions against urban disasters, such as fires in areas with a high concentration of wooden houses and damage to high-rise buildings.

In recent years, there have also been many large-scale floods caused by heavy rains. To minimize damage, attention has been focused on “river basin flood control,” a concept involving multiple countermeasures in the entire basin, including facilitating the construction of anti-flood ponds and encouraging early evacuations, rather than just relying on embankments and dams.

“Wide-area evacuation,” in which people evacuate early to the homes of acquaintances in neighboring prefectures and elsewhere, is among measures being considered for eastern Tokyo, where it is estimated up to 2.5 million people would need to be evacuated in the event of a major flood. Measures also should be devised to deal with power failures at high-rise condominium buildings, whose residents rely on elevators.

It is important to consider appropriate evacuation methods according to the actual circumstances of communities and households, in addition to conventional evacuation sites such as schools and community centers. There is no end to disaster preparedness. To ensure safety and protect lives, preparations must be flexible.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 9, 2021.