March 11 10 years on / Former Japan crisis management official: Prepare for any contingency

March 11 marked the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. The Yomiuri Shimbun spoke with Tetsuro Ito, former deputy chief cabinet secretary for crisis management, and asked him to review the situation at the time to pass on lessons for the future, in the last of the interview series. The following is excerpted from the interview.

Immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, I was part of an emergency response team made up of senior government officials that implemented the initial response from the crisis management center in the basement of the Prime Minister’s Office.

As the deputy chief cabinet secretary for crisis management — a key position in the government’s emergency response framework — I was able to smoothly facilitate the response to the earthquake in many ways, such as by promptly dispatching police, fire department, Self-Defense Forces and disaster medical assistance team resources from all over the country to the affected areas.

But the response to the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was another matter.

Politicians, TEPCO executives, nuclear experts and others gathered on the fifth floor of the Prime Minister’s Office were gathering information and issuing instructions separately from the crisis management center where I and the emergency response team were working. Information was not properly shared and there was confusion in the initial response.

It is extremely regrettable that we were left behind and had to correct or follow up on the decisions of politicians, even in designating evacuation zones and implementing planned power outages.

Regular training is important because it is difficult to gain experience in emergencies in everyday life.

Drills envisioning a nuclear disaster had been carried out even before the nuclear accident took place, but after seeing the paralysis of TEPCO and other nuclear officials, I have to conclude they were complacent in believing a major accident would not occur.

Making use of experience

In December 2011, the government declared that the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant had achieved “cold shutdown.”

I had decided beforehand that I would resign as deputy chief cabinet secretary for crisis management once cold shutdown was achieved. When I stepped down at the end of December, the nine months I had spent dealing with the disaster felt like years.

Since then, the government’s response capabilities have been improving year by year. One of the lessons of the Great East Japan Earthquake has been the implementation of “push-type support,” in which goods are delivered without waiting for local governments to request them.

However, on a municipality basis, the countermeasures are not enough. We need a better framework to deal with large disasters, like a national crisis management center that can get a unified picture of the damage situation that also includes information from national institutes.

The government has been struggling to respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic since last year. Infectious diseases may be different from natural disasters, nuclear accidents and other incidents, but they are the same in that they require crisis management. I hope the government will work as one to overcome this crisis by making use of the abundant wisdom of its ministries and agencies.

■ Deputy chief cabinet secretary for crisis management: A position created in 1998 in response to the slowness of the Prime Minister’s Office in gathering information during the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. Tadao Ando was the first to hold the position, and has been followed by former National Police Agency officials. In the event of a major disaster or serious accident, this official has strong authority to comprehensively coordinate government ministries and agencies.

Tetsuro Ito

Tetsuro Ito joined the National Police Agency in 1972. He served as director of the NPA’s Community Safety Bureau and head of the National Police Academy before being appointed superintendent general in 2006. He became deputy chief cabinet secretary for crisis management in 2008 and retired in 2011. He is 72 years old.