Japan, known as the land of disasters (災害大国), is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. From earthquakes to tsunamis and typhoons, these natural phenomena are deeply ingrained in the nation’s history, culture and consciousness (e.g. the myth of the earthquake-inducing catfish).
Over centuries, Japan has accumulated invaluable knowledge and experience in coping with all sorts of disasters; a skill-set that is becoming increasingly important given the rise in climate and disaster vulnerability across developed, middle- and low-income countries alike.
One concept that has gained significant attention from around the world in recent decades is the “Jijo, Kyojo, and Kojo” framework.
The kanji characters for Jijo literally mean “self-protection”. Taking care of yourself and your family is often said to be the most critical piece of the puzzle. This means being prepared with:
- A plan: Knowing where your nearest evacuation centres are and how to get there safely. Knowing what to do if the family is separated, such as having a pre-agreed meeting point and emergency communications plan.
- Supplies: Having enough of the right supplies to survive comfortably for potentially several days/weeks without essential “lifelines” (water, electricity, gas).
- A secure home: Roughly 30–50% of injuries and fatalities from earthquakes are caused by falling or moving furniture. Securing furniture and ensuring exit routes is critical.
- Meeting special needs: Ensuring that those who may be “vulnerable” in emergency time are well looked after. This includes medication for the sick, supplies for children, the elderly, and so on.
It is said that the one good thing about crises is that they bring people together. Kyojo (共助), literally meaning ‘mutual support’, refers to communities being resourceful, compassionate, and decisive to overcome challenges during emergencies.
One remarkable example of this was the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (Kobe Earthquake) in 1995, which claimed over 6,000 lives. In the hours after the quake hit, community members mobilized on a massive scale, rescuing one another from under the debris.
Over 80% of people who were rescued were saved by regular citizens — neighbours, colleagues and classmates.
Japan is incredibly well prepared at the community level. There are over 800,000 volunteer firefighters (消防団) — with an increasing number of women joining the ranks — across the country, as well as over 160,000 voluntary disaster prevention groups (自主防災組織).
The Disaster Prevention Specialist certification (防災士) —a 2-day, intensive program to train community members for emergencies — was rolled out to further engage regular people. As of 2019, there are over 165,000 certified Disaster Prevention Specialists scattered across all 48 Prefectures, ready to take on leadership roles and support authorities in times of disaster.
Every year around 1st September (Disaster Prevention Day), thousands of people take part in disaster drills (防災訓練) to be better prepared. International Tsunami Day (5th November) is also gaining more popularity, with increasing engagement in drills and other exercises across the country.
The third piece of this puzzle is Kojo, translated as “government/public assistance”. This refers to the fire department, police force, Self-Defense Forces (Japan doesn’t technically have an ‘army’), medical services, and all other official government actors.
Public services here are both prepared and well-equipped to deal with natural disasters.
Tokyo is home to the world’s largest urban fire department and Japan’s defence budget is the 8th largest in the world (46.4 billion USD). The national police force is 290,000-strong, and the average response time for ambulances (the time it takes to arrive on site) is 8.5 minutes.
One feat that required herculean coordination and effort, known as “Operation Toothcomb”, took place after the devastating 2011 tsunami.
Despite the scale of the damage, government services were able to clear debris from arterial roads in the disaster zone at an incredible pace. Within a week, 97% of national coastal highways in the area were accessible, and the Tohoku expressway was open to general traffic within 13 days. Japan is one of few countries where a problem of such complexity and scale could be solved in such a short period of time.
Whilst the “Jijo, Kojo, Kyojo” framework covers all the bases — from the individual to the community to the very top of government — it relies on all elements being interconnected. In other words, all three components have to be robust and integrated with one another for society to be truly prepared.
But It’s Not Perfect…
Japan is world renowned for its advances in disaster prevention (防災)… However, there’s certainly room for improvement. Here are some areas that remain a challenge:
- Inclusiveness: Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable groups in emergencies remains a challenge. For example, almost two-thirds of casualties in the 2011 tsunami were people of age 60 and older. Providing adequate care to children, pregnant women, and other people with unique needs remains a challenge in large-scale emergencies.
- The Big Ones: Japan is preparing for two major quakes (Nankai Trough Earthquake and Tokyo Inland Earthquake) that have a high likelihood of occurring in the next 30 years or so. There are concerns that at-risk cities, comprising millions of people, are not adequately prepared for these.
- Climate Risks: As an island nation, Japan is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The country is at risk of increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, increased flooding and so on. 51% of Japan’s population and 75% of national assets are located on floodplains, making flood risk a major challenge going forward.
- Cyber: Japanese society is increasingly dependent on internet connectivity and IT. This dependence, coupled with cybersecurity threats, could make key Japanese systems vulnerable to disruption (despite this, a minister in charge of cybersecurity recently admitted to never having used a computer).
- Tourism: Japan is experiencing an unprecedented boom in international tourism, leading up to the 2020 Olympics (28.7 million international tourists visited in 2017). There are concerns around protecting and ensuring the safety of these visitors in the case of a major incident.