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Japan’s Economic and Social Resilience, and the Global Challenges Ahead-Reflections and Conclusions from the 41st Leadership Program on Japan in Tohoku (April 2013) | Patrick Ziltener Senior Researcher/Lecturer in Sociology/Economics University of Zurich, Switzerland [Date of Issue: 31/July/2013 No.0221-0899]

Date of Issue: 31/July/2013

Japan's Economic and Social Resilience, and the Global Challenges Ahead
-Reflections and Conclusions from the 41st Leadership Program on Japan in Tohoku (April 2013)

Patrick Ziltener
Senior Researcher/Lecturer in Sociology/Economics
University of Zurich, Switzerland

IIST organized the 41st Leadership Program in the Tohoku region on 15-19 April 2013. 8 opinion leaders from overseas were invited to learn about Tohoku's industrial recovery after the earthquake. Here is an impression of the program provided by Dr. Patrick Ziltener from Switzerland.

More than 100 million people experience floods each year, and roughly 370 million live in earthquake-prone cities. Today, more than half of world population lives in cities, and the complex, inter-related technological infrastructure that a well-resourced and economic prosperous agglomeration requires, makes the risk of "synchronous failure" more and more likely (Wahlström 2012). Much of the world was shaken from its lethargy on disaster preparedness by the Asian tsunami in December 2004. After that, 168 countries adopted an international blueprint for disaster-risk reduction at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, hosted by the city of Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, where 20 years before one of Japan's worst earthquakes had happened, with more than 5,000 lives lost. Some years ago, I had the opportunity to study Kobe's impressive reconstruction process a little, and was also interested in making comparisons with the Great Kanto earthquake from September 1, 1923, which destroyed large parts of Tokyo and Yokohama. I had found photos and accounts in the archives of Swiss companies based that time in Yokohama, but also a historically fascinating governmental report in the Library of the City of Berne (Bureau of Social Affairs, Tokyo 1926: The Great Earthquake of 1923 in Japan, 2 vol.) which had been donated by the Japanese Embassy, as a reaction to aid contributions by the Swiss Red Cross Society and also the Sunday schools of Berne.

Since then, Japan has undoubtedly achieved a very high level of preparedness against natural disasters. All of its national territory is covered by early warning systems for storms, torrential rains, heavy snow, sediment disasters, tsunamis, tidal waves, high surf, inundation and floods. Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, Japan Meteorological Agency and local government bodies, being the main institutions involved in disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness and vulnerability reduction, use 24-hour systems to monitor various natural phenomena and weather conditions (1). Furthermore, Japan has a long tradition of dealing with the impact of natural disasters - not only economically, but also socially and culturally - and had, unfortunately, numerous opportunities to prove its economic and social resilience (2). However, nobody expected a mega disaster as experienced on March 11, 2011, and the following days: A great earthquake of the largest scale observed in Japan (magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale) occurred off Miyagi Prefecture and caused high tsunamis to the coastal areas of the Pacific. The No.1 Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant of Tokyo Electric Power Company lost all of its power sources, resulting in serious nuclear accidents.

Against this background, I was very interested in participating in the 41st Leadership Program on Japan in Tohoku, a little more than two years after the disaster, to get a first hand impression from the reconstruction process in Miyagi prefecture, in worst hit areas like the village of Ishinomaki where the victim casualty toll exceeded 4000.

Presentation by Director General of METI Tohoku

Presentation by Director General of METI Tohoku

Warmly welcomed by the authorities of Miyagi Prefecture, the program participants from eight different countries had to opportunity to receive an overview on the destruction and recovery of the region thanks to a encompassing presentation by Mr. Naoyoshi Yamada, Director-General of the Tohoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry. We learned that main lifelines, public services, etc. were almost all restored by mid-2011, but that there were districts where houses and other buildings were washed away still lacking basic infrastructure, as well as areas where nuclear damage prevented reconstruction. During the study program, we crossed areas near Sendai, where only house fundaments and bases were left. More than 20 million tons of debris have been generated in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, some of which can still be seen in the form of huge piles. The collection, distribution, recycling or disposal of such an amount of debris is a gigantic organizational and ecological challenge requiring nation-wide cooperation among and between authorities and companies. There are still places where partially or fully destroyed buildings have to be dismantled, leaving vast vacant plots, and the community-rebuilding has yet to kick fully into gear. We learned that reconstruction is sometimes slowed down due to the lack of manpower, especially regarding experts in construction as well as health and social services. Governmental financial measures seem not always be geared to local needs. Sometimes incomplete inheritance procedures and unknown ownership of certain land plots hinder reconstruction projects (Sasaki 2013).

Therefore, restoration work has not progressed evenly all over the region. In some municipalities the "number of business establishments" as well as the "number of employees" are still 50% or less than before the disaster (Yamada 2013). The production activities in Tohoku temporarily fell to as low as the 60%-mark of those before the Great Earthquake. The disruption in the production of electronic parts and devices, the most important products of the manufacturing industry
Toyota Motor East Japan, Inc.

Toyota Motor East Japan, Inc.

in the region, had caused nationwide supply chains to be cut to pieces. Visits to several production sites such as Iwaki Diecast Co., Ltd. and Toyota Motor East Japan, Inc. have confirmed the claim that the regional economy has returned to a level of operation similar to the national average. The reconstructed Shiraken Kamaboko Co., Ltd., with a long tradition of locally producing boiled fish-paste (kamaboko), is a proof that not only internationally active companies (or suppliers to these) had a chance to recover from the mega disaster. However, 70% of the companies that have managed to reopen their business have not recovered the level of sales before the Great Earthquake yet, and the sales of 30% of them are still 50% or less than those prior the disaster (Yamada 2013).

Shiraken Kamaboko Co., Ltd.

Shiraken Kamaboko Co., Ltd.

A lasting impression made the visit to the Ishinomaki Mill of Nippon Paper Industries Co., Ltd. where the collective efforts of the company's workforce in the recovery process have been well documented. We were able to glimpse the human tragedies that took place during the disaster at Ishinomaki Senshu University which became due to its safe location the local refuge and rescue station. These buildings have witnessed much pain and desperation, but also impressive acts of help and mutual assistance. We also learned how mobile phones are of little use during mega disasters - first due to capacity overload and restrictions implemented by the Telecom operators, followed by a quick exhaustion of electrical power supply incl. batteries. Nobody would disagree with the statement by Noboru Wakatsuki (Ishinomaki Senshu University): "Just before and just after the tsunami, people relied on their cellular phones in the midst of their terrible situation for their survival ... The victims' last messages should not have been stopped."

The new Sendai Solar Power Station by Tohoku Electric Power Co., Inc. was felt as a strong statement of local resilience, being based next to the shoreline from where the tsunami emerged, but also as a sign that the future undoubtedly belongs to ecologically sustainable energy production. Will we be capable to draw the right conclusions and implement the necessary changes even if it will change our consumption level and lifestyle significantly? The challenge is global but for reasons all eyes are on Japan.

In a comparison of the natural disasters' responses in New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina, 2005) and Tohoku (2011), the researchers Robert Blasiak, Sana Okayasu and Ikuko Matsumoto concluded that in both cases well-prepared defences were overwhelmed, but in one case, Tohoku, community resilience triumphed, while in the other it seems to have largely collapsed. They argue that "the multitude of cultural and community linkages existing across Tohoku have given the region its strength in facing this disaster", and warned at the same time "the isolating anonymity that characterizes many large cities ... may be halting such bonds from forming". There seem to be "deep roots" of community resilience, as they call it. Thanks to the 41st Leadership Program on Japan in Tohoku, I had the chance to get some insights into this phenomenon. However, worldwide, we seem still to scratch on the phenomenon's surface.

The above mentioned Hyogo Framework for Action in establishing disaster-risk reduction and climate-change adaptation will soon come to an end. The next World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2015 will again be hosted by Japan. We are still on the way to understand our exposure and vulnerability in today's increasingly hazardous world, and should learn from Japan's experiences and its unique economic and social resilience.

(original article : English)

(1) National progress report on the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (Tajiri 2009: 8)

(2)There is no non-technical, widely accepted definition of resilience, beyond a range of specific descrip-tions of ecosystem resilience. It has been suggested that the antonym of resilience is 'vulnerability', which may be easier to identify and measure. In this case, any factors that reduce vulnerability may automatically also be considered as increasing resilience. "But just as courage may only become apparent in dangerous situations, perhaps a system's resilience cannot be observed until it faces some external stress." (Blasiak et al., 2012).


Blasiak, Robert, Sana Okayasu and Ikuko Matsumoto, 2012: The Deep Roots of Com-munity Resilience, Our World 2.0 paper, United Nations University (UNU)

Sasaki, Kazunobu 2013: Three Years into Reconstruction: Current Status and Prospects, in: IIST e-Magazine, 28/June/2013

Tajiri, Naoto, 2009: Japan National progress report on the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action, Cabinet Office - Government of Japan,

Wahlström, Margareta, 2012: Japan's Resilience Lessons, UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)

Wakatsuki, Noboru, 2013: Tn What Ways Did Cellular Phones Fail to be Useful for the Victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake in Ishinomaki on March 11, 2011? Ishinomaki Senshu University Paper

Yamada, Naoyoshi, 2013: Presentation to the 41st Leadership Program on Japan, Tohoku Regional Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry

Related Page
The 41st Leadership Program on Japan (FY2013)

(For the Japanese version of this article)

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