Lessons for Japan From Kobe Quake


Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was quick to dispatch 100,000 personnel from the country’s Self-Defence Forces to the Sendai area following the massive quake on March 11. How did this response compare with that for the Kobe earthquake in 1995?

The earthquake in Kobe occurred about two years before the mass introduction of mobile phones and the internet, so there was a terrible disconnect between that part of Kansai and the decision makers in Tokyo. Under the protocols of that time, local government leaders—both for the city and the prefecture—had to request assistance from the SDF in the event of an emergency. The SDF were in Himeji and Kure, so they were close by, but they couldn’t take the initiative by themselves and had to be ordered into action by Tokyo.

Also at that time, Japan had a socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, who was very reticent about calling the SDF in. So there was a terrible situation in that it was almost four days before there was a build-up of emergency rescue people from outside. All this while Kobe was so devastated that the ambulance crews, police and fire brigades from local cities and the surrounding areas were completely overwhelmed by the earthquake and the fires that followed.

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There were reports at the time that with the official response so being so slow, the yakuza (Japanese gangsters) were among the first on the scene offering assistance.

Yes, the yakuza are very strong in Kobe and they have their own parallel distribution and logistics networks, so they were on the ground the day after. The earthquake was on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday they were going around in their trucks in strategic locations handing out ramen, sushi packs and rice balls.

Are there any indications Japan has learned much from the Kobe quake that it has been able to apply to this month’s quake?

I think so. The next test for Japan’s emergency response system following the Kobe earthquake actually came in October 2004. There was a magnitude 6.9 earthquake up in the hilly area of Niigata. The geography was very different from Kobe—it was rural Japan. Fewer people lost their lives, and there was no tsunami. However, there were a lot of collapsed buildings, and remote rural villages were isolated because of the landslides.

In response, the SDF moved into one of the towns, Ojiya, and a coordination centre was set up on the day following the event. Helicopters were used to fly in food and to rescue villagers, and eventually to help in the repair of roads. So there was a learning system going on and protocols had changed. The SDF was quicker to respond, and there was better communication with Tokyo about the damage, while units from outside the area were brought in.

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