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Why Japan Needs Its Own Version of FEMA

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Why Japan Needs Its Own Version of FEMA

A series of tragedies thus far in 2024 shows why it’s high time to establish a specialized agency for disaster management. 

Why Japan Needs Its Own Version of FEMA

SDF troops survey the disaster zone in Wajima City. following the Noto Peninsula earthquake, Jan. 6, 2024.

Credit: Japan Air Self-Defense Force

Since the start of the new year, Japan has been experiencing a series of tragic incidents, with massive earthquakes on the Noto Peninsula on January 1 and a plane crash at Haneda Airport the day after. 

A Japan Coast Guard plane was rushing to make its third emergency trip to the earthquake zone within 24 hours when it collided with a Japan Airlines passenger jet at Tokyo’s busy Haneda Airport.

“Natural disasters happen just when you’ve forgotten about them,” Japanese physicist and author Terada Torahiko warned in a book in 1934. 

90 years later, many in contemporary Japan are pondering the meaning of his words once again. 

Japan is a disaster-prone nation. Located on the Pacific Rim of Fire, the Japanese archipelago is home to over 110 active volcanoes, which is about 10 percent of the world’s total, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. Mount Fuji, the country’s tallest mountain, is one of them. 

There are about 2,000 confirmed active faults from Hokkaido to Okinawa, and about 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.0 or greater occur in Japan, according to the Cabinet Office. 

Due to global warming, unexpected natural disasters such as large typhoons and torrential rains are also increasing. 

This confluence of factors inevitably raises one simple question: Isn’t it necessary for Tokyo to have a specialized organization, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the United States, to prepare and prevent disaster risks beforehand, and respond quickly and continuously to such disasters? 

In the recent Noto Peninsula earthquake, opposition parties severely criticized the administration of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio for taking a piecemeal approach to deploy the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to the earthquake site. 

Although the first 72 hours are especially critical for rescuing survivors, only about 1,000 troops were deployed to the disaster zone on January 2, day after the earthquake. An additional 1,000 troops were deployed on January 3 and 2,600 on January 4. 

“The troops are being deployed one after another. It’s slow,” Izumi Kenta, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, criticized the government on January 5.  

In response, Kishida said, “There were some difficult conditions, such as the geographical condition of being on a peninsula and the fact that many roads were cut off. It is not appropriate to compare based on numbers alone.”

Governor Satake Norihisa of Akita Prefecture on January 9 also criticized the government’s gradual increase in the number of SDF troops dispatched in response to the Noto Peninsula earthquake. “The government is taking a reactive approach,” Satake said.

Japan does have emergency management and disaster response organizations, such as the Japan Meteorological Agency, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, and the SDF, which play significant roles in disaster preparedness and response.

From a government-wide perspective, the Cabinet Secretariat (in charge of situation response and crisis management) and the Cabinet Office (in charge of disaster prevention) carry out comprehensive coordination of the actual operating organizations such as the National Police Agency, Fire and Disaster Management Agency, Japan Coast Guard, and the Ministry of Defense, and others. 

However, the number of personnel engaged in overall coordinating functions at the Cabinet Secretariat and the Cabinet Office are just a few hundred people. By contrast, FEMA in the United States employs more than 20,000 people nationwide. It has 10 regional offices located across the country.

Moreover, almost all the staff in Japan’s Cabinet Office and other institutions are transferred to other divisions within two years, making it difficult for organizations to accumulate expertise in disaster prevention and crisis management. Meanwhile, many of FEMA’s employees have become highly specialized through long-term engagement.

In Japan, this lack of skilled manpower is putting a heavy burden on the SDF. In all major disasters, the SDF has been acting as an all-round responder. 

In the most recent Noto Peninsula earthquake, the SDF is once again doing many jobs at once: It is undertaking relief efforts despite being hampered by severed roads and heavy snow and debris. It is deploying transport vessels and large helicopters to transport supplies. It is trying to reach evacuation centers across the devastated areas.  

But furthermore, Kishida ordered the SDF to make the rounds of disaster victims and listen to them in order to figure out how to respond to the needs of the local people. The SDF also provides meals, water, and bathing services to people displaced by the earthquake.

This is too much for the SDF. The ultimate task of the SDF, after all, is national defense against foreign enemies. Large-scale disaster deployment activities have become an obstacle to maintaining the SDF’s readiness and training. 

There should be no gaps in national defense. Soon after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, Russia flew air force planes into the very edge of Japanese airspace, and China sent its helicopters close to Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ships in the East China Sea. These incidents seemed to test Japan’s ability to respond to intrusions along its territorial waters, and whether the Japan-U.S. alliance actually functions amid disaster relief operations.

The establishment of a Japanese version of FEMA has been discussed in the past, including after the Great East Japan Earthquake. However, in the end the idea was shelved. Ministries and agencies are reluctant to create it because they do not want to reduce the work and duties that are related to their own raison d’être. 

For example, on March 30, 2015, a meeting of vice ministers of the Cabinet Office and other organizations regarding the government’s crisis management organization decided to postpone the establishment of a Japanese version of FEMA. “In order to realize the Japanese version of FEMA, it would be necessary to integrate almost all ministries and agencies, making the organization huge,” the participants concluded. “We should respond by improving current organizational coordination.”

Thus, currently, disaster response is carried out by each ministry and agency based on their responsibilities, with the Cabinet Secretariat and the Cabinet Office providing overall coordination.

The deputy chief cabinet secretary for crisis management, who is responsible for leading Japan’s disaster response, is a government position that has been placed in the Cabinet Secretariat since 1998. All of the past nine secretaries, including the current officer, Murata Takashi, have been former career police officers.

As the security environment surrounding Japan worsens and the SDF’s original mission of national defense is becoming more important, Japan should seriously consider establishing an agency like FEMA that is fully equipped with active disaster response units at all times. 

Politicians, not bureaucrats, should take the lead in overcoming the vertical divisions between ministries and agencies and the walls of vested interests to create a Japanese version of FEMA that can quickly and flexibly respond to any disaster situation.