On March 11, 2020, Japan marked the ninth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
The massive earthquake and tsunami devastated a broad swath of Japan’s eastern coast, causing the death or loss of over 18,000 people. “3.11” is a day of prayer for the repose of their souls. Japanese citizens want to console the spirits of the deceased and share the sorrows of the families of the victims.
The state-sponsored memorial ceremony was canceled. The decision was inevitable amid the battle to beat the spread of the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China. Each of us sends prayers from our hearts to the victims and families of 3.11.
On March 14, the JR Joban line, disrupted since the tsunami, resumed operation on all lines. Recovery and reconstruction are progressing, yet we are only halfway there. There are still nearly 48,000 evacuees who are taking refuge across the nation. Even now, after nine years, we must not forget this stark reality.
Japan must have learned the importance of preparing for natural disasters from the massive earthquake. And, it should have learned that damage can be reduced with pragmatic training.
Perfunctory Training Does More Harm Than Good
The Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force rushed to the stricken areas to rescue and assist the victims on 3.11. A few years earlier, in October and November 2008, the JGSDF had coordinated with Miyagi and Iwate prefectures and their local police and fire agencies to carry out “Michinoku Alert 2008,” a tsunami simulation training drill that proved to be a success. The planning from that experience, and the knowledge gained of routes to the sites and bases of operation, played a big role in the 3.11 response.
There were, however, other training drills that were inefficient. In October of 2010, five months before the Great East Japan Earthquake, an Integrated Nuclear Emergency Response Drill under the scenario of a complete blackout, was administered by then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Cabinet at the Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture. Although the hypothesis was similar to the accident at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant, Kan’s Cabinet was thrown into complete chaos during the actual calamity.
During a national assembly session right after the earthquake, Kan stated that he “cannot recall the details” of the previous year’s training drill. The video footage of the training was archived, though, at the official residence of the prime minister. The drill was a mere formality, where the participants simply read out loud some papers prepared by the prime minister.
Such perfunctory training can do more harm than good. What is necessary is training that hones wisdom by creating challenging settings in which the participants learn to cope successfully with scenarios they may face in a real emergency.
Are those lessons being used?
The government has been conducting annual large-scale training drills for “Countermeasures Against New Strains of Influenza.” Perhaps they were also just ceremonial exercises.
The government fell behind in taking measures against the coronavirus catastrophe we are currently facing. The delay in expanding the virus testing system and the slow supply of face masks, make the deficiencies difficult to ignore.
In order to build a stronger, crisis-resistant Japan, we must refresh our memories of 3.11.
Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun