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The inevitable need to be ready
(From The Japan Times June 19 issue)



    Due to the geographic and geological characteristics of the Japanese archipelago, middle- to large-scale natural disasters can strike at any time. While military conflicts or terrorism may be thwarted through human efforts, typhoons and earthquakes are unstoppable, affecting all those residing in this nation.

    Because natural disasters are inevitable, it is all the more important for central and local governments, and the people, to make sufficient preparations in earnest to cope with them. The central government's fiscal 2005 white paper on natural disasters spells out measures designed to minimize damage from natural disasters, especially from large-scale earthquakes. In fiscal 2004, the annual white paper began projecting human and property damage expected from future earthquakes and setting down goals for reducing damage from estimated levels.

    The latest paper says that large-scale earthquakes with a magnitude of 8 could happen anytime off the Tokai Region. They may also occur east of the Kii Peninsula and off Shikoku in the first half of this century.

    In anticipation of these powerful earthquakes, the white paper calls for measures aimed at halving, within 10 years, the number of estimated deaths and the amount of estimated property damage — from 9,200 deaths to 4,500 deaths and from ¥37 trillion to ¥19 trillion for the Tokai earthquake, and from 17,800 deaths to 9,100 deaths and from ¥57 trillion to ¥31 trillion for large quakes off the Kii Peninsula and Shikoku.

    As for Tokyo, the paper says that a quake measuring between magnitude 7 and 8 is more likely to occur beneath the metropolitan area this century than a magnitude-8 temblor (the scale of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923). Still, a Tokyo quake of magnitude 7.3 would be expected to cause about 11,000 deaths and some ¥112 trillion in property damage, including the destruction of 850,000 buildings. The white paper calls for laying down specific strategies to cope with such an earthquake.

    To minimize damage from large-scale quakes, the document stressed the importance of a three-pronged approach — active governmental measures to lessen damage, mutual assistance in communities and careful preparations by individuals. Citizens are advised to fasten furniture and keep three days' supply of food and water in stock.

    The Cabinet Office has launched a Web site, Minna no Bosai (Disaster Prevention for All), to introduce to the public emergency procedures of certain community associations and civic organizations.

    The efforts of central and local governments are the most important. The central government's budget for such eventualities has trended downward in recent years. For fiscal 2005, central government agencies allocated a total of ¥2.53 trillion for natural disaster-related research, national land conservation and rescue activities related to large-scale natural disasters.

    Earthquake prediction may have some value, but more serious thought should be given to developing realistic plans on how to begin and carry out rescue and assistance operations in particular areas once a big one strikes.

    As a way to minimize deaths from earthquakes, the white paper calls on individuals whose buildings were built in and before 1981 to check to what extent their property can resist seismic shocks. This year the government started a subsidy system for carrying out such checks and strengthening weak buildings or constructing new ones. But the fiscal 2005 budget does not include a preferential tax system to promote quake-proofing.

    The tax system is indispensable for achieving the government's goal of increasing the percentage of quake-proof buildings from 75 percent at present to 90 percent in 10 years.

    In developing their strategies, central and local governments must not forget the foreign residents in Japan who are not fluent in Japanese. Dissemination of information in many languages will be indispensable for helping them deal with emergency situations.

    After the magnitude-9 quake off Sumatra and the subsequent tsunami on Dec. 26, Japan pledged $500 million in grant aid for such efforts. Japan must remember that it is in a position in which it can and must contribute lessons from its experience, technical knowledge and money to international efforts to cope with disastrous earthquakes.

The Japan Times Weekly
June 25, 2005
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