Foreign Policy Blogs

UN official: Japan's preparedness saved lives

U.N. Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction Margareta Wahlstrom had nothing but praise for Japan’s preparedness for natural disasters, which apparently includes drills, building codes and risk assessment.

UN official: Japan's preparedness saved lives

U.N. Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction Margareta Wahlstrom. (File photo)

Wahlstrom said Monday strong building codes, constant drills among the population and an effective warning system saved lives when the massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11. She said the death toll “would have been much higher” in other parts of the world if struck by a disaster with the same magnitude.

I have a hard time reconciling Wahlstrom’s statements with the reality on the ground.

Japan’s building codes haven’t been overhauled since the 1960s, and are ridiculously out-of-date. Modern Japanese buildings would look drab and shabby in the Soviet Union of the 1950s. Japan has a strict floor-to-area ratio for buildings, meant to prevent people from building shanties, but effectively prevents homes and buildings having thick, insulated walls or central heating. Japanese rooms must be heated by individual gas heater units called sutōbu (stove) in the winter, and since the walls are paper-thin, the room goes cold within minutes of turning off the heater. Japanese building codes required the use of asbestos from the ’60s to the ’80s. Japan later banned asbestos by defining “asbestos containing materials” as materials composed of more than 0.1 percent asbestos, but Japan refuses to use international standards in detecting asbestos, and instead uses its own standard, which can’t detect asbestos in materials containing less than 5 percent asbestos. Instead of conforming to international standards, Japan tried to change international standards to conform to its own ineffective methods. I wonder how much asbestos was released into the air by buildings that crumbed in the earthquake. While Japan’s building codes do account for earthquakes and may have prevented some deaths, Japan’s outdated building codes shouldn’t be praised for doing a little more than the bare minimum.

I also don’t know of the constant drills Wahlstrom referred to. I have been working in a public school in Japan for almost three years, and I never once seen an earthquake drill. We do have an annual fire drill, in which firefighters instruct the teachers how to extinguish an inferno, even though the fire station is right across the school’s parking lot. At my school in Kansas, we had several tornado drills a year, but I have never seen an earthquake drill in Japan.

Wahlstrom also told reporters that Japan’s preparedness for disaster risk reduction “has proven it works.” I don’t know what proof she’s referring to. There is no effective method for estimating what the death toll might have been if not for Japan’s preparedness. The death toll of 11,620, with 16,464 people missing, which was apparently less than expected, may have had more to do with the tsunami hitting rural areas of Japan.

On the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, Wahlstrom said:

“When the plant was designed, the engineers had to take a decision on risk. And the level of risk is based on historical evidence. They looked at this evidence. And at that time, they took a well-informed decision. We cannot claim they should have known better.”

I have discussed previously the flaws in assessing risk based on historical evidence rather than anticipating worst-case scenarios, especially when historical evidence older than 1896 was discounted in considering geological processes that occur over thousands of years.

Many outsiders, such as Wahlstrom, are tempted to take Japan’s claims and slogans (the tatemae, facade) at face value, which leads to them praising Japan while not digging deeper to discover the reality (honne). “Honne” and “tatemae” are often at odds in Japanese dialogue. In the above case, Japan placing a ban on asbestos is the “tatemae,” while its half-hearted attempt to actually get rid of asbestos is the “honne.” This has sometimes been contentious in internationals settings (see the international moratorium on whaling). The Japanese don’t necessarily view the tatemae as a lie, because the tatemae represents an ideal, so how can an ideal be a lie, even if it doesn’t accord to reality?



Dustin Dye

Dustin Dye is the author of the YAKUZA DYNASTY series, available through the Amazon Kindle.

He lived in Okayama, Japan, where he taught English at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for three years. He is a graduate from the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

His interest in Japan began in elementary school after seeing Godzilla fight Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. But it wasn't until he discovered Akira Kurosawa's films through their spaghetti Western remakes that he truly became fascinated in the people and culture of Japan.

He lives in Kansas with his wife, daughter and guinea pig.

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E-mail him: [email protected]