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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:53 03/09/2007
News Review #259: October 26, 2004

New Quakes Rock Japan's Niigata; Tokyo Buildings Sway

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

"New Quakes Rock Japan's Niigata; Tokyo Buildings Sway"


There are a number of natural phenomena that are considered violent and deadly from humans' point of view. Typhoons (or tropical storms in general) and earthquakes unquestionably qualify for representing such phenomena, and Japan has a lot of each.

It was only after a few days when the number of typhoons attacking Japan in a season was renewed to 10, and the last one - for now - turned out to be the most deadly in years. On Saturday 23rd. regions in the prefecture of Niigata was struck by the country's deadliest earthquake since 1995, when the Hanshin quake killed more than six thousand people.

There are a number of differences in terms of disaster and its management between typhoons and earthquakes.

The differences are largely due to their levels of predictability. The arrivals of typhoons can be foreseen beforehand. Although there often are slight deviations from forecasts, they come at predicted timings and with previously assumed level of force. The people in general, and also those responsible in coping with disasters such as national and municipal governments, including police and fire controls, can prepare for attacks to the extent they see it appropriate,. Although certain level of damages could not be avoided, if necessary, rescue and relief measures could be initiated while tracing the macro view of the whole event.

Earthquakes, on the other hand, are unpredictable. It attacks - as they say - at the most unexpected moment. Indeed, the area attacked on Saturday has had no known record of earthquakes, which could mean either that the area was structurally stable - unlikely in any part of Japan - or that a strike was imminent as the stress in the land mass had likely built up.

The unpredictability of earthquakes obviously makes it hard to prepare for them, but what may be more important is that it makes it difficult to obtain information of the attack, curbing the efforts to formulate and initiate rescue operations. It would normally take days, or even weeks, before sufficient image of the whole damage could be acquired, all the while there are people at the fringe of their lives waiting for help. It takes time not just because people, including the government, would be unprepared, but the people on the spot would be busy helping themselves, their families, and their neighbors, and the means of communication would be damaged.

The "update 6" (as of this writing) notation in the title of the article introduced above vividly illustrates that the facts become visible only gradually.

It has been reported in Japanese media that Self Defense Forces (SDF) has so far played a significant role in rescue operations. Indeed, ever since its inception, the SDF has played major parts in rescue and relief operations in large-scale natural disasters.

The SDF was not allowed to activate rescue operations on their own until after the Hanshin earthquake in 1995. There was a need for a request from the governor of the concerned prefecture to the SDF, and then the SDF needed a permission from the national Defense Agency to initiate such operation. When the Hanshin quake hit in 1995, procedures and protocols were insufficient to efficiently convey the requests and authorizations, and there were a number of cases where the SDF rescue parties were all set to commence the operation but the needed authorization took days to get through, effectively spreading the already devastating damage.

The rules were modified, albeit slightly, from the Hanshin experience. For one thing, the SDF was given authority to initiate a limited level of operation on its own focusing on information gathering activities. Also, the communication route to request and authorize dispatching of the SDF rescue and relief team was streamlined, which included clarifications of the functions and roles of those comprising the chain.

This time, a helicopter, capable of conveying video images to the headquarters, was dispatched from a base west of Tokyo only half an hour after the initial quake hit. And the chain of communication worked well, too. The SDF was able to send out their men and equipment swiftly under the circumstances.

With due sympathy to the victims, it could be said that the fatality has been surprisingly low considering the severity of the quake. One obvious reason is that the area was much less populated compared to Osaka-Kobe area destroyed in 1995, but the quick response, and all the efforts accumulated to realize it, must have contributed significantly in dampening the quake's deadly effect. The quake is another reminder that we must ever learn and enhance the ways to cope with the might of the nature, as we are stuck on this planet to live.

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