Interview with Akihiro Ohta
Japan introduces policy changes post-tsunami

The archipelago that forms the modern nation of Japan sits at the nexus of four tectonic plates. The seismic activity these plates generate is a constant presence in daily Japanese life; more than 1,500 seismic events occur each year, including two of 5.0 magnitude or higher.

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In March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck northeastern Japan’s Tōhoku region, causing a tsunami within the hour—a low-probability, high-risk event that is predicted to occur once every 1,000 years. While Japan’s long-term investment in resilient infrastructure minimized loss of life from the earthquake, the unforeseen tsunami did result in a death toll of some 15,800.

Meanwhile, the economic loss from the earthquake tallied more than $200 billion, one of the world’s most expensive disasters to date. By early 2013, Japan’s MLIT had implemented policy changes in land use, disaster risk mitigation, and infrastructure resilience that offer lessons to other disaster-prone regions of the world.

Akihiro Ohta

To what extent can you attribute the pace of recovery and reconstruction to Japan’s legendary reputation for investing in disaster-resilient infrastructure?

After the widespread structural damage from the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, we initiated a national effort to make our buildings more earthquake-resistant. In my view, our progress on that count helped limit the damage from the Great East Japan earthquake of 2011. Our bridges held up. So did our reinforced shoreline breakwater and seawall facilities, which also acted as a barrier against the intensity and speed of the tsunami.

What role did pre-disaster training play in the recovery effort?

A very significant role, actually. A coordinated effort by trained personnel from The Japan Self-Defense Forces, the US armed forces, local and national firefighting units in Japan, and MLIT teams—together with residents from local communities who had been trained in disaster mitigation and recovery techniques—proved extremely effective in accelerating the pace of recovery and reconstruction. For example, MLIT teams, together with The Japan Self-Defense Forces, quickly and effectively executed “Operation Comb”—so-called because the transport route resembled a comb—which paved the way for emergency transport routes from inland to the devastated coastal areas. Continuous training and simulation were among the vital factors in the successful execution of this operation. Our ongoing disaster-prevention education and training—with simulated drills—contributed substantially to our recovery effort. We have to continue to prepare for the reality of natural disasters with exhaustive, large-scale training programs.

In retrospect, were there areas in which you might have done better?

Certainly. For example, in preparation for the tsunami, we evacuated residents to nearby sites simply because that’s what our scenario-planning called for. But we hadn’t considered any scenarios involving monster tsunamis because they are forecast to occur every 1,000 years.

Our fundamental challenge is to maintain constant preparedness for an event of the scale of the tsunami. We cannot continue to assume they are unlikely to occur. We must ensure all residents are informed in time when an earthquake or tsunami or blizzard strikes. For that to happen, we must improve modes of communication for all first responders. These measures will require changes in regulations, which we are seeking. Besides, we must retrofit our buildings as necessary; therefore, MLIT worked on revising the law.

What fundamental policy changes have occurred since the Great East Japan earthquake?

Our fundamental views on infrastructure development continue to evolve. Some residents have historically viewed public works projects in Japan as wasteful. However, in the aftermath of the earthquake, the fields of disaster prevention, mitigation, and maintenance are now considered part of the mainstream in public works projects—and we must launch comprehensive initiatives to build disaster-resistant infrastructure.

We must also undertake projects that improve a building’s structural resistance to earthquakes and implement countermeasures against aging and obsolescence in our infrastructure. Given our falling birth rates, aging society, and energy needs, the solution isn’t to pave over our country with concrete or build higher breakwaters. We need flexible, environmentally sound, community-based development. I was a member of my sumo wrestling club at university so I would liken the infrastructure we need to Ichiro Suzuki of the New York Yankees: muscular, yet lithe and speedy.

Development projects in Japan have typically proliferated in rural areas to accommodate population growth; we need a policy shift that supports the impact cities in urban areas, where residents don’t have to rely on automobiles for their daily lives. We must focus on smart homes with roofmounted solar panels and insulation that helps them stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter to conserve energy. Concentrated neighborhoods of smart homes within these compact cities is one of our goals of community development.

What role can the private sector play in post-disaster rebuilding of infrastructure?

The earthquake halted all forms of transit completely, causing train stations to overflow with commuters who had no way to get home in the Tokyo metropolitan area. We must do more to address and solve this problem with joint public-private sector collaboration, especially at key hubs such as Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Yokohama, and Tokyo stations. In Ikebukuro, one of the largest districts in Tokyo, department stores and other businesses are participating in disaster preparedness training.

The private sector is critical to infrastructure rebuilding. The government should devise tax incentives—for example for private companies that set up emergency storage facilities for use in a disaster. However, not everything requires tax money. It’s very important to pursue cooperative tie-ups between the public and private sectors, including publicprivate partnerships (PPPs) and private finance initiatives (PFIs)—in which both sectors have an incentive to participate.

What is the role of local government in the wake of a disaster?

In the case of a natural disaster, everything is local. Unlike, for example, a national missile defense system, which depends on centralized information management systems. In both cases, the national government plays a role. However, disaster countermeasures are practical business; the action is all local. So we need to arm strong local institutions with frameworks for independent action. That will allow municipal governments, town assemblies, and neighborhood groups to respond effectively in the wake of a disaster. We must develop capacity within these conventional community structures.

How do you balance costs and benefits when building disaster-resistant infrastructure?

After a disaster, the local construction industry plays a pivotal role in building disaster-resistant infrastructure. Residents who work for the local construction industry, for example, are not only employees of the local construction company but also residents of the community affected by the disaster.

They are willing to defend their community and collaborate with local government on a daily basis. Though it would be hard to quantify this collaboration as an economic benefit, this approach does lay the groundwork for healthy construction-related industries with strong roots at the community level.

The construction industry, in particular, has traditionally played an instrumental role in Japanese society as a key source of employment. In that respect, the industry plays an important role in disaster management and reconstruction—just as a doctor would in the neighborhood medical clinic.

How do you address the challenges of maintaining existing infrastructure?

In the 1970s, we built some 10,000 bridges in Japan every year. Now the average is about 1,000 or so new bridges a year. In effect, the trend has reversed sharply and we’re now approaching zero. The challenge we face now is a steep uptrend in the need for infrastructure maintenance.

We have to extend the useful service life of our amassed mountain of infrastructure. The typical useful service life of 30 to 50 years is not adequate anymore. The field of maintenance engineering as a formal academic discipline will take on new importance.

Research into technologies for the seismic isolation of buildings is currently underway. Countermeasures against ground liquefaction and technologies for fire-resistant wood-frame housing are also being studied. We must find ways to make our existing infrastructure more resilient while holding down the associated costs.

Public-private partnerships require infrastructure to be managed on a life-cycle basis, which means future disaster risks must be taken into account when building or rebuilding infrastructure. Please address how this should be done.

Japan has accumulated decades and more of experience and expertise in erecting buildings of quality that last a very long time. Take the example of the Horyuji Temple, which was built in the seventh century. One of Japan’s oldest temples, it is also the world’s oldest surviving wooden structure. Over the years, we’ve reinforced the temple with extensive maintenance measures, including the additional of diagonal crossbeams.

I also found out recently that a particular five-storied pagoda has a thick central pillar that oscillates like a pendulum in sync with the shock waves of an earthquake, thus making the entire structure earthquake-resistant.

Given Japan’s accumulation of knowledge in building disaster-resistant infrastructure throughout history, we now have to focus that knowledge on maintaining the useful life of our infrastructure over the long term. We can do that via collaborative public-private partnership arrangements. In my view, we must implement measures that prepare us for future earthquakes in susceptible areas of the country—such as the Tōkai and Tōnankai regions as well as the Nankai Trough.

Ultimately, we must look beyond pure countermeasures. With advances in technological development, we must build communities that lead the world in their flexibility and livability and attract people from other parts of the world.

What lessons do Japan’s experience with the Great East Japan earthquake offer the global community?

I look forward to providing a systematic overview of Japan’s globally heralded disaster-risk preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery techniques to people all over the world.

I believe Japanese industry derives its collective strength from all the people on site, working silently through the long, hot days of summer and the cold snows and rains of winter. It’s not only their fortitude that is remarkable but also their diligence as they work quietly to advance the recovery effort.

As a society, we value not only the technology required for advancement but also the individuals who support that technology. I hope we can share with the international community the importance of ordinary people in building a resilient community.

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