Leo Bosner on Japan’s Disaster Management

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Leo Bosner on Japan’s Disaster Management

“Japan’s biggest problem in disaster response is not a lack of hardware, it’s a lack of planning, organizing, and interagency coordination.”

Leo Bosner on Japan’s Disaster Management

SDF troops survey the disaster zone in Wajima City. following the Noto Peninsula earthquake, Jan. 6, 2024.

Credit: Japan Air Self Defense Force

Japan is a land of earthquakes, with about 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.0 or greater occurring in the nation. 

The latest giant earthquake rocked the Noto Peninsula in central Japan on January 1. Since then, the Kishida Fumio administration has been criticized by opposition parties for its slow response to the calamity. In particular, there are growing criticisms about the number of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF or SDF) personnel deployed to quake-hit areas and level of financial support for evacuees. 

As of January 31, deaths attributed to the earthquake have reached 238, with 19 people still missing.

Kishida emphasized that rescue operations faced difficulties due to the geographical constraints of the peninsula. However, under no circumstances should a delay be created in saving lives.

In this interview, Leo Bosner, a retired disaster specialist of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), discusses Japan’s disaster management. Bosner has spent 20 years going back and forth to Japan, and thinks of Tokyo as his second home after Washington, D.C.

How do you view the current situation in the areas affected by the Noto Peninsula Earthquake?

This has been a terrible event leading to many tragic deaths and injuries as well as widespread damage and destruction of property. It’s a real reminder of Japan’s vulnerability to natural disasters.

Fortunately, the incident is not nearly as bad as the triple disaster of March 2011, but this is no reason for the Japanese authorities to become complacent. In fact, this would be an opportunity for the Japanese authorities to critically examine the Noto response, looking for any delays or problems, and ask the question, if it had been an event of the scale as the 3/11/2011 disaster, how well would our response system have worked, and where does it need to be improved?

What do you think of the Japanese government’s response, including SDF activities, to the disaster-stricken areas?

I can’t say at this time, first because I haven’t seen much in the English-language news about specific problems with the response activities, and second because the response is still going on. When I did my study of the 2011 triple disaster, I actually did my research interviews in January 2012, nearly a year after the disaster. By that time, people were able to look back and reflect on exactly what had happened.

I would recommend that right now, each service should sit down and discuss and record their own actions in the disaster, what went well, where there were problems, what might be needed to fix the problems in the future. The police should do this within the police, the fire service within the fire service, the JSDF within the JSDF, and so forth. Each group should make their own record. 

Then, maybe six months from now, someone, maybe the Japan government, should pull all of these records together and develop a comprehensive report of the response and see if there are ways to improve Japan’s disaster response system.

In general, what are Japan’s problems? For example, do you see any problems with administrative coordination?

People generally don’t like coordination because coordination means that your actions are no longer 100 percent independent, that what you want to do may be limited by what somebody else is doing.

In disaster management, “coordination” needs to be a top priority. But in the Japanese case, I think that the Japanese authorities have avoided the political pain of disaster coordination by focusing instead on technological fixes.  

I was once taking a Japanese group for a tour of FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) in Washington, D.C. It’s FEMA’s disaster response HQ. There was no disaster going on at the time, so the NRCC was just filled with empty desks. On each desk was a computer as well as a placard telling which agency sat at that desk during a disaster – the Department of Health and Human Services, the Coast Guard, the Energy Department, and so forth.  

The Japanese visitors were very impressed with FEMA, and they asked me where our computers were manufactured. I looked at one of the computers and said, “They’re made in Japan.”  

I then explained that what was most important for them to see wasn’t the computers; they were just ordinary PCs. What was important was the agency placards on the desks. In a large disaster, federal agencies would send their representatives to the NRCC, they would go to their desks, and we would all work together as a team. Many of the agency representatives knew each other on a first-name basis, and everyone knew what the other agencies were supposed to do in the disaster. That was the secret of FEMA’s success.

By contrast, a few years after the 3/11 disaster, I was in Japan to see how the government was strengthening its preparedness for the next large incident. I met with one government employee who was planning for where to locate emergency fuel supplies that might be needed by ambulances, fire trucks, police cars, and other emergency vehicles in a disaster. But he was very frustrated because he told me that a few blocks away, in another ministry, another man was planning for the deployment of the emergency vehicles themselves – but the two of them weren’t supposed to talk with each other! So one guy is planning for where the fuel will be, the other guy is planning for where the vehicles will go, and on the day of the disaster we hope it all matches up. 

There in a nutshell is Japan’s problem.

What kind of proactive steps and countermeasures can Japan take to cope with disasters?

Actually, I think that Japan has already taken many excellent countermeasures. For example, a lot of Japanese construction is amazingly earthquake-resistant. I was in my hotel in Tokyo when the quake hit Tohoku on March 11, 2011. Even there, hundreds of miles from the quake, the hotel shook frighteningly. I rushed outside and stood out front on the sidewalk next to the hotel manager. We both did the hula dance as the sidewalk shifted from left to right, and I watched the tall concrete buildings surrounding us as they swayed back and forth. There was a loud and ominous grinding noise in the air.

In many American cities, I’m pretty sure that I might have been killed by falling concrete in such a situation; in Tokyo, I regained my breath and went back to my hotel room. I phoned a Japanese friend with whom I had dinner plans, but we had to cancel because his office was a mess due to papers and files falling all over the place. But he wasn’t injured, nor was I. Thank you, Japanese construction standards.

I think another strong disaster countermeasure in Japan is citizen preparedness. Japanese authorities have done a lot to put out guidance and information to the public on disaster-related precautions, and Japan’s frequent and highly visible disaster drills keep the public aware that they must be ready in case disaster strikes. I have previously criticized Japan for not producing more guidance and information in foreign languages so that the Japan’s many international visitors and residents will also know what to do, but I understand that Japan has been working on that issue as well.

So in my view these countermeasures are excellent, and I hope that they may be matched by strengthening interagency coordination in Japan’s disaster response.

The U.S. government has FEMA. Does Japan need a Japanese version of FEMA? What are the advantages of a centralized organization?

On January 17, 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake caused devastating damage in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture, including the city of Kobe. The Japan government was roundly criticized for a slow response, and Japanese officials began showing up at the U.S. FEMA HQ in Washington, D.C. to learn how FEMA was organized and how we operated.

The following year, 1996, I was invited to speak at the convention of the Japanese Association for Disaster Medicine in Sapporo. While I was there, I was told that the Japan government was thinking about creating a Japan FEMA.

Today, nearly 30 years later, it seems they are still thinking about it.

So instead of talking forever about a Japan FEMA, let’s look instead at some of the things that a centralized disaster agency like FEMA actually does, and see how Japan might be able to do many of these same things without creating an entirely new agency.

To begin with, in the 1990s FEMA worked with other Federal agencies to develop the Federal Response Plan (FRP). Note that the FRP is not the FEMA response plan; it’s the federal response plan – that is, the plan for how the entire federal government will respond in a large disaster.

This approach led to the identification of the chief tasks that the federal government might be called on to perform and/or support in a major disaster.  These included:

  1. Transportation
  2. Communications
  3. Public Works
  4. Firefighting
  5. Emergency Management
  6. Mass Care, including shelters and mass feeding
  7. Logistics
  8. Health and Medical Services
  9. Search and Rescue
  10. Hazardous Materials
  11. Food Supplies
  12. Energy

These tasks were called “Emergency Support Functions,” or “ESFs.” From there, FEMA identified which federal agencies would be responsible for each ESF; for example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would be responsible for developing plans for disaster health and medical services, ESF8.

In this way, each agency developed a disaster response plan within its own technical field. These plans were then brought together into a single Federal Response Plan so that the agencies could act in a unison in a disaster and so that all problems would be addressed.

The advantage of having a single, unified central government disaster response plan is obvious, but there was another major advantage as well. Once the FRP was published, states and cities around the U.S. began to develop their own response plans following the same pattern as the FRP. Since these plans all generally match up with each other, it is easier to have intergovernmental cooperation in disaster response. 

For example, if there are health and medical needs following a major disaster, then the federal ESF8 staff will immediately coordinate with the state ESF8 and the local ESF8 where the disaster has occurred, and health/medical specialists at all three levels of government can work together to quickly assess needs and develop their responses.

I don’t see why Japan needs a brand new “Japan FEMA” to do this. Japan already has a Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA) whose website states that the “Role of the Fire and Disaster Management Agency” is “Safe and secure regional development with the cooperation with residents” and “National response in times of need.”

It seems to me that FDMA staff could work with their fellow ministries to develop something comparable to the U.S. framework for disaster response. All that is needed is the political will to do so.

You once emphasized in an interview with Japanese media that “When a major disaster occurs, the first responders are local people, not the central government,” and that “the role of local governments is important in times of disaster.” Do you still hold that view?

Yes, that is exactly my way of thinking. As mentioned above, [in the United States] federal response planning became reflected in state and local response planning to make for smooth cooperation in a disaster. And over and above the response plans, FEMA also works extensively to train and prepare state and local responders by producing numerous disaster management guidebooks as well as free online and in-person disaster management training courses through FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute.

This training and guidance activity of FEMA is perhaps not well-known in Japan, but it is crucial to supporting federal-state-local coordination in disasters. 

On one of my visits to Japan, a gentleman from Japan’s Disaster Management Cabinet Bureau was telling me what his office did in disasters. I asked him: “What about prefectural and municipal disaster managers? Where do they get their training?” He looked at me and shrugged, having no idea. As he worked in the central government, he did not seem to think that the training and readiness of prefectural and local disaster staff was a matter of concern to him. 

But in a large disaster, all of these levels of government must work together, and they must do so quickly. Isn’t it best to prepare for this ahead of time?

What is needed for the Japanese government to change?

The political will to do so.

Some argue that Japan should have hospital ships like the U.S. Navy. What do you think?

As I have pointed out above, Japan’s biggest problem in disaster response is not a lack of hardware, it’s a lack of planning, organizing, and interagency coordination. Certainly a hospital ship might be a good thing for Japan to have, but I would not say that it’s the top priority to improve Japan’s disaster response.

One final note: I have now been retired from FEMA for 16 years, and I’m sure there have been many changes since I left. The information I have provided in this interview is accurate to the best of my knowledge, and I apologize to all my friends at FEMA for any errors on my part. The observations and opinions expressed here are my own, and do not officially represent FEMA or any agency of the U.S. government.