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Japan’s Slow Disaster Relief and a New Plan for Renewal

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As Japan basks in the success of its World Cup champion women’s soccer team, the impact of the recent tsunami on the country is still very real. Although it has been over four months since the tsunami struck Japan, and one may assume clean-up efforts are going smoothly, restoration progress has actually been greatly hindered. Not one organization or person is to blame for this slowing of progress, but one theme that stands out is the strict regulation the Japanese government has put on relief efforts.

Ishinomaki, in northeast Japan, was one of the cities hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami. According to the city’s mayor, Hiroshi Kameyama, “On a recovery scale of zero to 10, some parts of Ishinomaki are at zero and some are at one.”

The government has actually made moves to prevent receiving assistance. In order to prevent jam-packed roads in the days following the disaster, citizen volunteers were discouraged from delivering aid themselves. Aid packages from the U.S. military have been accepted by the Japanese government, but some international organizations have been told they’re not needed.

When the government does accept financial or humanitarian assistance, the process of actually getting this aid to the people is very slow. In Hannah Beech’s Time article titled “Is Japan’s Bureaucracy Strangling Humanitarian Aid,” an international NGO representative in Tokyo explains, “Everything has to go through government emergency centers.” “But they’re very slow to respond and can’t keep up with the flow of aid.”

And in the midst of this struggle came another curveball, the recent resignation of Japanese government minister of reconstruction, Ryu Matsumoto. Matsumoto’s resignation came after a chain of controversial comments not well received by Japanese citizens and victims of the disaster. He arrived in Iwate, Japan in early July and according to Gavin Blair’s Christian Science Monitor article, “Japan’s Kan feels pressure after disaster reconstruction minister quits,” told the prefecture’s governor, Takuya Tasso, that the government would, “give aid to those areas that come up with ideas for reconstruction, but not to those that don’t have any.”

Although Matsumoto was seen by many to lack sympathy towards the Japanese people, he actually brings up a very good point, that the government should only contribute to those areas of Japan that want to actively contribute to the restoration process, if not manually, at least through ideas. And in addition, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), if not strictly regulated by the government, can step up to fill this void.

Christian volunteer organizations are some of the NGOs that have been most successful in recent disasters in the United States. In his Spring 2011 Religion and Liberty article, “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast,” Ray Nothstine affirms the importance of Christian volunteer organizations, saying, “With government assistance often bureaucratic and slow to respond, Christian charity and church organizations are a vital source of relief and comfort.” Nothstine’s article outlines three major recent natural disasters that have struck within U.S. borders. One of these was the tornado which caused great damage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama this past spring. However, relief and restoration efforts have proven very successful.

In Nothstine’s article, University of Alabama professor David T. Beito called the relief efforts in Tuscaloosa “extremely decentralized” and added “I don’t know if a more secular city would fare nearly as well.”

Although much of Japan is not Christian, there are many international Christian charities on the ground in Japan. Caritas International is one such organization. As of the beginning of May, they have provided food and other aid to 10,000 survivors following the earthquake and tsunami. Now their aim is to provide trauma care services and help restore small communities, like fishing communities in the coastal areas.

As long as the Japanese government continues to exercise considerable control over restoration efforts, the organizations that do wish to help will be less effective than they otherwise could be. Government deregulation allows NGOs to play a bigger role in disaster relief, and overall, hopefully offers people a more stable footing so they can move forward to restore their local communities.

Matthea Brandenburg Matthea works on the Acton Institute's PovertyCure initiative. She graduated from Aquinas College (Grand Rapids, MI) in 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science and German.


  • I spent the last three months in Japan as part of the US Navy’s disaster relief efforts.  The Japanese government is highly effective with respect to repairing infrastructure, the repair of the Great Kanto Hwy in less than a week as case and point.  The humanitarian side of the recovery has indeed been less successful.  It was nearly impossible to coordinate channels of delivery of humanitarian supplies donated by the US military community in Japan to those in need.  Resettlement of those displaced by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster has been painstakingly slow, largely because it is conducted exclusively by the central government in Tokyo.    Much of the problem of bureaucracy and the recovery effort has to do with Japanese culture itself.  Unlike Americans, the Japanese are accustom to bureaucracy.  What this disaster shows is the limits of government involvement in disaster relief.  Government is generally highly effective in organizing immediate response to disaster.  However, long term recovery must be conducted by civil society.  There seems to be no political will to fix the bureaucratic overrun of the Japanese government.  Prime Minister Kan’s announcement that he will resign last month is the sad symptom of the aversion to facing political challenges in Japanese political culture.  It is said of Japanese politicians that they do not solve problems, they just resign.

  • Matthea Brandenburg

    I agree with your statement that long term recovery must be conducted by
    civil society.  Aid organizations can only do so much.  When it comes
    down to it, the people have to desire change and take steps to ensure it
    happens.  Aid and volunteer organizations are generally more present in
    a country directly after a disaster happens, and the aid tends to taper
    off as time goes on.  The initial aid is helpful, but is not received
    correctly if after time people become so dependent on it that they don’t look
    for solutions themselves.  Japan is very entrepreneurial, especially in
    the technology sector, so they have the advantage of rebounding their
    economy quicker than countries in the midst of natural disasters that lack industry.

  • Ken

    Thanks for this post, Matthea! With the disaster having all but disappeared from American newspaper headlines, it’s easy to forget that Japanese are still dealing with the very real after-effects of unprecedented tragedy.

    Your opinions are well-taken, and I agree with them all. It is important, however, to view the disaster in perspective. In the mid-1990s, Kobe was devastated by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake. About 6,500 lost their lives. Response to that particular disaster was, in itself, another disaster, with certain regional fire and paramedic response teams having to await permission from the national government before they could enter the fray and help save lives. Afterward, the country passed new laws that allowed, for example, Japan’s quasi-military [SDF] to participate in this disaster response much more quickly and easily than had earlier been the case. As a result, post-disaster polls reveal a Japanese people prouder of their military than they are of their political leaders.

    Perfect? Of course not. No country succeeds at disaster relief, a task debatably more art than science. But Japan has shown a willingness and ability to learn from previous mistakes. May that be the case here, as well.