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ISHES Newsletter #44: Creating Local Disaster Preparedness Networks: Hiroshi Hida Shares His Expert Tips

2022/03/25 13:21:34
ISHES Newsletter #44
March 25, 2022

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Copyright (c) 2022

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, Japan

Dear Readers,

Late at night on March 16, 2022, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. We send our condolences to everyone who was affected. This year Japan also marked eleven years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and the memories of the disaster are still as fresh as if it was yesterday. Perhaps these events are a fresh opportunity for everyone to give some thought to disaster preparation and prevention.

What should our communities and we as individuals do to prepare for disasters? We never know when or where the next natural disaster will occur, and anyone could be a disaster victim some day. In our feature article for this March ISHES newsletter, we hear from Hiroshi Hida, a disaster support specialist who has for years been engaged in community responses to disasters.

Creating Local Disaster Preparedness Networks:
Hiroshi Hida Shares His Expert Tips

OPEN JAPAN disaster support site

By the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES), Japan

Eleven years have passed since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster of March 2011. In the disaster-stricken region, reconstruction and revitalization continues to this day in the region, as well as emotional support for disaster victims. Meanwhile, a mudslide disaster struck the Izusan district of Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture in July 2021 after three days of torrential rains, and the February issue of the ISHES Newsletter reported on the continuing support activities by the social enterprise Miraisozobu ("For Future Company" in English) headed by Junko Edahiro.

During the past several months, even more disasters have occurred around the world, including the massive eruption of a submarine volcano in Tonga and mudslides and flooding in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil after local severe rainstorms. For this issue of the ISHES Newsletter, we asked Hiroshi Hida, Vice President of OPEN JAPAN,* what should be done during normal times to prepare for disasters, and what kinds of networks should be created by local governments, businesses and citizens. OPEN JAPAN was among the first organizations on the scene for relief efforts in Izusan after the mudslide struck.

* OPEN JAPAN is a nationwide network of volunteers in Japan, created immediately after the Tohoku disaster struck in 2011. Current activities include the Car-Sharing Project, which lends cars free of charge to people who have lost their own cars in disasters, and the Emergency Support Project, which sends volunteers to provide emergency support in disaster-stricken areas.


The following is compiled from a seminar hosted by Miraisozobu in which Hiroshi Hida shared his observations based on extensive experience in providing assistance to areas affected by disasters.

In Atami and elsewhere the community itself is a valuable asset

On the day the mudslide disaster occurred in the Izusan district of Atami, I was in my car heading from the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan to Kyushu in the south when I saw reports of the disaster, so I changed course and went straight to Atami. When I arrived to provide support, I was amazed at how many people were already engaged in support work voluntarily and at the strength of the community ties among the people of Atami. I think these ties are a precious asset. I think it would be good to create teams to facilitate activities by such people in the future as well.

Soon after arriving in Atami I convened information sharing meetings with people who were providing support. There are things you can learn about the circumstances and what kinds of people are doing what sorts of work by meeting together with them, so it is crucial for people providing support to share information early on when disasters occur.

The key is to prepare for disasters during normal times

Photo by Callum Hill on Unsplash.

The decisive factor in sharing information like this is how people team up and prepare during normal times. In 2018, the Minister of State for Disaster Management published a guidebook on governmental coordination and collaboration with NPOs and volunteers in disaster prevention, aiming for "tripartite cooperation," i.e., recommending governments, social welfare councils and private organizations team up during normal times.

For example, if they can have carpenters and people capable of operating heavy machinery register ahead of time to cooperate during disasters and receive training during normal times on operational procedures in disasters, they can be helpful in emergencies. People who normally operate heavy machinery are accustomed to working at construction sites, where safety measures are implemented. In disaster-stricken areas, however, there are likely no safety measures or site maps and blueprints handy, and other rescue workers will be walking nearby, so without training, such work would be difficult and dangerous. Therefore, the key is to hold workshops and trainings before disaster strikes.

I also recommend that during normal times people consider how food will be cooked and provided during times of disaster. Consider ahead of time questions such as who will cook food using what facilities, whether to place orders for catering services, and how to avoid norovirus contamination or other food poisoning.

Some companies will also send their own employees to work at volunteer centers. It can be difficult for disaster-stricken areas to secure manpower for the medium to long term, so besides having a system to register individual volunteers, it's a smart idea for governments to sign cooperation agreements on disaster management with others such as companies and consumer cooperatives, so that they can request the necessary manpower and resources in times of disaster.

In Japan, disaster management plans for communities are prepared by the local government (city, town or village), which provides citizens with hazard maps and information on evacuation. I think it is good not only for the government to provide information, but also for the community's citizens to share detailed information with the government on items in the community that could be useful during disasters, for example, locations of groundwater wells and heavy equipment, and for the citizens and government to prepare for disasters together. Gymnasiums and community centers are often used as evacuation centers one or two months, and normally operated by public employees. To avoid forcing people who must also perform their normal duties as public employees to spend time running the shelters, it is also important for people in the community to create mechanisms ahead of time to be able to run the shelters themselves.

When I visited the scene right after the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake struck, the electricity was out in all houses, food was sold out at supermarkets hundreds of kilometers away and long lines of cars snaked toward service stations for gasoline. Panic was seen even among those who had not been hit directly by the disaster, but suffered only from power outages. It would be necessary, I thought, to be able to produce electricity at the local community level. Even if a large earthquake happens and even if external assistance is delayed, self-reliance is possible if food and energy can be ensured locally. This might be difficult in a city, but I feel this way of life may be important in the future as a disaster countermeasure.

For individuals, the first step to prepare for disasters is to confirm where the evacuation shelters are. The fact is, when it suddenly becomes necessary to evacuate, quite a number of people have no idea where to go. The next step is to be prepared to live without help for about one week after disaster strikes.

I also recommend that people experience camping during normal times. At the time of the Kumamoto earthquake in 2016, I heard that people died from "economy class syndrome" (traveler's thrombosis, which occurs when a person sits in the same position for a long time) and other ailments as a result of cramped conditions in their cars where they went for refuge. The number was more than those who died directly from the earthquake itself. I think that people are more resilient if they have experienced outdoor living during childhood.

A 'Disaster Management Coordinator' connects helpers with those who need help

Are you familiar with the term "disaster management coordinator"? This is a person who connects people in a disaster area who need help with people who want to help.

Disaster management coordinators also connect disaster-stricken areas with each other. The month after the July 2021 disaster in Atami, OPEN JAPAN volunteers were also providing disaster relief over a thousand kilometers away in the town of Omachi, Saga Prefecture, which had been hit with a heavy rainfall disaster in August 2021. Omachi had been damaged by flooding two years previously as well, and we saw people who had just completed repairs on their houses and were very discouraged to see them damaged by floods yet again, and elderly people in evacuation shelters having to eat instant cup ramen noodle soup for meals.

Hoping to cheer people up even a little, we went to a fresh fish retailer in Izusan, Atami to buy dried fish for cooking. We mentioned what was happening in Omachi, and the next day they told people in the market, "It seems the disaster victims in Saga Prefecture are having trouble obtaining food," and they gathered together 200 dried fish to send over. The people of Omachi were so grateful to receive these supplies even though the people of Atami were also suffering hardships, and this gave them a moral boost in striving for their own recovery. It is great that the people of Atami could send a message of encouragement to Omachi of "Let's get through this together."

In Japan, however, it is hard for disaster management coordinators to earn enough to make a living. Their work consists mostly of meeting people to coordinate activities, so it is hard for others to see what they are doing, and since observers may not really realize what work is being done, it is difficult to make a living with this as a professional occupation. I also perform support activities for disaster areas and compensation is unreliable, so this is an issue for me personally as well, and I think a system must be created so that young people can perform these kinds of support activities as professional work.

Building disaster-resilient communities

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

As disasters become more widespread and larger in scale, how to protect the areas we live in and our communities is an important question. Comparing areas where people don't know who is living next door to areas like Atami, where people know their neighbors and the composition of their families, the people in the latter case are clearly easier to help in times of disaster. Would it not be important to get together with everyone in your community regularly and engage in activities such as cleaning the park or preparing food together as part of evacuation training, and cultivate connections with them? Also, considering ways to support senior citizens, it might be good to use social media to create contact networks for use in times of disaster.

When disaster strikes, social issues that may have been lurking in the background in normal times, such as aging of society, all come to the surface. During normal times it is very important to hold discussions at the town hall or municipal assembly about what the government is doing locally and go out and see how the municipal budget is actually being used. I think that living one's life while cultivating awareness of one's own community like this on a routine basis builds a town or community that is strong during disasters.


Due to the adverse impacts of climate change, any place could become a disaster area. To increase our ability to respond to disasters, we should cultivate the habit of building connections with a wide range of organizations and people, and of anticipating and preparing for times of disaster. We urge everyone to think about what they can do to promote preparedness in their own communities.

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society

*The Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES) is an organization based in Japan that is working to build a happy and sustainable society. To this end, we need to think about happiness, the economy and society together by learning from, analyzing, and thinking about theories and cases in Japan and around the world on what happiness is and what kind of economy and society will create and support happiness.

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