The following is a guest post by Sayuri Umeda, a senior foreign law specialist covering Japan and several Southeast Asian countries at the Law Library of Congress.
Last year I completed a major research report titled “Japan: Legal Responses to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011,” which is now available on the Law Library’s website. The report discusses various legislation and actions taken by the Japanese government following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, such as applying existing emergency measures, victim support provisions, and nuclear crisis measures, as well as managing disaster debris, undertaking reconstruction efforts, and passing post-earthquake legislation aimed at preparing the country for future disasters.
The Great East Japan Earthquake brought the starkest crisis to Japan since the desolation of the Second World War. During the emergency period just after the earthquake, the Japanese government tried to do everything it could under existing disaster response systems. Japan is a natural disaster-prone country and already had a well-organized disaster emergency system. However, the scale of the disaster caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake was too huge for the system to handle. For example, because large areas were affected and some municipalities lost functions, the existing systems, which placed the responsibility on each affected municipality to take action, did not work well in some parts of the country. The national government needed to step in, assuming financial responsibilities for local governments.
To support disaster victims and ease their hardship, exceptions were made to existing systems and programs. Furthermore, new systems were created with many laws being amended or new laws created. A reconstruction agency was created to coordinate various reconstruction efforts.
The Fukushima nuclear crisis added serious issues, such as food safety concerns and contaminated disaster debris management and disposal. Further, the nuclear crisis created long-lasting radiation problems. To deal with these issues, new systems were created, such as a system that enabled local governments outside the disaster area to accept and process debris generated by the tsunami. The government also established new standards for radiation levels in foods. Based on post-earthquake assessments of the effectiveness of the existing nuclear regulatory authority, a new nuclear regulatory agency and new standards for nuclear power plants were created.
Unfortunately, it is highly likely that large scale earthquakes will hit Japan again in the future. We just do not know when. Other countries, particularly in the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” also face challenges in preparing for, and responding to, such natural disasters. Japan appears to have strengthened its preparedness for future disasters by learning from this experience and utilizing various approaches, as it has done in the past. In fact, the post-earthquake regulatory changes have continued since I completed the report in September 2013. I may have to review and update the report in a couple of years.
Although the earthquake physically hit the eastern part of Japan and therefore this area was the most damaged, the earthquake shook the entire country. There were many different matters to be taken care of, so various laws and systems were utilized. The whole of Japan shared the burden. I felt as though the entire country was rebuilt after the earthquake.
We invite you to read the report to learn more about the legislative and regulatory changes that were made to help the people affected by the earthquake and to better prepare for such events in the future.