Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Unlearned lessons

Don't know why, but for some reason I decided to "google" about the Great Hanshin--Kobe--earthquake in 1995 and came across an interesting article by the Japan Policy Research Institute.

While somewhat shocking to read, it didn't come as a real surprise to know that Japan was so ill-equipped to handle such massive destruction. What's even more troubling is that I don't think Japan has learned from their past mishandling of that tragic event.

I'm guessing that Japan is no better than America when it comes to overstating their emergency preparedness. National pride, as well as a multi-layered bureaucracy, can be a country's greatest undoing. The recent hurricanes in Florida and Louisiana proved how difficult it is to handle a crisis of such magnitude. America's bureaucracy is daunting but Japan's is so multi-layered that in an emergency it would be like trying to move a mountain with a pair of chopsticks.

Here's an abbreviated listing of Japan's shortcomings in handling the Kobe earthquake:

1. Overconfidence in the ability to withstand earthquakes.

2. Lack of local preparedness for natural disasters.

3. Ineffectual crisis management in Tokyo.

4. Private companies appeared more able than the government to respond quickly and effectively to the victims' needs.

5. Reluctance to accept aid from abroad.

6. Differential treatment of foreigners.

7. Selective reporting by the mass media.

Yesterday one of the universities where I teach had an "Earthquake Emergency with Fire" drill. Students and staff were asked to use a cell phone call-in system to report their safety. None of my students, nor I, had been given any information about how to use the call-in system. Worse than that, the alarm never sounded in our building.

This was a prime example of how the multi-layered Japanese system will never be able to pull itself together to manage any kind of crisis, especially natural disasters. After the destructive earthquake in Niigata one year ago, it took the Japanese government nearly two weeks to get simple aid such as blankets and water to victims.

This happened despite the Kobe earthquake of 1995 with its supposed "lessons learned."

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Trains and more trains

Bored? Looking for some mindless recreation? OK, take a look here. Be sure to click on the "departing melody" for each train track. Japan loves these little jingles and thinks it gets people boarded faster if they hear "fast" music. Every time I hear it, my heart also races faster!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Shake it up, baby

Over the past week we've been doing a whole lot 'a shakin'. Three fairly large earthquakes in fact, measuring 6.5 , 5.8. and 5.5 have occurred within one week. Fortunately, there was no real damage or serious injuries.

I've tried for months to convince my British boss that we should prepare some kind of earthquake plan at work--and volunteered to organize it--but he's reluctant. Turns out he's worried that once we have a plan in effect a large earthquake will inevitably happen. "This is called superstition", I told him.

So, a language school with 22 small classrooms, that teaches several hundred children and adults weekly, must rely on one child's "Earthquake Backpack" filled with one flashlight, some extra batteries, a small box of bandages, and a quart of water.

We have no call-in plan where teachers could call from wherever they happen to be to confirm their safety. We have no instructions about where to go for emergency shelters. We have no CPR or other emergency training. We have rooms and offices loaded to the gills with heavy objects that aren't fastened to the walls or secured in any way. We do, however, have some sort of apparatus in the third-floor teachers' lounge that's supposed to be a hoist to lower people out the window. No one knows how to use it. We've never had any kind of drill or training whatsoever so consider it somewhat worthless in an emergency where we might have to evacuate within minutes--or less.

Japanese seem intractable when it comes to facing the reality of an earthquake. The government makes an annual attempt to convince its citizens and businesses that they should prepare for an earthquake. The reality is that almost no one does.