LOOKING BACK: Information flow is crucial during a crisis
ISHINOMAKI Red Cross Hospital is a glowing example of how "disaster-resistant" buildings coped after the largest earthquake in Japan on March 3 last year.
But their experience after the ensuing tsunami flooded the port area in north-eastern Miyagi prefecture also highlights the challenges the most earthquake-prone country faces -- and some difficult decisions that have to be made.
The waves destroyed or disabled all other hospitals in that zone. The Red Cross institution, however, was one of many across the nation which were built after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Twenty per cent of natural disasters strike in Japan -- and it has learned from past tragedies.
In the 1923 earthquake in Kanto (Tokyo and the surrounding area), for example, the major cause of death was fire, as Masaru Sato, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Mofa) international press division points out. So concrete replaced wood in the reconstruction.
In the Kobe earthquake, most people died when buildings collapsed. So the Red Cross Hospital in Ishinomaki had the latest in "seismic isolation" technology.
Few died in collapsed buildings after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake last year -- but an estimated 95 per cent of more than 15,800 people drowned.
The tsunami affected 1.9 million phone lines, while operations at around 15,000 mobile phone base stations were suspended.
Masaaki Abe at the hospital's planning and coordination department recalls: "We were isolated. There was no support from anyone for the first three days."
After that, there was emergency radio connection with the local government. "There should be hotlines between critical facilities," he urges.
Back in Tokyo, Hitoshi Takano, deputy director-general for disaster management with the cabinet, explains that there are hotlines between the cabinet and other government and public facilities and the prefectures -- but not at the municipal level. Some satellite phones were deployed but there were not enough.
The central government is trying to provide subsidies to local governments to improve the communication network.
There was also a delay in risk communication. After the reactor meltdowns at Fukushima prefecture, information came out on blogs, tweets and on CNN before then prime minister Naoto Kan addressed the nation, notes Dr Tang Siew Mun, Isis Malaysia's director for foreign policy and security studies.
"The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) was saying everything was under control."
After what the country now calls "3/11", the government decided to set up an integrated office at Tepco's headquarters and hold joint press conferences, notes Noriyuki Shikata, deputy cabinet secretary for public affairs and director of global communication at the Prime Minister's Office.
"We feel there could be a better way of handling crisis management and communication."
Before 3/11, says Toshinari Takahashi, a director of the fishermen's association in Matsushima, also in Miyagi prefecture: "We were told nuclear power is safe, clean and cheap. But it turned out it was not safe."
And with Tepco asking for a RM36.84 billion government bailout, he calculates: "We'll end up being the ones to pay."
After the 9/11 terror attacks, recalled Hatsuhisa Takashima, former Mofa press secretary and special adviser to Japan International Broadcasting Inc during a visit to Kuala Lumpur last month, the United States reviewed the safety of nuclear plants.
"They thought there was a possibility of a power failure causing a loss of the cooling system and a meltdown. They took the necessary measures and made recommendations to the Japanese government to make the plants much safer -- but those measures were not taken."
The lesson learned: "We have to prepare for the worst and take any precautionary measures, even if we believe it will never happen."
Until now, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency had both promoted and regulated nuclear power, notes Sato. Now a new Nuclear Regulatory Authority is being set up and reformed legislation will provide for "backfitting" the latest scientific and technical knowledge on safety to existing facilities.
A year after the crisis, the radiation dose in the Aizu region in Fukushima prefecture is 0.08 to 0.14 microsieverts per hour -- comparable with Seoul and Singapore.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called last month for import restrictions and travel advisories that remain in some countries to be revised and relaxed. Malaysia, for example, had originally designated all foods harvested from 12 areas in Japan for radioactive inspection but by last month had reduced the list to four.
Japan also wants to share its experiences from last year's triple disaster. On July 3 and 4, it will host a high-level international conference on large-scale natural disasters, says Kenji Hiramatsu, Mofa's director-general for global issues.
It will look at both "hard" and "soft" infrastructure for disaster preparedness, business continuity planning and how to secure supply chains, and better international cooperation on such disasters.