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Government red tape, cock-ups slow disaster recovery, aggravate victims

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"It was about three weeks after the disaster," recalls a physician sent to aid a district in Miyagi Prefecture. "An elderly person wanted to move to another prefecture. When we contacted the staff in the other prefecture in accordance with the instructions we were given by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, we were told, 'We are required to have a copy of the Certificate as a Disaster Victim' and 'Please download the application form from the Internet.' But we didn't even have an undamaged printer here. It never occurred to them how bad things were for us."

Some complaints have been heard to the effect that Japan's bureaucracy did a poor job of disaster management in the wake of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Weekly Playboy (May 23), describes how regulatory red tape and other stumbling blocks have created bottlenecks for rescue organizations.

Over 10,000 doctors and support personnel registered to join DMAT (Disaster Medical Assistance Teams) from around the country made their way to the afflicted areas. But rather than waiting for instructions from the ministry, they used their own communications network to determine where to dispatch personnel, i.e., they got the job done by disregarding officialdom and taking their own initiatives.

That said, medications ran into a bottleneck. As many local hospitals and pharmacies were destroyed, the most sensible move would have been for large university hospitals to resupply the outlying towns; but Japan's pharmaceutical regulations specifically prohibit maintaining stocks of supplies for "presentation purposes." Until the ministry took action to loosen the restrictions, supplies could not be transferred from one hospital to another until March 18 -- a full week after the disaster -- and slowdowns meant some end users didn't get their medications until as late as March 30.

There was also the matter of payment. In many cases, disaster victims found themselves without their health insurance cards, or didn't have cash on hand to pay. Hospitals and pharmacies had to improvise, despite the fact that the health ministry had sent a notification on March 11 that medical costs to disaster victims would be covered by public funds in the short term. Unfortunately, the notification was sent by facsimile and due to tangled telephone communications and power blackouts, was not received by many places until nearly one week later.

It took a week, until March 18, before the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism simplified the application process under Japan's Civil Aviation Law that restricts the dropping of water or food supplies by aircraft.

Gasoline distributors had sufficient supplies on hand but three days were needed to obtain permission from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) to release stocks. Still, it was not until March 21 that the logjam was broken and stocks were made available.

To enable evacuees to move out of school gymnasiums into more comfortable surroundings, the Japan Tourism Agency issued a memorandum on March 24 authorizing that people from stricken areas who had fled into neighboring prefectures could be put up at public expense in hotels and ryokan. The number of individuals eligible for up to a stay of 30 nights was estimated at about 150,000. The All Japan Ryokan Hotel Association was entrusted with drawing up a list of hotels, but the stricken areas were too swamped with other tasks to compile the names of people willing to be evacuated. Further confusion arose over how the accommodations would be billed. As a result, far fewer people were accommodated. Although hostelry in Akita Prefecture had vacancies for 11,000 people, for example, only 157 families had been accommodated as of April 27.

"The bureaucracy is the type of organization that won't move or can't move without instructions," says Ken Sakuma, a disaster management authority and member of a think tank operated under the auspices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. "If it had occurred to them that their communications weren't getting through to the stricken areas, you would have thought they would have requested TV and radio stations to transmit the information.

"The prime minister did set up a disaster command center, but either out of ignorance or due to the confusion, it failed to function," Sakuma adds. "Because operations were overseen by politicians and the bureaucrats excluded from the process, the bureaucratic organizations didn't take action."

© Japan Today

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Most foreigners are probably not surprised to read this. I see this type of miscommunication and confusion on a daily basis in ordinary life here. They sure do love their fax machines.

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Efficiency, flexibility, adaptability and decisive action. A sentence I have been waiting eleven years to apply to a action by a government or large entity in Japan. Sadly, we may all be waiting for a lot longer to see even one of these words applied to government action.

Red Cross has piles money waiting to be deployed. The government has resources but no clue how to apply them.

The sad thing is that much smaller NPOs out there have been doing stellar work to fill the gap. It is the creativity, decisiveness of smaller organizations and groups that have made it possible for so many people to get the support they have so far. These are the heros who filled the needs while the leaders in this country froze in panic and indecision. Where they remain today.

I fear for what would happen if Tokyo had this level disaster. 30+ million people and a government in disarray. Money would come, of course, but how long would it be until the government could do anything other than appear on TV and offer disconcerting information?

We must all learn from this experience and prepare for the worst with out families, friends and companies.

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You have to plan BEFORE a big disaster hits. The gov should already come out now and say that in the event of a major disaster, don't worry about charging patients, because we will cover it in the short term. That way even without communication systems, there are already standing orders for when a disaster strikes.

If I was in Tokyo when a major disaster hit, I would seriously walk out on the old Nakasendo to Kyoto.

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Well, you can probably take solace in the thought that these SNAFUs will get included in the "Lessons Learned" post-disaster evaluation. While it isn't going to help these refugees much, the NEXT disaster of this scale should have better response-times.

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Fadamor. You are an optimist, a glass half full guy. Good for you. When it comes to Japan's government, I am unable to share that optimism. I am more of a glass broken years ago, pieces hidden in a dirty rag, burried in garbage, under a pier and all the paperwork burned in the coverup kind of guy when it comes to my expectations of Japan's leadership.

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Unfortunately, the notification was sent by facsimile

I can't believe people, especially government, are still using fax machines! Has there been a timeslip to 1991 or something?!

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Fadamor,

That particular lesson should have been learned after the Kobe earthquake where the Japanese government proved itself to be inadequate. They had 16 years to include communication snafus in 'Lessons Learned' but, of course, didn't.

I can believe no one in the government offices in Tokyo thought that maybe - despite watching entire towns washed away in the tsunami - fax machines wouldn't work. Maybe Japan has too many Michael Browns: he who did a 'heckuva job' after Katrina.

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I can't believe people, especially government, are still using fax machines! Has there been a timeslip to 1991 or something?!

Believe it or not, it has much to do with privacy laws. Lots of documents can't be transmitted by email without encryption, which is troublesome to set up for all users. Fax machines sidestep the issue and are generally quite reliable. Add to that the fact that every office has one, and you can see how they would stay in place. Heck, they're still using hankos...

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This makes me laugh. Of course this was to happen the way a consensus lead govt. works. But what the heck is a "cock-ups?????"

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this is so sad but this is japan. until the japanese themselves rise up against the blutocrats nothing is going to change.

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Goddog - cock-up is Brit-speak for mistake.

I am wondering about a SNAFU though - can anyone enlighten me on that??!

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miamum,

Sorry, the mods deleted my explanation of SNAFU. Let me try again:

Situation Normal: All (insert bad word here) Up

Military slang from WW2, I think.

Moderator: Back on topic please.

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Thanks miamum. Never heard of it.

Snafu is like confused and messed up but also considered the status quo and looked at as normal. Slang for SNAFU is "Japanese Govt."

Moderator: That ends discussion on the term snafu.

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Its good to hear some docs were able to work around the incompetence that is so common in Japan, cheers for that.

One thing I really hate all these years is when some fool rants & raves about how good the J-beaurocracy is & how its responsible for Japans success.

When in actual fact many of Japans success has been DESPITE the govt & the ^&^%$^&^%^^&&^%$$$%^&& beaurocracy!

Common sense is so utterly lacking in so much around here I often scratch my head in wonder Japan still does as well as it does, but she is sliding down fast the last 10yrs, and even those this is from tabloids its depressing as hell & just another reason for me to save more & plan more for exit strategy from these isles, the future isnt rosy thats for sure

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Fadamor. You are an optimist, a glass half full guy. Good for you.

Not so much an optimist as an observer of history. The U.S. government got vilified for their incompetence after Hurricane Katrina - less so after their relief efforts in Haiti, and practically getting an "A" so far in their actions after the recent tornado devastation. Governments DO learn from past mistakes - even Japan's government.

That particular lesson should have been learned after the Kobe earthquake where the Japanese government proved itself to be inadequate. They had 16 years to include communication snafus in 'Lessons Learned' but, of course, didn't.

After the Kobe earthquake, how many refugees had to be set up in shelters with no outside electronic communication for months at a time? The only thing the Kobe earthquake has in common with the Touhou earthquake is that they were earthquakes. The post-event situations are completely different. I'm thinking that where the refugees had been staying after the Kobe earthquake, there probably were functional phones and fax machines.

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Even in a disaster the government and local offices will attempt to regain bureaucratic control,even when hoop jumping rules do nothing at all to progress the situation-it was the same in the Kobe earthquake. Initially,charity and charitable acts are legion.Being in the earthquake zone in Kobe one could have a free bath,food and water,even make a free international call-all (mostly) provided by the local people to the local people.I never saw government relief supplies at all.In fact, I have deja vu as I witness Naoto Kan ,like his predecessor Maruyama being berated by the cold homeless people of Kobe/Tohoku. At the moment people in Tohoku are living in cramped dangerous and unhealthy conditions-people are in parks living in tents -the lucky ones have a space on the floor of a school gym or similar-meanwhile a trillion yen has been collected and is waiting for the victims. I for one am not holding my breath-plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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fire them all... why does everything have to go through the government? Stupid laws and red tape

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@5cents

How can you pretend that a fax is more secure than e-mail? Faxes are usually received in offices shared by many employees, this is hardly what you can call private. On the contrary, e-mail requires access to a personal computer which should be protected by a login system and whose activity can be monitored for additional security. In my home country (which is also plagued by a huge bureaucracy, by the way), I could get the personal email of civil servants/departments and most of the paperwork could be done online (they even contacted me by email for information regarding my taxes when I moved to Japan).

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piglet

unfortunately Japan is just good at making hi-tech stuff like computers etc, but not so good at making use of said items once off the factory floor, look at the local govt offices who were literally wiped out as they didnt have much on computers etc mostly just pile of paper & this problem is EVERYHWERE in Japan.

They shud be able to easily back stuff up & store off site as backups but even that idea is only JUST starting to be comprehended here, who knows if much will ever get implemented tho!

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In the reality, the current government wasted a lot of time for news conference. They did not really understand about the disaster relief efforts. When they asked the residents of Fukushima to stay away from disaster zone for at least 30kms, they did not realize that victims have no fuel or sufficient transports to travel.

Bring back the memory of Hurricane Katrina victims who have no cars for traveling. On the contrary to Japan, neighboring China mobilized the military for disaster relief. Their response were fast and lightening. For natural disasters, autocratic government is more useful than democratic government.

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There are several problems such as the relations between the DPJ and the bureaucrats. One salient aspect to the problem would be PM and his Cabinet. Very weak, would have been out by now, except for this disaster. Reluctant support in the Diet for this PM, and the PM lacks real clout in the various sectors in government. PM Kan and his Cabinet are in office ONLY because of this disaster, not from any significant support in the govt. sectors. Bad combination of events.

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apec,

you are only sort of correct, a MASSIVE problem in Japan is, THE BUREAUCRATS period. It doesnt matter one single bit who the govt is, the bureaucrats control, manipulate, sllllllllllllow everything down, they are running the country into the ground bigtime, unless power is taken from them at some point the country is SOL. And thats even in "normal" times.

The beaurocrats are a parasitic plague in Japan, the govt is of little relevance sadly.

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Zenpun: They did not also understand that many of those asked to evacuate are farmers with for ex. 30 cows. How the hell do you evacuate with 30 cows?

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I survived the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake and well remember how not only the bureaucracy but the government failed us. What sticks in my mind is the constant denial of reality by those in power, most dramatically seen in the government's refusal of foreign aid as Kobe burned and thousands were left homeless.

That Japan has lousy crisis management goes beyond the bureaucracy: it's in government and it's in the private sector. TEPCO had enough forewarning that something like Fukushima could happen but went into denial, as did the bureaucrats.

In fact, that Tohoku area has had hundreds of years of warning about tsunamis should have encouraged building adequate sea walls and floodgates.

A story I've not seen reported in the Japanese media is that one Tohoku village, Fudai, did have the presence of mind to build an adequately high sea, thanks to persistence of the mayor, and survived. Associated Press (AP) picked up this story by Tomoko A. Hosaka: "How one Japanese village defied the tsunami" (13 May 2011). She writes: "The 3,000 residents [of Fudai] living between mountains behind a cove owe their lives to a late leader who saw the devastation of an earlier tsunami and made it the priority of his four-decade tenure to defend his people from the next one." She goes on: "[The late Mayor Kotaku Wamura's] 51-foot (15.5-meter) floodgate between mountainsides took a dozen years [1972-1984] to build and meant spending more than $30 million in today's dollars." Not a big sum when you consider the village would have been swamped by the 3/11 tsunami.

This story puts this article in a different light. Given that all that this article says about Japanese bureaucrats is absolutely right, the problem must be seen going beyond the bureaucracy.

A lot of the bigger problem--and the immediate problems--have much to do with the centralization of power in Japan. Essentially a Tokyo-centric system creates its own disconnection with the rest of Japan. Witness the following from the article:

When we contacted the staff in the other prefecture in accordance with the instructions we were given by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, we were told, ‘We are required to have a copy of the Certificate as a Disaster Victim’ and ‘Please download the application form from the Internet.’ But we didn’t even have an undamaged printer here. It never occurred to them how bad things were for us.>

As much as the bureaucrats are easy to hate, and with good reason, the massive problem of crisis management is simply their fault. It is systemic.

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Next to last sentence should read "...is not simply all their fault."

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Typical for bureacracy anywhere. The more government, the more of this you get.

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I have to say, "cockups" just isn't appropriate language for a respectable news site. It's tabloidy at best. What was wrong with "mistakes"? Just sayin'.

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It's an everyday British expression, and it eloquently expresses the aggravation of the victims, so why not use it? I'm delighted to see that JT refuses to grovel at the feet of the political correctness police.

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Virtuso - there are a LOT of "everyday British expression[s]" which shouldn't make it into a headline, unless it's The Sun. "cock-up" is one of them. I'm not being PC at all, I just expect a certain level of writing from our press.

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I'm not being PC at all, I just expect a certain level of writing from our press.

Amen to that!

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Consider the source:

You are reading the wisdom of Weekly Playboy, fer chrissake. (Local tabloid that is not connected to more respectable US magazine - they just registered the same name in katakana, to trick people.)

This is not "the press."

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I agree with you Maria.

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Anyway, gee. A Playboy laundry list of what somebody has not done right. Wow. Hey. News flash. 9.0 quake and huge tsunami. They call them disasters for a reason, you know. Tkoind2 admires glass half full people but can't be optimistic.

Well, I live here.

Imagine that your entire neighborhood is wiped out. Every building. Now imagine that every neighborhood adjacent to it has had all of its commercial base and half of its residential base utterly destroyed. Basically what is left is a pile of garbage and many many refugees. Oh. And don't forget dead bodies and rumors of dead bodies. Knock out roads, rail, electricity, water, cell phones, land phone lines, and gas lines regionally.

Got it? Now build a functioning Japanese society from the ground up in four to six weeks. Good luck. Don't forget the universal health care, which many "developed" countries can't manage on their BEST days. And make sure to do it all AT THE SAME TIME while you take care of every refugee's needs.

The performance of local governments has been stellar. Excellent. What possible yardstick could someone use to call them failures? Glass half full? Two months ago, there was no glass! People are taking the initiative and doing the best they can. You won't find a bunch of bums with nothing to do. They are all in Nagata cho. I could easily think of 10 things that local governments have done that are probably not "by the book" but which have been inspired policy and execution.

Could things be better? Sure. Obviously. Have others helped? Yep. Thanks. Will planning make things better in the future? I hope so. But don't believe all of this doom-saying from people who think everything must be bad here. National leadership and national commitment is something people in Tohoku have been waiting on for two months. Solve that problem and then complain.

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"and it eloquently expresses the aggravation of the victims"

That is poo. How is that for eloquent? "The victims" were somewhere in the region of 500,000 people two months ago. Now they are, I would guess, about 50,000.

Process that. How many cities in Tohoku have that kind of population? Two? How many in Canada? And that 500,000 only counts those who went to shelters. I would guess 5 or 6 times that were without basic utilities for a week. HEY! I should be complaining! So why am I not complaining?

In the past two months, that has all been fixed up by a bunch of workaday bureaucrats and volunteers and we are down to about 50,000 difficult cases. Do you think that those people are going to have a rosy outlook? Na. They are going to complain "eloquently" to anyone who will listen about how messed up things are. Of course they deserve their free food and shelter and medical care and security, but you know, during that time, I have had to work for mine. But I am a "victim", truth be told. 95% of the "victims" are not aggravated and are not even in shelters. They are out paying taxes.

DMAT and other NGOs are likewise going to be complaining because nobody will care about improving preparedness in 6 months. They have done their "hanseikai" and now they have their wish lists. No surprise there.

People are getting a distorted view of this whole thing through a Fukushima funhouse mirror. Local governments have done an excellent job in dealing with unbelievably bad circumstances. If getting people back to a normal life was the goal, then they have earned a 95% satisfaction rate.

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