Photo/IllutrationAs of December 2019, more than 40 new buildings and condominiums have been built in redevelopment projects in Kobe’s Nagata Ward. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Great Hanshin Earthquake, which struck the Kobe area early on Jan. 17, 1995, and eventually claimed 6,434 lives, prompted Japan to review its disaster preparedness, responses, and recovery and reconstruction efforts.

The earthquake has spawned a wide array of new systems and programs.

Cooperation among local governments in responding to major disasters has been promoted. Disaster medical teams comprising doctors and nurses have been set up in various parts of the nation.

The idea of establishing an emergency fund to provide flexible disaster relief to survivors has attracted broad public attention. A signature campaign that began in Hyogo Prefecture, where Kobe is located, led to the enactment of the law on helping natural disaster victims reconstruct their livelihoods in 1998.

A new program was created and jointly supported by the government, nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations and the business community to link legions of volunteers to people affected by disasters.

The nationwide volunteer movement to support disaster relief efforts that emerged after the Kobe quake provided strong impetus for the establishment of the nonprofit activities promotion law, or the NPO law.

CHALLENGES POSED TO JAPAN

The 1995 earthquake also underscored some tough challenges that have since been repeatedly highlighted in disasters.

More than 900 people died of related causes, such as a flu outbreak at an evacuation center. These “related deaths” account for 14 percent of the total death toll of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Problems have also beset public housing units provided as permanent residences for quake survivors.

Dozens of people, including those not directly affected by the disaster, have died alone in the units each year. The total number of such solitary deaths topped 1,100 over two decades.

Disaster-hit areas have been rebuilt and redeveloped with the support of the local administration under the slogan of “creative reconstruction.” But many small and midsized businesses are still struggling to regenerate themselves.

Kobe’s Nagata Ward is a typical example. More than 40 buildings and condominiums have been built on 20 hectares in the ward, where retail shops, factories and houses in close proximity were destroyed by fires ignited by the quake.

However, many stores in the commercial district within this area remain closed.

Behind the grim reality of these rebuilt areas are social and economic changes that have occurred in Japan. The population has aged, the nuclear family has spread, community ties have weakened, and the industrial structure and consumer behavior have radically transformed since the collapse of the so-called bubble economy.

But the question remains whether all possible efforts have been made to help survivors rebuild their shattered lives.

New attempts are under way to establish essential victim-support systems to ensure that vulnerable people who are hit hardest in disasters can also live with dignity.

SUPPORT TAILORED TO EACH INDIVIDUAL

In response to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the Sendai municipal government adopted “disaster case management” to take care of people living in temporary housing.

The system enables the municipal government’s departments, the local social welfare council and NPOs supporting survivors to work together. Under the approach, local government officials and welfare workers visited and interviewed about 8,600 affected families (as of spring 2014).

Based on the results of the survey, the affected families were classified into four categories according to two criteria: “whether the family will be able to rebuild its housing” and “whether any family members are suffering from physical or mental problems or have concerns about their vocational or educational standing.”

A special plan was developed for each of the 250 families facing challenges in both respects, and the necessary support was provided to them.

This approach to support was also adopted in some of the areas hit by powerful earthquakes in Kumamoto and Oita prefectures in April 2016.

In 2018, the Tottori prefectural government revised its disaster crisis management ordinance to promote efforts to support earthquake survivors based on the disaster case management approach.

Following the Great Hanshin Earthquake, new social security laws were enacted: the nursing care insurance law in 1997, the law to help disabled people gain financial independence in 2005, and the law to help the needy become financially independent in 2013.

A common thread running through these laws is the principle of providing policy support tailored to the needs of individuals. This is also the concept underlying the disaster case management approach.

This approach requires integrating health and nursing care, employment support and other welfare policies with disaster response systems. It also calls for cooperation between the public and private sectors free from bureaucratic sectionalism.

Such efforts could help enhance the nation’s ability to prepare for disasters and help affected people rebuild their lives.

The government should also urgently review its policy of providing housing to disaster survivors. Under the traditional process, temporary housing is offered first to people living in evacuation centers. Several years later, public housing designed as permanent residences is provided for those living in temporary housing.

It is important to help victims retain as many elements as possible from their normal, pre-disaster days.

Instead of building totally new housing, policy support should be more focused on repairing and rebuilding damaged homes so that the families can return as soon as possible. This will help victims swiftly regain their composure and prevent affected local communities from disintegrating.

INTEGRATED, REFORMED LEGISLATION REQUIRED

Under an already existing system, local governments cover the necessary repair costs of disaster-damaged houses as “provision of aid in kind.”

But “partially destroyed” houses, which account for many of the cases, were long ineligible for this program. And the amounts paid were also far from sufficient.

The system was revamped in response to criticism and complaints voiced after Typhoon No. 15 last autumn.

The relief program was widened to cover, for example, houses whose roofs have been destroyed, which fall under the “partially destroyed” category. This program should be further expanded and enhanced.

The “provision of aid in kind” principle was included in the 1947 disaster relief law, which was established immediately after the end of World War II when Japan was suffering from shortages of materials and supplies.

The law is clearly outdated. The new law to support reconstruction of livelihoods of disaster victims, mentioned at the outset of this editorial, abolished the “provision of aid in kind” principle.

But the amount of financial support is still limited to a maximum of 3 million yen ($27,220) per household. The problem of the ineligibility of houses that have been “half-” or “partially destroyed” has also been left unaddressed.

The current patchwork of systems and measures appears inadequate to secure effective responses to expected disastrous earthquakes that will cause a wave of evacuees, including the Big One striking directly below the Tokyo metropolitan area and the mega-quake along the Nankai Trough off the Pacific coast.

To ensure integrated and comprehensive support for disaster victims, many experts are calling for a consolidation of related laws, including the 1961 basic law on disaster management, the core of the entire legal system for disaster responses.

In-depth debate on this proposal should be prompted.

Over the past 25 years, a raft of policy slogans have been adopted for disaster response and relief efforts, including “the reconstruction of lives,” “the restoration of humanity” and “nobody left behind.”

We need to continue making serious efforts to avoid allowing these words to end up being mere dead letters.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 17