Yuki Tatsumi is Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center.
Japan is an archipelago that sits between the northern Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan. There are many volcanoes, both dormant and active, throughout Japan’s territory that contribute to over 1,500 seismic activities of varying degrees on average per year. As a result of its geography, Japan also frequently experiences other natural disasters, including typhoons and tsunamis. Therefore, coping with natural disasters have long been a part of life for residents of Japan and its government. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear the “tsunami alert” following earthquakes when living in Japan. Since Japan and Taiwan share many of the same natural disaster concerns, Tokyo has many valuable lessons for Taiwan’s humanitarian assistance/disaster relief efforts (HA/DR).
Japan’s HA/DR capabilities
When natural disasters inflict major damage, the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) is an essential component of the initial recovery effort. Article 83 of the Self-Defense Force Law (SDF Law) authorizes the mobilization of the JSDF. Between the years 2011-2017, for instance, the JSDF has been mobilized for operations to “protect people’s lives and their properties” when requested by the governors of the affected prefecture.
Once mobilized, the JSDF engages in a wide range of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Its activities span anywhere from rescue and/or recovery of those who are unaccounted for after the disaster; clean up of the debris in the affected area; provision of food, water, shelter, medicine and other services to those who are affected by the disasters; provide means for evacuation (including medical evacuation;, and initial repairs of the roads and building that are damaged. Given the criticality of the first 72 hours after the disaster to rescue the survivors and minimize other damages, the JSDF has been frequently mobilized for HA/DR operations in Japan. Based on a review of Defense of Japan—the annual white paper produced by Japan’s Ministry of Defense—the JSDF has engaged in HA/DR operations inside Japan over 500 times between 2012-2017.
Even for a country like Japan which is comparatively used to coping with natural disasters, the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake (GEJE, also referred to as 3-11) that occurred on March 11, 2011, challenged the country’s HA/DR procedures in several important ways.
The biggest difference that separates the GEJE from the other large-scale disasters that Japan has experienced in the past was its complexity. Although Japan is prone to large-scale disasters usually of natural cause, it usually involves only one type of disaster (earthquake, typhoon, etc). Instead, the GEJE was what is referred to as a “complex disaster” or “triple disaster” —beginning with earthquakes of extremely high-magnitude, followed by a tsunami of unprecedented size; the combination of which eventually caused the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Second, the impact of the GEJE was far broader than the past large-scale disasters. For instance, the impact of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake, which is roughly comparable to the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, was mostly felt in Kumamoto, Oita, and Fukuoka prefectures. In the case of the GEJE, however, a total of 20 prefectures—as north as Hokkaido down to Kochi prefectures—felt some kind of impact from the earthquake, or the tsunami, or both.
Finally, due to the severity of the damage and the extension of the affected area, the number of people who were displaced by the GEJE is also unprecedented. In fact, almost seven years after the accident occurred, 30,000 residents who lived in the contaminated areas near Fukushima have not been able to return to their homes largely due to the remaining high level of radiation in the areas near the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Challenges for Japan’s HA/DR Operations
Japan faced a number of challenges as it tried to address the devastating damage caused by the GEJE. First, Japan was governed by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) at the time. To be fair, the scale of the damaged caused by the GEJE would have dwarfed any government’s response, even if it had been headed by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). However, the DPS-led government grossly inexperienced in governing in general, let alone responding to a crisis, and this inexperience certainly hamstrung the government’s ability to respond to a certain extent.
Second, this was the first time that Japan found itself in the position of receiving a massive influx of assistance from abroad. Japan had been accustomed to being the provider of the assistance in the aftermath of large-scale natural disasters outside Japan, but had little experience in receiving assistance from abroad. Also, being an industrialized country with a mature democracy, Japan has a firm set of rules, regulations, and procedures for everything. To make the matters worse, many leaders in the localities who have the authority to request and approve the acceptance of such aid perished due to the earthquake or the tsunami, leaving these local governments without leaders, and in need of new people that can process these incoming requests in a timely manner. These factors have greatly constrained Japan’s ability to accept aid materials from abroad.
Third, this was the first time that Japan had to rely on foreign governments’ expertise to respond to the large-scale disaster that occurred in Japan. Although the Japanese government mobilized over 100,000 JSDF personnel—roughly two-thirds of its total personnel—to engage in a wide range of HA/DR operations to provide assistance to those who were affected by the earthquake and the tsunami, it still needed support from the US military. This latter responded with Operation Tomodachi in support of the JSDF. Also, Japan had no procedure to have non-US foreign military engaging in any activity, so US allies, such as Australia, had to work out of US bases in Japan to provide assistance. Furthermore, the Japanese government also needed assistance from a team of US experts to respond to the nuclear accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Even the JSDF’s HA/DR activities—which was looked upon much more favorably than the performance of civilian leaders in the government—had a number of lessons learned afterward. First and foremost, this event reminded the JSDF of the lack of interoperability among the three JSDF’s services. Although it was technically referred to as a “joint operation” with a Joint Task Force, nevertheless, it was a HA/DR operation in which three JSDF services worked in parallel to each other and not as a joint force. For instance, although the Commanding General of the Northeastern Army was designated as the commander of the JTF, he had no authority to move assets held by the other two JSDF services.
Valuable lessons for Taiwan
Looking back to Japan’s experience in the GEJE, there are a few elements for Taiwan to consider as it continues to enhance its capacity to cope with large-scale natural (and man-made) disasters. First, it is to think about the ways to improve Taiwan’s own capacity to conduct its own HA/DR operations. On this point, the efforts on the part of Taiwan to create a regional “lessons learned” in HA/DR is promising, as such an institution will provide aspiring Taiwanese aid workers, social workers, and other people who just want to better understand these regional dynamics.
Second, Japan’s experience in cooperating with the United States in responding to the GEJE suggest that Taiwan may explore ways to at least have a dialogue on how US military might be able to work with Taiwanese military, or the organizations that will become first responders in any large-scale disasters, in the event that a major disaster happens that requires outside assistance. Even though Japan hosts a sizable number of US forces and its JSDO routinely conducts joint exercises with the US military, coordination of the capabilities that US forces may bring in for HADR while the JSDF leads in the overall HA/DR effort was a considerable challenge.
Finally, Taiwan, as a mature democracy with a highly developed governance structure that is similar to Japan, might consider looking into the ways in which some of the domestic regulations and standards can be relaxed in case of national emergency, so that foreign aid can be processed and received in a timely manner. In the case of Japan, for instance, many donations from foreign countries, including medicines, cannot be accepted because they did not meet domestic regulatory standards. It is then important to create a process by which a regulation can be interpreted and applied on a case-by-case basis in case of large-scale natural disasters. This method can help Taiwan become a better recipient of foreign assistant when it needed.
The main point: Given that Japan and Taiwan share some geographic features, there are many “lessons learned” that Japan has accumulated in the area of HA/DR throughout the years of responding to natural disasters that can be shared with Taiwan. Despite some limitation, Japan and Taiwan should find ways to have a dialogue and share each other’s experiences so that they can help each other improve their own capacities in the area of HA/DR.
 “The Self-Defense Forces Law,” https://www.houko.com/00/01/S29/165.HTM (Accessed March 26, 2018.)
 Fukushima Prefectural Government, “The data on those who evacuated outside the prefecture (updated on March 30, 2018),” https://www.pref.fukushima.lg.jp/uploaded/attachment/260255.pdf (Accessed April 2, 2018, in Japanese).