Are we prepared for the "big one?"

Professor Shigenori Matsui

In his most recent publication (Law and Disaster: Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Meltdown in Japan, 1st Edition, London: Routledge, 2018), Professor Shigenori Matsui examines the response of the Japanese government to what is commonly referred to as the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster. Japanese law, policy, and infrastructure were insufficiently prepared for these disasters, and the country’s weaknesses were brutally exposed. This book analyses these failings, and discusses what Japan, and other countries, can learn from these events.

We recently had the opportunity to ask Professor Matsui some questions about his book.

What inspired you to study the legal issues which arose from the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster?

Japan is widely believed to be well prepared for a powerful earthquake and tsunami. But the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster revealed that Japan was awfully unprepared. I wanted to find out what went wrong and what should have been done in preparation for a massive natural disaster because I believe that the lessons we can learn from Japan would be tremendously useful for other countries.

What are some issues that arose as a result of the disaster?

Roughly 20,000 people are dead or missing as a result of the disaster. Japan was not prepared to handle such a huge number of deceased. Moreover, families of missing persons had to wait at least one year to receive life insurance payouts. Furthermore, some 450,000 people had to be evacuated and many of them lost their houses. The government had to provide emergency shelters, transitional housing and permanent housing for these disaster victims, but the government was ill prepared. The government was also unprepared to dispose of the huge amount of tsunami debris. These issues are just the tip of the iceberg of what Japan faced in the aftermath of the disaster.

What steps did Japan take to remedy its shortcomings in order to restore the areas affected by the disaster?

After the clean-up, each community started rebuilding with the help of the central government. The reconstruction faced extreme difficulty because the residents could not simply restore their previous communities, and there was no prepared path for reconstruction. The government had to come up with a new reconstruction plan in order to revitalize the economy and stimulate the development while preparing for another potential massive earthquake or tsunami.

What has Japan learned from the disaster and what law and policy changes has Japan made as a result?

Japan learned many lessons including the necessity to prepare for an unprecedented powerful earthquake and tsunami, which can strike only once in thousand years, and to prepare for the aftermath of the disaster as well as the future reconstruction work. The government has enacted many statutes to incorporate these lessons and revised the disaster response plans to intensify the countermeasures. But there are many things that were not changed despite the tragedy. These deeper problems in law and politics present the toughest challenges for Japan.

What can BC learn from how Japan handled the fallout of the disaster and best prepare itself for the “big one”?

The government needs to prepare for the “big one” by intensifying construction standards, preparing emergency shelters and rescue resources, and preparing for the aftermath and reconstruction following the disaster. Every step necessitates a legal scheme in which goals and guidelines need to be established, and everyone needs to be ready to actually implement these countermeasures. There are so many lessons people could learn from Japan.

Professor Shigenori Matsui is Director of Japanese Legal Studies at the Allard School of Law. He is an internationally renowned expert in the fields of Constitutional Law, Mass Media Law and Internet Law. Before joining UBC, he was a professor at Osaka University Law School. He has served for the Japanese government as a member of the National Freedom of Information Review Board, and as an examiner for the National Bar Examination Commission.