JAPAN’S Zero Hour 2:46, The Great Earthquake of March 11, 2011


On Friday 11 of March, 2011, Japan faced a massive earthquake, plus a devastating tsunami accompanied with a nuclear disaster. The earthquake measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, and it changed Japan’s map by deviating more than 5 meters. It occurred on the north east coast of Honshu, the main Japanese Island, historically Japan hadn’t had an earthquake of this size for 450 years.

The earthquake generated a tsunami wave reaching 37.88 meter and struck the whole east coast of Honshu, and severely damaged Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, a combined area was about the size of the Netherlands. Moreover, the tsunami caused severe damage for multiple reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant of TEPCO, and caused unprecedented nuclear accidents in Japan’s history. This crisis was described by the Japanese prime minister as the worst since World War II (Japan Cabinet Office 2011; USGS, 2011; Funabashi, 2011; AlertNet-Reuters, 2012).

Discussion and Analyses:

The early warning:

The earthquake risk could not be avoided but it could be mitigated, by reducing the people and cost losses. However, analysis reveals that Japan faced many earthquakes before the crisis and two days earlier the earthquakes reached 7.0 on the Richter scale. Husting (2011) argued that these facts had to make the government take better action to save people and manage the crises in a better technique (Husting, 2011).

Moreover, Davis et al. (2012) claimed that Japan was able to mitigate the earthquake risk by using the algorithm called M8. This is used to predict earthquakes and it gives a 70% success rate, and reduce the losses but not at a high level. Consequently, Gasparini et al. (2010) mentioned the vulnerability and exposure of the earthquake could be reduced by early warnings, and that positively reflected on the earthquake’s negative consequences.

However, Oliveira et al. (2008, p.5) indicated that prediction is not easy in seismic hazards, and the protection approach may give better results. Governments may mitigate risk by following three steps; the first ensures the existence of the seismic phenomenon and its likelihood aligned with the building structure in the area. Secondly, making risk assessments for seismic hazards and the building vulnerability environment. The last step is awareness of the significance of these assessments and placing different actions to mitigate the risk in practice.

Gasparini et al (2010) stated that the region which suffered from the highest earthquake hazards, should concentrate on preventive actions more than early warnings, which are very expensive and give a low reduction in losses. Funabashi (2011,pp.9) mentioned that the building structure in Japan is considered to be from the best in the world in terms of earthquake hazard resistance. Thus, the Great earthquake underlined a necessity for improving the building standards.

The Japan’s zero hour:

Onodera’s report (2012), the director of risk management of the Miyagi Prefectural Government, indicated that on Friday 11 March, 2011 at 2:46 p.m. the earthquake occurred. Directly, an announcement by The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) measured the earthquake at 8.8, and amended to 9:0 on 13 March. Accordingly, the disaster task force was automatically formed as a response to their contingency plan “A disaster task force is automatically formed when an earthquake with a seismic intensity of 6 lower or greater on the Japanese scale is measured within the prefecture. After 3 minutes at 2:49 p.m. a tsunami warning was issued for Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures by JMA.

As a response to that at 3:02 the prefecture made a request to the national government to deploy the Self Defence Force Troops. The first tsunami was observed at 3.20 p.m., then after ten minutes at 3:30 pm the first meeting for the Prefectural Disaster Task Force (PDTF) was held. After another 6 minutes they made a request to the national government to deploy the Emergency Fire Fighting Assistance Teams.

At 4 p.m. the governor held a press conference and asked people to be calm, and gave a promise to use all the resources to reinstate safety. At 9:05 p.m. the government Survey team arrived in Miyagi to evaluate the crises. The PDTF had had a total of 5 meetings by the end of the day. On Saturday at 5:00 pm the PDTF held their first meeting, and at 6 a.m. an Emergency Disaster Task Force in Miyagi Prefecture was formed by the national government.

Oliveira et al (2008,p.9) stated that managing earthquake disasters has two significant components; the first hours after the earthquake and the following days or weeks after. In the first hours it is necessary to directly establish a resistance plan aligned with all operational measures to evaluate the damage, such as surveys. The second component is applied directly after the first shock, placing an initial works for control and resilience.

Consequently, Greene (1999 as cited by Emami et al, 2005) stated that the effective disaster plan should be supported with a prompt disaster management strategy to manage the first hours of crisis. Thus, the readiness and preparedness of the prompt disaster management strategy to mitigate the risk of the first hours are most important. Emami et al (2005) claimed that it is difficult to evaluate disaster readiness and preparedness and the actual assessment only comes after a real disaster.

However, Heath (1995) indicated that the effective communication has a high positive impact in speeding the response to crisis, especially in the first hours. In particular, the continuous information flows. The stoppage information happens if there is no integrated communication system, which may happen due to the differences in equipment, goals, priorities, or terminology. Heath (1995) added that communication may also fail when it happens between foreigners. So, the interaction between people before the crises is extremely important. He concluded that the clear direction by abandoning unnecessary effort and costs in time, is very important to get effective communication and reduce the time response.

The achievement of the emergency team in the first hours, and the smooth team development may give indication for clear directions, and effective communication, readiness and preparedness.

The Losses:

According to the numbers of the National Police Agency of Japan (2011) the crises caused 9473 deaths and 1796 missing. Also, 83,852 residences were destroyed and 138.236 were heavily damaged. The total of damaged and destroyed residences and houses was equal to 60% of the houses in the crisis area. The number of evacuation shelters was 11,383 with 320,885 evacuees, but on 30 December 2012 all shelters of Miyagi was closed. However, according to the minister of finance speech ‘Noda’ on 28 April, the economic losses estimate was 4,015.3 billion Yen, which is equal to U.S.D 400 billion. (Onodera, 2012; Japanese Cabinet, 2011; Noda, 2011)

In Comparison to Bam /Iran earthquake in 2003, which was measured at 6.3 on the Richter scale, the number of deaths was 43,000 and 30,000 injured. The survivors became homeless, despite the fact that more than 40 international rescue teams provided help (Emami et al, 2005). As a result, the big margin in the deaths and injuries in terms of the earthquake measurement, and the bad consequences which followed the Japan earthquake, may give indicators for better crises management in Japan.

The insurance sector was affected severely, and the estimated total insured losses after one month was USD 21-34 billion, excluding any nuclear risks. Thus, because of the big size of the disaster area and the complexity of the crises, the insurance companies were unable to give actual numbers, and they considered the great earthquake crises as similar to the terrorism attack on 11 September 2001. In terms of the complexity and the interrelation between perils, accordingly the actual insured loss number needs years to be known (RMS, 2011).

Thus, Funabashi (2011,p.9) stated that the compound intangible losses, for the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear was highly harmful for the image of Japan as a safe and secure country. The reputation of japan was affected; the healthiest food, the reliable infrastructure, the effective transportation system, the lowest level of power outages in the world. As a result, those changes have affected the viewpoints of the foreign investors, tourists, and students, and they began to look at Japan with uncertainty and perceive it with perils.

Crises Management:

Onodera (2012) indicated that during the crises management the government priorities were very clear for all the involved bodies, and also there was a coordination between all emergency bodies, beside clear responsibilities and duties for each part. Moreover, to control the nuclear disaster from the first day of the earthquake, the government immediately asked for a cold shutdown, so that no emission of radioactive material was blown. Furthermore, as a precautionary approach, the Japanese government evacuated all residents within 20 km of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant due to the radius of the problem. (AlertNet-Reuters, 2012; USGS, 2011)

Thus, Tanifuji, (2011) claimed that communication was not effective within managing crises, and the evidence for that is the poor coordination in evaluating the safety of the nuclear reactors. As a result, Tanifuji recommended simplifying and coordinating between all emergency parties, and also forming professional and powerful bodies for resilience and reconstruction process, with clear responsibility and authority to produce immediate developments and achieve the political decisions.

In point of fact, it is difficult to evaluate the communication management because both Onodera and Tanifuji have evidence for their declaration, but the crisis was severe. From the other side, there were 133 countries supporting the Japanese government with rescue and medical teams (Funabashi,2011,p.11), alongside the national rescue bodies. As a result, the large numbers of rescue teams produced good results, and this may indicate good communication.

Nonetheless, Because of the tsunami and earthquake, the formal telecommunication system was down. Officials were struggling to deal with each other and therefore, from 13-15 March emergency wireless systems were shipped in for all the affected areas (Onodera, 2012).

Onodera (2012) mentioned that during the crisis management they made a monthly assessment for their resilience plan, and it was amended after each assessment to cover all new issues and problems as well as to reflect the new lessons and experience. Moynihan (2008) stated “…according to the scope of learning required during crises is inherently greater, demanding new understanding of the most basic aspects of the causes, consequences and solutions.

The government gave priorities for communications to be able to reach all disaster-affected areas and help people. So, on 16 March, 16% of roads were opened for emergency vehicles. On 23 March the percentage increased to reach 43%, and this allowed the government to provide people with food, water, fuel by tankers and trucks, leading to facilitate the missions of rescue teams. Moreover, to solve the power disruption, they worked to restore the harbour to receive ship tankers, and on 21 March, oil tankers were able to enter the harbours and provide these areas with fuel.

However, the above achievements may be a good indicator of good communication and crises management. Heath (1995) stated that the failure to access the crises areas to give instructions and information resulted from bad communication.

The involved parties:

The Japanese cabinet with civil emergency bodies all over Japan, the Army, civil entities, and volunteers, plus a further 133 countries were involved in rescue operations (Onodera, 2012).

However, Funabashi (2011,p.10) mentioned that, after natural disasters, countries suffered from insecurity. Accordingly, military forces exclusively afford that, in Japan, the unity, high degree of social trust and high moral of the Japanese people led the Japanese military force to be able to almost exclusively manage rescue and relief, and that gave a big support to the government. Form my viewpoint that may also indicate a good awareness system which led to this mature risk culture, plus a good management crisis which led people to trust the government.

Tanifuji, 2011, claimed that there was a lack of coordination between the involved rescue parties, which caused for inconsistencies in the news. Moreover, an involvement for Non-neutral and unprofessional bodies to give decisions and issue statements about professional and sensitive issues such as the nuclear power plants was observed. Particularly, Tanifuji proved that by the case of the emergency organization, which was formed to evaluate the safety of nuclear plants. The members of this organization were Ministry of Economy, a trade and industry body who promoted the nuclear plants, integrated with the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which was responsible for evaluating nuclear plant safety.

Tanifuji concluded that this incoordination led to confusion and they became unable to understand whose responsibility information is, and what the reliability of the information is. Then, people started to ask; what is the responsibility of the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary for Crisis Management and the Crisis Management Centre?

Business disruption:

The crises areas are considered the exclusive outsource for power, manufacturing suppliers, bread basket and labour force for Tokyo. However, because the crises were massive, everything was mostly disrupted in the disaster areas. The country faced a shortage in electricity, gas and water supplies, due to the breakdown of several electrical generators, caused by the tsunami and nuclear crises. In the crises areas, all these services were disrupted and about 4.4 million households were without electricity, and 1.5 million people without water. Moreover, telecommunications, road and railway services were disrupted in crises areas. All above issues temporarily solved within the first 20 days of the crises (Onodera, 2012).

Moreover, the infrastructure was largely destroyed. So, the international companies moved their businesses to other regions and overseas. Consequently, there was complete disruption for the nuclear plant areas, the farms, and that due to the evacuation of the residents, as well as inhabitability of huge areas of land due to the radiation. As a result, this crisis outlined a big hole in the economic foundation of Tokyo, as well as Japan, in depending on one’s outsources (Funabashi 2011, p.10).

Moreover, Bird (2012) mentioned that this crises affected businesses in many countries in the world, showing the severe vulnerability of a complex dependent system of global supply chains. There were signs to consider methods, such as business continuity management to supply chain risk with businesses leveraging techniques to improve resilience after crises.

Managing media:

Funabashi (2011,p.9) claimed that the government shared information with the Japanese people and the rest of the world inadequately, which induced difficulties to call it a crisis of trust. The result for that is the company who was responsible for providing organizations with emergency health care and security assistance, was failing to deliver timely and reliable information.

Wallace et al (2010,p.267) stated that the communications in crises should be effective “…just-in-time…” with an overseas coverage. Thussu, (2002) added the new media era of the 24-hour news should be invested in crises because it has a high impact on the population.

Tanifuji (2011) claimed that the cabinet and media management suffered from poor leadership, which was shown in the confused crisis scenarios. Also, there was inadequate information management in terms of the data collected and information analyses for crisis scenarios, beside instability in applied strategies that was exposed by the uncertainty in the future visions.

However, the emperor’s speech on 17 March, as well as his declaration before that day to cut voluntary power from the royal palace and residences to help in rescues, displayed solidarity with the disaster victims and the Japanese people (Funabashi, 2011,p.9).

The short term and long term Impact:

The crises negatively affected the Tokyo money market and it was a sharp decrease in the Japanese equities index Nikkei in the first opening day after the crises (Husting, 2011). Likewise, the size of the crises exceeded all expectations, so the government emergency allocation was unable to cover the emergency costs, and faced a shortage in liquidity. Thus, the cabinet restructured the budget of 2011, asked for a cut in expenses, submitted a supplementary budget for 2011 to relieve the affected areas, and also they allocated a big budget to the affected areas in the following year (Noda, 2011).

Additionally, Onodera (2012) mentioned that the recovery plan contained rebuilding marine and manufacturing industries, building a progressive agricultural industry, rebuilding the health welfare, aligned with community development in the areas. He added to achieve all that, the government would build a financial resources system and cooperative framework to support the resilience plan.

Furthermore, it may affect the tourism sector in Japan for a long period. Durocher (1994) indicated that tourists take a longer period than expected to revisit the region which has been affected by natural disasters, and also that significant efforts are needed from the government to rebuild the industry. Consequently, Funabashi (2011, pp.11-15) mentioned that because there wasn’t any protection from the tsunami, the Japanese population started to consider the coastal areas as high risk areas.

Likewise, Huang & Min (2002) concluded in their study, for the central region islands - Taiwan earthquake in 1999, that the number of visitors was sharply reduced due to the earthquake of 1999, and after 11 months the tourists proved resilient to the earthquake area, but less than expected and in spite of the intensive programme which was applied by the government to support the tourism industry in the earthquake area.

Some outlined lessons from the crises:

The nuclear power plant problem outlined the importance to possess other energy sources. Funabashi (2011, pp.11-15) indicated that there is a high need for eco- power energy to switch oil and nuclear. Onodera (2012) mentioned that their recovery plan contains developing “eco towns”, which utilize renewable energy, and cause diversity and an increase in energy resources.

Funabashi (2011, pp.11-15) recommended diverse outsources of Japanese cities in order to control business disruption in future crises. Funabashi also added there is an urgent need for a better financial policy on a global crises basis, to be able to afford an urgent liquidity and provisions to cover the huge expenses. Also, he noticed that the structure of infrastructure for the crises areas is less than requested in this region. So, he recommended decentralizing the government operation to be able to cover this issue in a holistic approach.

Moreover, Tanifuji (2011) mentioned that the crises experience outlined the lack of experience in the organizations who are responsible for managing crises and assisting in political leadership. It was noticed that many experts were later appointed on a permanent basis to the installed reconstruction council.


Japan’s Zero hour (the emperor of Japan’s description), was massive and inexperienced crises globally. That was due to many aspects; firstly, the severity of the crises, the earthquake measured 9:0 on the Richter scale, the bad consequence following; tsunami and then the nuclear disaster. Secondly, the disaster area featured was the size of 7,285.76 km square, was a vital industrial area, and the main area for providing Japan with power. Thirdly, the financial losses were very high (AlertNet, Thomson Reuters, 2012; M&CM, 2012; Funabashi, 2011).

Consequently, the Japanese earthquake management is described as a unique and new crises management, and evaluated as a good practice case study in many countries, such as the USA and the UK. Thus, there are still some criticisms for some of the Japanese cabinet and the management crises team activities (Han, 2012; Tanifuji, 2011; Funabashi, 2011, Onodera, 2012).

Conversely, this crisis is classified on a global scale (Funabashi, 2011, Onodera, 2012). So, it is expected to contain some mistakes, because, when experts are placed in the business contingency plan, they normally can’t stimulate and/or cover all hazards. Moynihan (2008) stated “…The scope of learning required during crises is inherently greater… even in routine situations, learning is incomplete because of bounded rationality…”




Raida Mashal


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