The Significance of International Disaster Reduction Cooperation in Japan’s Diplomacy

In recent decades, Japan has played a major role in global disaster reduction efforts. In the multilateral context, Japan hosted the first World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 1994, in Yokohama, and the second Conference in 2005, in Kobe. The second Conference resulted in the adoption of the “Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA),” which remains the most recent set of approaches in international disaster-related cooperation. The Japanese government has demonstrated its continued commitment to this effort by expressing its intention to host the third Conference, which is anticipated to take place in 2015. In bilateral contexts, Japan has long been an active donor involved in disaster relief and reduction efforts in developing countries and it has offered a wide range of assistance, from financial to technical. Japan has tried to effectively mobilize its resources and knowledge to assist vulnerable countries and regions, and its substantial support has been highly appreciated.

Promoting disaster reduction efforts at the global level can be counted as one of Japan’s most consistent external policies. At present, however, Japan is still grappling with its own recovery following the Great East Japan Earthquake that hit the eastern part of the main island in March 2011. As a result of the disaster, there is an urgent need for the country to concentrate its resources and knowledge on its resurgence. The estimated total amount of damage has soared to approximately 16.9 trillion yen (about 210 billion dollars)[1] and in the months after the disaster then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan noted that "in the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan."[2]

Amid these adverse domestic circumstances, should Japan make efforts to continue to play a leading role in promoting disaster reduction efforts in the global arena? To answer this question, let us consider the following discussions:

On account of its climate and topography, the Japanese archipelago has been subject to varied natural disasters throughout its history, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, severe storms, and landslides.  Japan has long struggled with the tragic experiences and political necessities resulting from these natural phenomena. Every time Japan faced those catastrophic situations, national and regional disaster plans were renewed, disaster education was accelerated, and anti-disaster technologies were advanced. Consequently, the nation has acquired a high capacity for disaster management, enabled by thought-provoking know-how and advanced technology, which are developed enough to be able to reduce the negative impacts to some extent when a natural disaster occurs. These assets are considered the most advanced and effective means of enhancing social resiliency.

Japan’s foreign aid in disaster reduction efforts draws upon its experiences. The strength of Japan’s assistance in this field can be characterized by its broad and integrated approach. Its scope covers the distinct phases of the disaster management cycle: prevention and preparedness, emergency relief, and recovery and reconstruction―as well as appropriate policy making at the national, regional and community levels. Japan’s assistance programs also include both tangible and intangible aspects: the introduction of earthquake-resistant infrastructures, early warning systems, hazard mapping techniques, evacuation drills, disaster prevention education, financial and technical assistance in emergency relief, and even post-event psychological care to victims. As a result, for example, after an early warning emitted by a seismometer introduced by Japan’s assistance, 4,000 people could take shelter from Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador in 2006. In Bangladesh, since Japan provided high-tech meteorological radar and multi-purpose shelters, people can receive timely weather warnings and evacuate from frequent hurricane damage areas to safer places before storms arrive. Training by Japanese experts in disaster prevention and evacuation saved lives in El Salvador when it was struck by Hurricane Ida in November 2009. Japan has also provided earthquake-resistant housing in some rural areas of Indonesia.

Japan’s unique characteristics as a disaster relief donor also derive in part from its own experience as a relief recipient country. Not only following in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 but also on several other occasions in the past, Japan has received disaster relief assistance from other countries. In order to carry out smooth relief activities, political engagement and logistical support by a recipient country is required. In addition to the forms of assistance mentioned above, Japan can also provide developing nations with meaningful orientation based on its own experiences.

Japan’s expertise has clearly enhanced the global capacity to build resilient societies and to better cope with the aftermaths of natural disasters. Based on its own experiences and expertise, Japan has a comparative advantage over other actors in the international community, and it has persuasive reasons for promoting disaster reduction efforts.

Furthermore, Japan regards itself as one of the leading countries in the modern world and tries to act as one in many aspects. In fact, the country has repeatedly stated that it should fulfill its responsibilities as one of the world’s largest economies, which depends on the peace and stability of the international community. Aiming to maintain its position as a leading member of the international community, Japan vigorously pursues a variety of global issues and seeks to make full use of its assets and resources.

For example, Japan cannot be as active as the United States in security issues accompanied by mobilizing military elements. Although active military interventions provoke criticism, depending on the political background, the consistency and capacity of well-trained and well-resourced militaries is sometimes useful in specific circumstances, especially urgent situations such as conflict stabilization or rescue operations. The Japan Self-Defense Forces are organized and equipped well enough to join such operations, but their participation is limited by domestic legal regulations. Even though the current ruling party of the Japanese government emphasizes the importance of contributing to United Nations Peace Keeping Operations, the tasks that the Self-Defense Forces can shoulder are limited in scope compared with the range of UN activities in which other contributors dispatch their personnel.

Moreover, slow economic growth since the 1990s has cast a negative shadow on official development assistance (ODA), which has been a major tool for Japan to engage effectively on global issues. ODA remains as a useful diplomatic approach, in particular as a means to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. But a more restrictive fiscal policy no longer permits the Japanese government to invest a lot of financial resources in developing countries as it has done in the past. Going forward, Japan’s ODA policy is likely to focus more on knowledge-based technical cooperation, through which disaster reduction efforts can be implemented.

Taking these circumstances into consideration, it is a big challenge for Japan to reconcile the high expectations it faces from the international community with the security and economic restraints it faces at home. Despite these challenges―indeed, as a way to deal with these challenges―Japan can and should remain a leading actor in global disaster reduction efforts. Its experience, expertise, and characteristics have provided Japan with a comparative advantage in disaster relief, and positioned it to contribute in valuable ways to global disaster reduction and relief efforts. Japan should take advantage of its strength in this field and would benefit from featuring disaster relief more centrally in its external policy.

[1] Cabinet Office press release, Jun 24, 2012, “the estimate of the total amount of damage of the Great East Japan Earthquake”,'%E6%9D%B1%E6%97%A5%E6%9C%AC%E5%A4%A7%E9%9C%87%E7%81%BD+%E8%A2%AB%E5%AE%B3%E7%B7%8F%E9%A1%8D', Accessed on Oct 30, 2012(内閣府(防災担当)記者発表資料、2011年6月24日、「東日本大震災における被害額の推計について」)

[2] The CNN Wire Staff , March 14, 2011, “Anxiety in Japan grows as death toll steadily climbs”,, Accessed on Oct 30, 2012