Transforming Disaster Prevention to Overcome Looming Mega-Disasters

Protecting lives and maintaining the economy through technology and private-sector investment

Kazunori Tsutsumi
Societal Safety and Industrial Innovation Division


  • The next national disaster is around the corner—the country must hasten efforts and make disaster prevention routine
  • A society-wide transformation of disaster prevention and mitigation must take place based on the experiences of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Japan can lead the world in resolving societal issues through activating private investment in and achieving the creation of personal disaster management

1. Now is the Time for Disaster Prevention

Japan is, without a doubt, a nation of natural disasters. Since the Second World War, four earthquakes have killed more than 1,000 people: the 1946 Nankai Earthquake, the 1948 Fukui Earthquake, the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (1995), and the Great East Japan Earthquake (2011). Concerns about subsequent natural disasters are growing. There is a 70- to 80-percent probability of an earthquake in the Nankai Trough, south of Japan's main island Honshu, and a 70-percent chance of one striking directly under the Tokyo metropolitan area. There have also been signs of potential major earthquakes along the Japan and Chishima Trenches. Weather-related disasters brought about by climate change have also become markedly frequent.

A substantial earthquake measuring “6-upper” on the Japanese seismic intensity scale struck Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures late on February 13, 2021; the tremors brought back the memory of the horrific disaster nearly ten years before. Disasters can occur at any time, and even a national mega-disaster has the chance of occurring within a few decades; our time to prepare is severely limited. Questions remain on what we should learn from the past and how we should we prepare.

We are now amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. We have learned the importance of balancing human life and the economy. As our lives shift to a new normal, we are also keenly aware of the importance of changes in social structure and values due to technological innovation. A new approach to disaster prevention and mitigation is essential for the preemptive management of future mega-disasters.

2. Learning from the Lessons of the Past to Transform

The lessons learned from the countless disasters we have experienced have led us to explore, study, and push forward technologies and measures for disaster prevention and mitigation. However, while such measures have already made their way into society, much remains left to do in relation to sustainability—a worldwide theme of discussion.

The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, a disaster greater than any of our previous experiences, left us with the scars etched so deeply in our minds that even ten years on we are reminded of the importance of being prepared. Given the current situation, preparation is far from sufficient for overcoming the mega-disasters that await. In fiscal year 2014, the Japanese government set objectives for mitigating the disaster to occur as a result of future Nankai megathrust earthquakes: an 80% cut in the projected 332,000 fatalities; a 50% cut in the projected 2.5 million buildings destroyed. As of 2020, progress remains below half of what was planned to be achieved by this time.

Based on the lessons learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake, the government's Central Disaster Management Council formulated the following policies to promote preparedness and countermeasures assuming disasters at previously unprecedented levels, thus eliminating the unexpected. First, for earthquakes and tsunamis that occur anywhere from every few decades to every few centuries, the council will maintain its “hard measures”1 policy which aims to protect human life and resident property, stabilize local economic activity, and secure effective production bases through measures including construction of coastal-conservation structures. Second, for mega-disasters such as the Great East Japan Earthquake, the council has made a clear shift in policy by adopting an approach combining hard and soft aspects in order to prioritize saving human lives even if property cannot be protected.

Soft measures include realistic drills and raising of awareness for tsunami evacuation. It is crucial to nurture and keep alive the sense of caution instilled across the nation following the Great East Japan Earthquake. However, Japan tends to be reluctant at enacting major change based on past experiences; awareness regarding crises and disaster prevention has gradually dropped with the fading memories of the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake 26 years ago and the Great East Japan Earthquake 10 years ago.

Japan must make use of those trying experiences to transform its capacity for disaster prevention and mitigation—learning from the lessons before us. In past mega-disasters, we have suffered significant economic damage every time we have failed to secure our industries. Existing technologies had been insufficient for accurate forecasts and proper countermeasures. Even today remains the necessity to foster responsibility among individuals for self-support in ensuring their own safety.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and COVID-19 disasters have taught us that human life is the top priority and that we must also sustain the economy and society as a whole. The Great East Japan Earthquake left about 22,000 people dead or missing as of 1 March 2020 and caused economic damage of about 16.9 trillion yen as estimated by the Cabinet Office; the impact of COVID-19 continues today.

3. Transforming Disaster Prevention and Mitigation: Three proposals

While we should evaluate efforts in response to the lessons learned from disasters such as the Great East Japan Earthquake, to resolve fundamentally the remaining issues, we must accelerate disaster prevention measures based on projections that consider future social trends and technological innovation. This will require both collection and analysis of scientific, logical evidence.

Local communities, which bear the main burden of reconstruction and disaster prevention, will evolve to support individuals with greater independence and geographical dispersion at the same time maintaining a high degree of coordination among them2; this will enable communities to be self-sufficient in ordinary times, disperse resources during disasters, and achieve coordinated resource management across, for example, multiple municipalities. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased social acceptance of unprecedented change; innovative technologies will support and accelerate such momentum. Only when these various conditions come true will society be able to transform, through a concerted effort, disaster prevention and mitigation—a fundamental review of actions to reduce the effects of disasters.

Proposal One: Focusing resources on developing the most effective disaster prevention policies and attracting private-sector investment

One main hurdle facing the disaster prevention transformation is the need to determine the measures with the highest effectiveness and focus the limited resources at hand in them. Current disaster management measures lack a comprehensive decision-making process that uses scientific analysis methods to achieve this with the limited amount of time left to prepare for the looming mega-disasters. Only with objective, quantitative indicators will it be possible to attract private investment and secure the resources to lay the foundation for preventing the economic loss that disasters bring. Financial schemes like social impact bonds (SIBs) should be actively utilized.

The first thing to do in terms of hard measures, such as addressing the delays in maintenance work, is the concentrated implementation of disaster prevention efforts. The national and regional governments should prioritize budget allocation to the measures deemed the most effective. Determining the most effective measures requires risk assessment based on the logic behind quantitative estimation.3 Prioritizing budget allocation and concentrating resources requires consideration of the risk for disaster of each region. In areas expecting tremors reaching 7 on the Japanese scale,4 intensive financial support for improving earthquake resistance in buildings will lead to a reduction in total costs and ultimately protect lives, industries, and the economy. Creating a government agency for crisis management offers one solution by centralizing information, knowledge, know-how, technology, systems, and budget related to disaster management.

Additional actions to be taken include shifting the focus from post-disaster restoration and reconstruction to pre-disaster response and disaster mitigation. Repeated natural disasters have led to ballooning expenditures for restoration. As a result, only about 20 percent of the national disaster management budget ends up actually used toward disaster prevention and mitigation. Preemptive public investment in disaster management alone is no longer sufficient; private investment is essential in accelerating preventative measures.

SIBs are a new mechanism for public-private partnership and are viewed as one possible financial scheme for attracting this investment5. SIBs require scientific and objective business indicators visualizing and evaluating their results as they are performance-based instruments. Moreover, with the public and private sectors sitting at the same table, it will be possible to form broad consensus based on objective evidence. A system must be forged immediately structuring the proper players to ensure this new mechanism becomes a reality.

Proposal Two: Building an advanced disaster management society by rounding up new technologies

Innovative technologies see societal implementation around the clock—the epitome of learning lessons in the technological realm. Practical use is underway for disaster forecasting by AI, disaster supply matching by AI, and digital twins that model urban spaces virtually and in 3D—all impossible 10 years ago (see the table below). New technologies have the potential to dramatically change the next generation of disaster prevention and include digital realms such as AI, IoT, Big Data, and digital twins. Further development is necessary for these technologies including the addressing of a vast array of needs, real-time decision making, developing of 3D-virtual city models, and knowledge sharing.

Disaster prevention in the future will also have to strike a balance with and fit into daily life. MRI proposes promoting the phase-free concept and combining with it promising new technologies. Under the phase-free concept products are designed to both be of use during ordinary times and offer support in emergency situations. The advanced use of AI will also be helpful to improve understanding of citizens’ needs and eventually implementing measures in society.
Table: Examples of Digitization and Improvement of Disaster Prevention Technology
Table: Examples of Digitization and Improvement of Disaster Prevention Technology

Proposal Three: Achieving self-support through personal disaster prevention

We must take a medium- to long-term approach to addressing the widespread lack of self-support capability–the ability for one to look after his or herself in the event of a disaster. The importance of self-support is obvious, but our memories of disasters fade. While it is the responsibility of each and every individual to learn from each disaster and apply those the lessons, disaster prevention education can offer support. The need for personal disaster prevention that supports individual decision-making will increase. In particular, children will be the future leaders of disaster prevention, and the focus should be on children in education on and continued investment in disaster prevention.

Personal disaster prevention should be introduced on a society-wide level immediately; it is effective in strengthening the ability of individuals to gather information and take proper actions in response. For example, individual decision-making can be supported through information that encourages optimal personal behavior during incidents, and functions that localize and personalize disaster information can make this possible.

Specific technologies behind personal disaster prevention will likely include GPS and risk assessment based on damage information predicted in real-time via AI. These technologies optimize evacuation behavior in a disaster by automatically providing timely information about evacuation sites, timing, routes, and precautions. The accuracy of evacuation guidance must be improved and can be done so by conducting and reviewing damage forecasts in real time using actual damage data. The day will come soon when technological innovation makes it possible to implement such a system in society.

However, personal disaster prevention must not be limited to simply providing tools. These tools must be combined with nudges—a behavioral economics concept—to enable change in people's behavior in predictable ways and the removal of bias from decision making.6

4. Grappling with the Next Mega-Disaster

In the ten years since the Great East Japan Earthquake, disaster prevention and mitigation measures have seen progress in only a limited number of areas. Before the Great East Japan Earthquake, the population in the Tohoku region that it struck was already aging and shrinking before the disaster–now, this trend is prevalent across Japan. Disaster prevention and mitigation must be taken seriously and not brushed aside as idealism; we now need to deepen the discussion on what to do and by when. We must tackle pressing issues including: how to continue envisioning the future by learning from the past; and how to maintain dialogue on the proper course of action in light of the latest scientific evidence.

And now, Japan, and the world at large, has been hit by the unexpected hazard that is the COVID-19 pandemic. This catastrophe has reaffirmed the importance of protecting not only human lives but also the economy and industries. Our values, attitudes, behaviors, lifestyles, and work styles have changed dramatically, forced to adapt to a new normal. More disasters are sure to come in the future. We must change our consciousness and the very structure of our society to face the next mega-disaster.

Having experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake and COVID-19 pandemic, we are poised to transform disaster prevention.

1:Hard measures include making homes earthquake-resistant and eliminating areas of dense wooden construction in cities. According to the Nankai Trough earthquake estimates, shaking and fire will account for 80-90 percent of all building damage. Still, progress in tackling these measures has been slow due to the economic burden on homeowners.

2:MRI Monthly Review, March 2021 "Independent and Dispersed Yet Coordinated: Balancing Disaster Recovery Preparedness with Sustainable Communities"

3:The current damage estimates only incorporate the effects of some of the measures. In estimating, it is necessary to quantify the damage reduction effects of each disaster management and mitigation measure and prioritize the implementation of such measures. Measures include reducing the percentage of damaged buildings by making them earthquake-resistant, preventing electrical fires by installing more earthquake-sensitive circuit breakers, and reducing casualties by speeding up tsunami evacuation.

4:Fortunately, the earthquake that struck off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture on February 13, 2021 (an aftershock with a maximum JMA seismic intensity of 6 Upper) did not cause significant damage. If the tremor had intensified toward a 7, damage would have been exponential.

5:A regional study system based on the concept of protecting local economies and industries will be necessary for promoting SIBs in the sphere of disaster management. Each region's vulnerability in the event of a disaster, for example, the impact of supply disruptions to its critical infrastructure, must be recognized and shared between the relevant organizations. Risk models and forecasting methods that consider future social conditions are essential when monetizing the effects of measures such as infrastructure reinforcement (and setting project evaluation indicators.)

6:It is necessary to increase the effectiveness of preemptive evacuation and disaster management through the combination of tools and nudges. We should not overlook the fact that COVID-19 has changed people's psyches and behavior toward disasters.