Self-reliant readiness to keep society functioning when disaster strikes


Yuki Okuma
Societal Safety and Industrial Innovation Division


  • Disaster readiness should be an ordinary aspect of daily life
  • Companies need to see maintaining grid-independent lifelines as a cost of doing business
  • Individuals can raise their resilience and happiness by establishing multiple places of residence

Disaster readiness should be an ordinary aspect of daily life

Many assume eastern Japan to be free of major earthquakes for the time being, because the region was struck relatively recently: the March 11th, 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, or 3/11. But that assumption is premature. The government’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion projects high probabilities for massive earthquakes striking within the next 30 years on the Chishima Trench off the Pacific coast of Eastern Hokkaido, on the Japan Trench north* of Aomori and Iwate Prefectures, or off Miyagi Prefecture’s Pacific coast. It warns that a major earthquake on the Nankai Trough is also imminent1.

Post 3/11, the Japanese government began sounding the alarm, releasing damage estimates for the conceivably most massive earthquake and tsunami disasters the country could soon have to deal with. But even when people understand the dangers posed by such occurrences, we humans fail to realize the connection between disaster readiness and our everyday lives: we see taking forward-looking disaster mitigation measures as out-of-the-ordinary actions, something “extra” we have to do. Overcoming this disconnect requires a realization that pre-emptive action will in normal times cut company costs and generate profits while also, at the individual level, enhance personal comfort and wellbeing.

*Occurring to the north of the 3/11 Tohoku source fault area

Grid-independent lifelines ensure ability to continue doing business

When the anticipated Nankai megathrust earthquake hits, it will cause massive damage across a region that accounts for roughly 60 percent of Japan’s shipments of manufactured goods and 90 percent of its automobile exports—there is potential for enormous impact on society. And the broader the spread of damage geographically, the more likely help from outside the disaster area will have to be rationed across it. It is thus easy to foresee that companies will basically be on their own, having to source personnel and equipment for restoring lifelines from within the disaster area—a situation that could in turn result in delays to resumption of business activities. Even if some companies are able escape impairment thanks to their own earthquake and tsunami countermeasures, setbacks in recovering from power outages both planned and unplanned, water supply interruptions, and communications disruptions could impact their ability to resume operations. And what is especially bad is that a delayed resumption of normal industrial activity in the region could have an immeasurable impact on the entire country.

But despite this potential situation, many companies’ current business continuity plans assume a quick restoration of lifelines. They need to abandon that assumption and switch to grid-independent, self-provided lifelines that will keep functioning when public ones are down. Companies should view such self-provided infrastructure not as a cost, but an element of business investment that can be undertaken in the context of Japan’s carbon neutrality. The government has declared its aim to do so by 2050, which will require initiatives at the individual company level anyhow. So in that broader context, businesses’ equipping themselves with grid-independent lifelines for their offices and factories will enable them to help the country to achieve carbon neutrality as well as protect them from lifeline failure during disasters.

For example, companies can benefit from making the lifelines (especially electricity, tap water, and on-site communications networks) used by their business establishments for mission critical work as independent from external sources as possible. By also reserving public utilities for use as a backup source, businesses can reduce total utility costs and even improve their operations. Another conceivable approach is the routine use of rainwater and recycled water as preparation for water outages. Moves like these that link business investment in normal times directly to disaster countermeasures should be encouraged (see Table).
[Table] Measures for the self-reliant disaster readiness of a company's lifelines
[Table] Measures for the self-reliant disaster readiness of a company’s lifelines
Source: Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc.

Moving to built-in readiness in normal times

Estimates of damage published in December 2021 in the event of an earthquake on the Japan Trench, off northeast Japan, or the Chishima Trench, off eastern Hokkaido, suggest that virtually all of the human toll will come from tsunamis, with the proviso that it could be reduced by some 80 percent through early evacuations and seismic toughening of buildings2.

Early evacuation requires people to be able to get going as soon as tremors are felt and move promptly to an evacuation site. In the case of a massive earthquake such as those anticipated on the Chishima Trench or Nankai Trough, it is crucial that people take immediate action in line with preemptive earthquake information issued by the Japan Meteorological Agency.3,4

Such information notifies people of an increased likelihood of an earthquake. In areas of advanced population decline (which tend to have a high proportion of slow-moving elderly) and areas whose geography makes it hard for even people in good health to flee from a tsunami, even in normal times it is vital to always have in place plans based on preemptive information that lay out escape routes and specific actions to be taken in an emergency.

One key consideration for ensuring effective disaster readiness is to create an environment that makes false alarms tolerable should warnings be issued prematurely or by mistake. For example, this could mean having dwellings in two or more locations, each with the possibility of enjoying social interactions there. And each should be equipped so people can work from them, for instance remotely online. They would have the additional benefit of offering changes of scene, which often leads to new, enjoyable experiences. Shifts in society whereby people are free to choose where they live and connect with others, where and when they work, and how they spend time should enhance individuals’ resilience and happiness.

On the other hand, even if available such an environment would be of little value to people without the good health needed to enjoy everyday life. Thus moves to extend healthy longevity abound as lifespans lengthen. People who are healthy are even more able to enjoy daily life and can evacuate under their own power in emergencies. Such is truly built-in readiness.

Works Cited:

1: Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion (2022) “Long-term evaluation results for active faults and subduction-zone earthquakes” [in Japanese] (Accessed: 8 September 2022)

2:Central Disaster Management Council (2021) “Estimated damage from a megathrust earthquake on the Japan or Chishima Trench” [in Japanese] (Accessed 8 September 2022)

3:Central Disaster Management Council “Working Group on the Criteria of Anomalous Phenomena along the Nankai Trough for Disaster Risk Management” (Accessed 8 September 2022)

4:Japan Meteorological Agency “Nankai trough earthquake: Information and preconditions for their announcement” [in Japanese] (Accessed: 8 September 2022)