A Resilient Society Built on Individual Initiative

21 June 2023

Japanese version: 1 April 2023

Kentaro Yamaguchi
Center for Policy and the Economy


  • Society needs to derive resilience from individual behaviors driven by a shared willingness to help one another for the greater good
  • The key is motivating a lightly engaged segment of society—those who, despite having interest, do little to prepare for disaster
  • We need a new social model that develops services built on analyses of the lightly engaged segment

Preparing for a direct seismic hit on the capital region

A century ago, some 105,000 people lost their lives1 in the aftermath of a direct seismic hit on Japan’s capital region, the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1, 1923. The next one—scientists put its probability at 70% during the coming 30 years2 —is likely to result in an estimated 23,000 deaths3, far fewer than in 1923. And for that difference, we have to thank huge advances in making built structures more disaster resilient.

On the economic front, though, physical losses will rise rapidly, with the private sector incurring some ¥42 trillion in damage due to the concentration of capital assets in the region. This, combined with the effects of societal aging*, will cause profoundly more serious disruption of civil society, welfare-services delivery, and the economy than experienced in 1923.

With major quakes to come, we must focus measures to ensure the safety of citizens, improve quality of life and welfare during disaster recovery, and fortify support for the local economies that underpin this all.

*According to census data, the proportion of seniors (65 and over) rose from 5 percent of the capital region’s population in 1920 to 25 percent in 2020

Rethinking societal resilience

The sheer mass of victims a direct-strike capital-region quake will instantly create makes clear that there are limits to how far public resources can go, both quantitatively and qualitatively, to keep civil life, welfare provision, and the local economy going in its aftermath.

To prepare for the next event, all members of society—everyone from individuals to corporations—need to act in a way that will help mitigate its effects. Self-initiated efforts would free up public resources that could then be redirected to where they are most needed. Whether taken by citizens or businesses, such actions despite being out of self-interest ultimately help society as a whole. There’s evidence of this in our experience with the covid pandemic. We now know that people’s taking steps to protect themselves from infection was a factor in lessening the medical community’s load and maintaining a reasonable level of services for high-risk patients who needed care most. Disaster prevention is no different.

We define a resilient society as one in which everyone cooperates in supporting each other through self-initiated actions.

Self-initiated preparedness conducive to plentiful public help

It is widely accepted that when disaster strikes, running evacuation shelters is what municipalities have to pour most of their resources into. According to some reports, when the situations were at their worst following the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami and the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquakes, some 20 percent of municipal workers3 were tied down keeping emergency shelters running—exactly when they were most needed for urgent work elsewhere searching for the missing, pulling survivors out of the rubble, and getting relief supplies to people.

Tokyo anticipates that some 2 million people, 14% of its population, will head to shelters when the next direct strike strikes. We believe that of that number, 1.01 million evacuees will come to shelters not because their homes have been damaged or destroyed, but because of water outages or impediments to staying in their high-rise homes.

Let’s posit that those 1.01 million decide to take self-initiated mitigation actions, say taking refuge with better-situated friends or routinely stocking up on necessities so they can stay in their own homes. That would obviate the need to prepare and deliver to shelters about 3 million meals and 3 million liters of drinking water daily, thereby lightening the load of running the shelters substantially. This would free up about 10 percent of the personnel—some 7,000 people, by our calculations—municipalities would otherwise have to assign to shelter duties. These freed-up resources could then be allocated to provide public help to the people who really need it immediately.

Private individuals' self-initiated disaster mitigation

The question arises as to what society needs to do to encourage individuals to practice disaster mitigation in the course of their daily lives. We believe one solution would be for the private sector to develop services that seamlessly incorporate proactive disaster preparedness into individuals’ routines.

Developing such services, though, necessitates appreciating at a deep level the correlations between individuals’ routine habits and their willingness to engage in proactive disaster mitigation. We therefore compiled personal resilience profiles (PRPs) for 7,000 capital-region residents (see table). The PRPs tease out data on people’s behavior and attitudes in the course of their daily lives, measuring or scoring them on 29 datapoints about basic-attributes, 74 about capacity to deal with adverse situations, and 71 about routine interests and behaviors.
[Table] Datapoint composition of 2023 capital-region personal resilience profiles (PRPs)
Datapoint composition of 2023 capital-region personal resilience profiles (PRPs)
Source: Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc.
We also asked survey participants what they were really doing to be proactively disaster-prepared and quantitatively analyzed the correlations between their responses and PRPs.*

A broad categorization revealed that although a mere 16 percent incorporated proactive disaster mitigation (actions that would allow them to cover their own living needs in the aftermath of a disaster) into their routines, as many as 60 percent of our subjects did nothing despite expressing interest in the concept. We labelled the first group the actively engaged segment and the second, the lightly engaged segment. A third, the unengaged segment, accounted for the remaining 24 percent of our subjects.

If the 1.01 million citizens (7 percent of the population) of the Tokyo scenario were independently prepared to evacuate when a direct-hit strikes, they would have a significant impact on society as a whole. If this assumption holds, the lightly-engaged segment’s exercising such volition commensurate to their personal circumstances will be enormously effective in enhancing overall resilience.

*Data anonymized

A new, routine-oriented approach to disaster mitigation

From the analysis results, we see that the greater people’s age, hopes for future generations, and experience with life’s hardships, the more likely they are to actively engage in proactive disaster mitigation. But since the lightly engaged segment is the norm, it’s tough to identify defining characteristics, a requirement for designing services to help embed proactive disaster mitigation into personal routines. This is where the PRPs come in. We used them to form a picture of the routine-life attributes of the lightly engaged, using cluster analysis to sub-segment them into groups with similar relevant traits (see Figure).
[Figure] The daily lives of the lightly engaged as gleaned from PRP analysis
The daily lives of the lightly engaged as gleaned from PRP analysis
Source: Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc.
The sub-segment with the largest membership, A, has adapted well to a new-normal lifestyle informed by making effective use of offerings like sharing services and telework while maintaining a work-centric lifestyle. To serve this sub-segment, sharing services that provide vacant properties outside the capital region for teleworking could be rolled out through employers. Members of sub-segment A, adept at routinely taking advantage of such services, could make a smooth transition to working and living outside the capital region in the aftermath of a disaster.

Our analysis shows that people in sub-segment B enjoy diverse lifestyles, hobbies, and relationships with friends; that they are generally positive on life; and that they are very curious about things. An effective strategy for new businesses would be to reach out to this sub-segment first on the assumption that they are early adopters* of resilient-society concepts.

Making visible the elements of personal routines using ordinary-citizen, data-oriented PRPs makes it possible to develop the strategies and content of services that embed disaster mitigation into daily life. That makes such visualization a useful tool for companies, helping them identify a plethora of business opportunities, and for public organs, providing them with evidence for motivating a range of businesses and experts to get involved in the disaster-mitigation realm.

The more the public and private sectors leverage PRP datasets, the more services people will have to choose from. They’ll be able to pick and choose those that best suit their circumstances so that they’ll be ready for disaster and able to carry on their daily lives with minimal discomfort and inconvenience in its aftermath.

*People who quickly pick up on and adopt new or trail-blazing products and services, usually after innovators themselves but ahead of most general consumers

Key points when putting PRPs to use

There is a number of ways PRPs can be put to work in the real world. They can be put to work as a communication tool in public–private–civic collaborations to create new services in the disaster-mitigation and other public-policy domains.

Examples of this kind include Yokoze-machi, Saitama’s Yoko-lab* and Amsterdam (NL)’s Amsterdam Rainproof, a platform for countering post-downpour water damage4 . But as far as we are aware, there are none that draw on data about how ordinary citizens live such as that which can be won from PRPs and their insights into the role personal initiative can play.

Meanwhile, some care is warranted when utilizing PRPs in the public-policy domain. The more diverse a population, the more diverse the design of the needed services will inevitably have to be. Thus, if the private sector’s response were only piecemeal—i.e., service providers did only the minimum they have to do—though a service might enhance the disaster resilience of a small part of the population, it wouldn’t be able to effect a change throughout a locality.

There are two things to emphasize so pitfalls can be avoided. First, a neutral and big-picture pre-analysis study by the municipality or some other public organization is essential.

Specifically, planners need to clarify which problems they want people to take disaster mitigation action for and how many they want to take them, and then identify how much in public resources the actions will free up for other uses. Analysis to this end is possible by gleaning the needed information from publicly available government data and academic papers.

Planners must then design a preliminary plan for service specifics and list potential collaborators among companies and experts capable of realizing the plan. PRPs are effective for curating content and resources like this.

Next, a mechanism for providing individual feedback to service developers and providers is desirable. The feedback should quantitatively demonstrate how much the services and actions have helped free up public resources. Society’s recognition and rewarding of these altruistic contributions will motivate individuals to engage in helpful behaviors, enhance the social value of the businesses involved, and thereby make society as a whole that much more resilient.

During the hundred years since the Great Kantō Earthquake, Japan has enhanced its ability to withstand disasters by developing and deploying ever better civil and disaster-mitigation engineering. But despite those improvements, the country is plagued by ever more, non-engineering vulnerabilities resulting from social change.

The time has come for us to do everything in our power to draw a line under this seemingly endless situation. Government, businesses, and the general citizenry—including those in non–disaster-mitigation fields—need to work together to incentivize individual, everyday actions that will improve society’s disaster resilience.

*Launched in 2016, the Yoko-lab initiative asks businesses and private citizens to suggest new business, research, and project ideas which the municipality (Yokoze-machi) then helps get off the ground

Launched in 2014, Amsterdam Rainproof platform seeks to harden (make more resilient) urban functions when cloudbursts strike through collaboration between and among private citizens, the government administration, expert organs, and business.

Works Cited

1Kantō daishinsai: Daitokyoken no yure wo shiru (“The Great Kantō Earthquake Disaster: How and where things shook in the greater Tokyo region”), Masayuki Takemura. Kajima Institute Publishing Co., 2003

2Shuto chokka jishin ni yoru Tokyo no higai sōtei (“Damage estimates for Tokyo from earthquakes striking the capital region”). Tokyo Metropolis, 25 May 2022

3Shuto chokka jishin no higai sōtei to taisaku ni tsuite (saishū hōkoku) (“About damage estimates and countermeasures in a direct-hit earthquake in the capital region: The final report”) Central Disaster Management Council, Cabinet Office, 19 December 2013

4Higashinihon Daishinsai ni okeru saigai taiō kōdō no kenshō (“Investigative review of disaster response behaviors in conjunction with the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami disaster”), City of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, 2012. “Kumamoto jishin no jisseki ni motozuku jichitai shokuin-ōen shokuin no hinanjo un’ei e no shokuin tōnyūryō yosoku-shiki no kentō” (“An estimative inquiry into numbers of municipal and dispatched personnel to be assigned to running emergency shelters based on what happened in the [2016] Kumamoto earthquakes”), Masashi Inoue et. al. in Shizen Saigai Kagaku (“Natural disaster science”) vol 40 No. S08, [Japan Society for Natural Disaster Science,] 2021.