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Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011

A call for improved national crisis management policy


More than seven months have already passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster. Industrial production in the affected areas has bounced back to pre-disaster levels, but the recovery of agriculture and fishery is lagging and nearly 70,000 people remain in evacuation facilities. On top of that, it will take more time to place the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant's reactors into a state of "cold shutdown," the processing of compensation payments for nuclear-related damages is proceeding at a slow pace, and it will be some time before the investigation into the cause of the nuclear crisis is concluded.

The government's response to the 3/11 disasters is slow perhaps because of the politically complicated time-consuming talks taking place between the ruling and opposition parties.

The 3/11 disasters have highlighted the vital importance of well-prepared policy measures to ensure sound crisis management. Questions have risen as to whether the experiences of dealing with large disasters in the past have been well utilized, whether the government took appropriate and adequate steps in the wake of the disasters and whether sufficient information has been provided to all concerned parties.

In my view, the nation's crisis management strategy should be promoted in three ways: measures before a crisis, measures after a crisis and structural measures. The word "unexpected" often crops up in talk concerning the 3/11 disasters. Fundamentally, however, authorities, experts and officials concerned should make full use of scientific knowledge to prepare for major disasters, developing both "hardware" and "software" to cope with such events.

When a disaster strikes, the government must make prompt and proper judgments and take necessary actions as soon as possible. In addition, it must also make structural preparations in advance, including building disaster-resistant communities and promoting an appropriate energy mix. Now that it is forecast that large earthquakes could occur anytime off Shizuoka Prefecture, the Kii Peninsula and Shikoku, the nation urgently needs to further improve its crisis-management preparedness.

The concept and system of crisis management does not concern natural disasters alone. A crisis or threat could also occur in such areas as politics, defense, the economy and society, as was the case with the oil crisis, the Nixon shock and the Lehman Brothers shock. All of these events inflicted serious harm upon the world.

Both in Japan and overseas there exist destabilizing factors that could trigger a major crisis or threat. Therefore the government should take strategic measures aimed at preventing such crises or threats from occurring or minimizing their impact.

In recent years, the United States has lost momentum in maintaining its leadership role in the world's security framework due to its declining national power. Meanwhile, the European Union has become inward-looking amid its financial disorder. Persistent fears continue about the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Russia is acquiring a bigger say internationally thanks to its abundant natural resources while China, enjoying strong economic growth, continues to buildup its military capabilities. The danger of terrorism persists in the Middle East and Africa, and strains are mounting over resource-related territorial disputes among countries around the East and South China Seas. So it is no exaggeration to say that the axis of global governance is weakening.

In the world economic arena, the stagnation of America's economy and its growing financial deficits have lowered confidence in U.S. treasury bonds and caused the dollar's value to decline. In Europe, the euro has come under serious pressure against the backdrop of deteriorating financial situations of EU member countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain.

The world economy has depended heavily on the economic growth of China and other newly emerging economies for its recovery following the Lehman Brothers shock. But these countries can no longer avoid the impact of the global financial uncertainty and are now struggling with such internal problems as inflation and mounting dissatisfaction with the expanding gap between the rich and poor. These developments indicate that the world economy is facing a major crisis.

The world's energy resources are also under pressure due to the Arab Spring political unrest affecting oil-producing countries in the Middle East. And the Fukushima nuclear disaster has raised public fears around the world about the safety of nuclear power, thus hamstringing a major means of combating global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. There are indications that the industrial system, which has been evolving since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, is reaching its limit.

Japan, whose prime minister has been changing annually in recent years, has been unable to promote the kind of positive foreign policy needed to ensure stability. U.S.-Japan relations have become somewhat less smooth over the knotty relocation issue involving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. As for Sino-Japanese relations, mutual public sentiment has turned sour due to such problems as a Chinese fishing trawler's collision with Japanese patrol ships near the Senkaku Islands.

On the economic front, Japanese enterprises are struggling due to the world-wide business slump and the rising value of the yen. In addition, moves to relocate industrial operations from Japan to other countries are accelerating due to a worsening of the domestic business environment, which is characterized by heavy corporate tax burdens and heavy regulations. These trends give rise to fears that Japan's growth potential may wane and employment opportunities shrink. The state of Japan's financial structure is now the worst among advanced countries and there are even some concerns that the market for government bonds might crash depending on moves by speculators.

Japan, now in the midst of a restive international environment, must fully prepare for all conceivable crises and threats. To this end, the country needs to develop comprehensive crisis management strategies designed to address specific issues from pre-crisis, post-crisis and structural angles. The Noda Cabinet must address this pressing matter vigorously by mobilizing governmental functions through such steps as the creation of top-level supervisory councils on national security and economic security affairs. Otherwise it might end up compromising Japan's future.

Shinji Fukukawa, formerly vice minister of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and president of Dentsu Research Institute, is currently chairman of the Machine Industry Memorial Foundation.


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