From Threat to Strength: Lesson Learned on Community Resilience from Flooding in Japan

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From Threat to Strength: Lesson Learned on Community Resilience from Flooding in Japan

by Reni Juwitasari, Japan Program Analyst
Asian Research Center for International Development
(ARCID), School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University




Prone to natural disasters owing to its location in the ring of fire, Japan has suffered severe natural disasters of tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons, and other natural hazards frequently, including flooding. The extreme annual rainfall between 1500 and 1600 mm and narrower and smaller river basins are also the critical factors to cause floods immensely (Luo et al., 2015; Ashraf et al., 2017). The flood situation in Japan has been exacerbated by climate change, as climatologists reported (New York Times, 2020). As such, on July 4, 2020 Kumamoto Prefecture suffered an unavoidable flooding in the area of Kumagawa River which damaged a riverside nursing home and other 14 people had no vital signals (Teller Report, 2020). Furthermore, in July 2019, the Kyushu Island was hit by the massive flooding that an older woman reported to die due to getting trapped in a mudslide (Juwitasari, 2019). Consequently, the flooding disaster in Japan has been getting worse and threatening the lives of people. 

For Japan, disaster management does not stop until recovery. It means that it makes a constant effort to reduce the disaster impact. Likewise, Ms. Mami Mizutori, a Japanese who acts as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the head of UNDRR, said in her opening speech during a symposium, "The post-disaster response is not enough. We cannot rebuild lives and livelihoods destroyed, but we can reduce the risks of disaster" (UNDRR, 2020). Japan thus calls for all nations to be prepared for and resilient to natural disasters.  

The disaster management is recognized since the Kofun Period (250 AD-538 AD) (Luo, et al., 2015). Since then, from time to time, Japan has developed its disaster management capacity in such a well-prepared and timely way because of its effective emergency management and the Japanese's disciplined behavior (Wattanasukchai, 2019). Therefore, Japan becomes a role model for other countries.

As a role model, Japan has actively participated in international organizations, for instance, the United Nations. Japan has engaged in a variety of UN Meetings to exchange knowledge of its disaster management policies. Not only its involvement, but Japan has also dedicated its ideas to universal disaster management. As such, Japan contributed to the concept of 'building a culture of safety' under the Hyogo Framework for Action between 2005 2015, and 'building back better' of the resilience concept under the Sendai Disaster Risk Reduction (SDRR) in 2015 2030 respectively (Dufty, 2012; Pollmann, 2015). 

Japanese government's efforts to reduce the disaster impacts and build community resilience are important lessons learned, particularly for the Lower Mekong Basin countries, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Thailand, which share a similar disaster phenomenon of flooding every year. The flood crisis in Lower Mekong countries is becoming a significant challenge since, for the past 50 years, there has been a rise in rainfall during the rainy season and an enlargement of the flood occurrence (Boyland, 2015). Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 2011 reported that between 2000 and 2010, the flood in Mekong Countries caused nearly 1,100 deaths, with economic damages of more than USD 779.6 million (MRC, 2011). 

In Mekong countries, the agenda of community resilience is defined to reduce vulnerable community and disaster impacts, particularly flood risk, and to support sustainable growth (MRC, 2012). Therefore, this article discovers the resilience of the Japanese community by using the concept of disaster resilience from Twigg (2007) on the indicator of risk management and vulnerability reduction with the component of 1) environmental and natural resource management, 2) health and well-being 3) sustainable livelihoods, 4) social protection, 5) financial instruments, 6) physical protection; structural and technical measures, and 7) planning regimes.  

Resilience Concept from Twigg (2007)

Resilience is defined as 'Build back a better concept' or the capacity of individuals, families, societies, countries, and processes to alleviate, adjust and rebound from shocks and stress in a manner that reduces the persistent vulnerability from potential disasters, promotes inclusive growth and economic growth, mitigates the loss of life and property, and maintains social safety nets (Mitchell & Harris, 2012; Henly-Shepard et al. 2018; Twigg, 2007; Potutan, 2019). To address the resilience concept in practice, this article used the disaster-resilient-community theory by Twigg in 2007. This theory consists of five thematic areas, such as 1) governance, 2) risk assessment, 3) knowledge and education, 4) risk management and vulnerability reduction, and 5) disaster preparedness and response. According to MRC (2011), the concept of resilience in Mekong countries is relevant to reduce the vulnerable community and disaster impact. Hence, this article discovers risk management and vulnerability reduction in the event of Japanese flooding exclusively.

The risk management and vulnerability reduction of Twigg (2007) has seven components, namely; 1) environmental and natural resource management related to adoption hazards risk reduction, preservation environment as well indigenous knowledge, and access to the natural resources 2) health and well-being referred to food security, health access and community structure on mental and physical health care, 3) sustainable livelihoods related to local economy activity and adaption of hazard-resistant agricultural practices, 4) social protection referred to accessibility of community to essential social services, and mutual assistance system, social networks and support mechanisms on disaster risk reduction, 5) financial instruments referred to community access to affordable insurance and community disaster fund to implement DRR, response and recovery activities, 6) physical protection; structural and technical measures related to structural mitigation measures and design codes and planning hazards regulations, and 7) planning regimes referred to engaging government and local to plan and decide on hazards and vulnerability reduction. These seven components are essential because they help to empower DRR application and minimize the vulnerability optimally. Simultaneously, they support the building of a disaster-resilient community.

An Analysis of Community Resilience toward Flood in Japan

This sub theme explains the analysis of community resilience on risk management and vulnerability reduction in the case study of Japanese floods by using the above seven components. 

First, environmental and natural resource management. The Japanese government has developed policies and programs for environmental and natural resource protection through addressing disaster risk and vulnerability reduction goals (UNEP, 2015). The Japanese government, in this case, the Ministry of the Environment, introduced the "Ecosystem-based Disaster Risk Reduction (ECO-DRR)" program in 2016. This program aimed to minimize the risk of damage to natural disasters by reducing vulnerable communities and preserving the Japanese environmental, indigenous knowledge on "living in harmony with nature," essentially containing nature conservation and protection that is important for people's lives and resources (MoE, 2016). Regarding the implementation of the ECO-DRR program, the government has designed one of the schemes, "Protection Forest," based in Miyagi Prefecture to conserve the headwaters or mitigate floods and avoid the landslide and other disasters that are damaged by wind and snow. In conclusion, the Japanese government has utilized forests to mitigate disaster and maintain the indigenous knowledge to live with nature harmoniously, which also benefits to create a sustainably disaster-resilient community.

Second, health and well-being. In recognition of the international community, Japan has a prominent National Health Insurance system (WHO, 2018). The Japanese government has established the 'Health Insurance Act' since 1922, which was for laborers and employees of small firms and expanded to cover all Japanese citizens, including farmers, self-employed, retired, and non-employed (JHPN, n,d.). This law covers all health issues including disaster health insurance. According to WHO in 2018, not only covering the disaster health insurance, the Japanese government also designated a "disaster-base hospital" for at least one hospital from each prefecture since 1997, functioning as a center for patient treatment at the time of the disaster, including chronic disease control and basic sanitation, as well as diseases of the post-disaster. As of April 2015, there are 694 disaster-based hospitals throughout Japan (WHO, 2018). The prefectural government also assists municipal governments and other provider agencies to develop disaster medicine (Tikkanen et al., 2020). In summary, the Japanese government has built a resilient health-care system to avoid severe health impacts during natural disasters.

Third, sustainable livelihoods. As the Japanese government has an all-in-one scheme, particularly ECO-DRR, this sustainable livelihoods component has a relation to the first component in the environment and natural resource management, including the local economy revitalization endeavor, well-known as ecotourism (Chen et al. 2018). The Eco-DRR also promotes local resources and generates new jobs specific to each locality (MoE, 2016). For instance, in Miyagi Prefecture, Osaki City has developed the protection of natural habitats and ecosystems in Kabukuri-numa (a freshwater marsh) while also acting as a flood control basin by turning adjacent fallow fields into wetlands, called 'Kabukuri-numa Wetland Restoration.' The situation in Kabukuri-numa has brought a creative agricultural activity to local farmers and has produced an unusual signature of 'Fuyu-mizu-tambo' (flooding rice field in winter), which attracts visitors (rural tourism) and the development of paddies. Rural tourism always has one of the Japanese prominent tourist agendas (Chen et al., 2018). In conclusion, the Japanese government's effort on managing the environment and natural resources can influence sustainable livelihood through rural tourism, which leverages economic development. 

Fourth, social protection. To alert citizens in Japan for natural disasters, increased public knowledge, coordination among disaster divisions, and better evacuation systems are required as part of social protection (River Bureau, 2005). Since 2005, municipalities in Japan have been mandated to draw up and report danger maps showing the possibility of floods and landslides. In 2013, the Land Ministry recorded that 95 percent of municipalities developed flood danger maps, and 81 percent produced landslides (Sieg, 2018). The service is administered under the 'Flood Fighting Act,' which provided the scope of classification as flood forecasting rivers, applied to support people relocate rapidly and safely, for example, by supplying flood prediction details and the location of evacuation in the flood area. In this situation, the municipal government assumes action (River Bureau, 2005). In summary, the Japanese government ensures social protection by providing the flood forecast information to evacuate. Therefore, it can minimize the disaster impacts, especially saving the lives of people.

Fifth, financial instruments. The local governmental authorities in Japan are expected to set aside a certain sum of money as a disaster relief fund operated by the prefecture in compliance with the Disaster Relief Act (OECD, 2006;  Potutan, 2019). The Act on Funding for the Reconstructing Livelihood of Disaster Victims provides financial aid accessible to disaster victims to reconstruct their livelihoods under flood insurance. In Japan, flood insurance is optional and combined with fire insurance, with comparatively rates on average 49.2 percent of housing and 35.4 percent of the household land (Nina, 2003). The amount of deductibles is often limited at 30 percent, and yet there is a co-insurance provision of 30 percent of the remaining 70 percent of the covered loss. Moreover, the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare gives the disaster victims the amount of co-payment reduction mentioned in the Health Insurance Act article 75-2 (Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, n.d.). To conclude, the Japanese government has set up financial instruments to reconstruct the people's livelihood, which can significantly help the recovery post-natural disaster. 

Sixth, physical protection; structural and technical measures. In this case, the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transportation has put all their effort into structural and non-structural disaster prevention and disaster mitigation measures under the "Rebuilding Flood-Conscious Societies" initiative. The project was initiated in 2015 by Kanto-Tohoku Heavy Rain to mitigate social and economic disruption by preventing the devastating damage caused by large-scale flooding, particularly by planning for floods in collaboration with all social sectors (MLIT, 2018; River Council, 2018). As a consequence of this measurement, the Japanese government determines the cause of the flood catastrophe and the climate change and social transition of the aging population and other factors that contribute to proactively resilience (River Council, 2018). In conclusion, the Japanese government's physical protection influences socio-economic aspects because it can diminish the severe loss caused by the flood.

Lastly, planning regimes. Japan enacted the National Resilience Act (NRA) on December 4, 2013, which was revised in 2018 (DeWitt, Djalante & Shaw, 2020). National Resilience Act No. 95 of 2013 Article 10 aims to contribute to the prevention and reduction of disasters as necessary and speed up the recovery and restoration of disasters thoroughly and systemically (Cabinet Secretariat, n.d). The Act needs all levels of government to be active, in particular in the risk evaluation process. Continuously, with this National Resilience Act, the Japanese government is in a position to extend a new and better Action Plan named National Resilience Plans (NRP). The Japanese government already has its NRP, Tokyo's 2050 Plan, which stresses climate change, eliminates greenhouse gas pollution, and reiterated the rise in natural hazards (DeWitt, Djalante & Shaw, 2020). To summarize, the Japanese National Resilience Act has reflected the future green-world, which is part of the Sustainable Development Goals. 


The flood situation in Japan has worsened. It happens not only due to its topography, but it is also triggered by climate change. However, this situation leads the Japanese government to contribute to disaster management on the resilience concept. This article discovered the Japanese policies and programs that enhance people from 'vulnerable' to be 'resilient' restricted to the seven-component under risk assessment and vulnerability reduction by Twigg (2007). After analyzing the Japanese government's efforts, it can be concluded that the Japanese government has decanted its resilient capacity, as in fact, it has reflected in each policy and program, for instance, the ECO-DRR program. The ECO-DRR is an all-in-one program to reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience, which remarkably fits the two components from Twigg (2007) the environment and natural resource management and sustainable livelihood. It means that if the government can manage the environment and natural resources, it can leverage sustainable livelihood through rural economic development empowerment. Furthermore, the existing Laws, such as Health Insurance Act, Flood Insurance, and Flood Act constructed among Japanese societies, are beneficial to the Japanese nation-state-resilience building as the Japanese government has innovated their program and policies according to contextual resilience concept in dealing with natural disasters. Moreover, the Japanese government has established a continuous action plan, named Tokyo's 2050 Plan, which will contribute to climate change impact reduction and severe natural disaster effects, and again, it will influence other countries to the adaptation skills to natural disasters. 

Thanks to Dr. Yuki Miyake, the Head of Japan Programs, Asian Research Center for International Development, School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University, for supervising this article.



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