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Japanese gov't must review emergency provisions in disaster countermeasures law

Publication Date : 24-05-2012


Regarding the Japanese government's proposals to review the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Law, more than 14 months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, is that all there is?

The government submitted a bill to revise the law to the Diet last week, aiming to enable better immediate responses to large-scale disasters based on lessons from the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

However, the bill does not review provisions stipulating emergency measures the government can take, even though the existing provisions have been deemed ineffective. This means the bill does not reflect lessons from the initial responses to the 2011 disaster.

Under the revised law, it would be difficult for the government to take immediate action in the wake of envisioned disasters, such as the catastrophe that is forecast to occur if Tokai, Tonankai and Nankai earthquakes occur simultaneously along the Nankai Trough off southern Japan.

Support for municipalities

The key point of the bill is to strengthen the roles of the central and prefectural governments by establishing a new provision that allows them to provide relief supplies without requests from municipal governments in disaster-hit areas.

In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake, many municipal governments--such as the one in Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture--suffered serious damage to their administrative functions. Considering this, it is natural for the central and prefectural governments to make their own decisions on providing necessary materials to disaster-hit areas.

The bill also stipulates that the central and prefectural governments can "order" transport companies to deliver supplies to such places because areas stricken by the 2011 disaster suffered serious shortages of food, gasoline, blankets and other necessities because of damage to supply routes.

It is surely good to add such stipulations to the revised law, but what is more important is that the central and prefectural governments make better arrangements to ensure smooth supply after disasters by deepening cooperation with municipalities and the private sector.

A supplementary clause in the bill stipulates that the government should continue to examine its responses to the Great East Japan Earthquake and take prompt measures if necessary.

The government should accelerate its efforts to examine fundamental problems in the law, such as revising its emergency provisions, a task that will be carried over to the next Diet session or later.

The current law stipulates the prime minister can declare "a state of disaster emergency" and the cabinet can establish necessary government ordinances in the event of "extraordinary and severe" disasters.

However, the law only allows the cabinet to establish emergency ordinances when the Diet is out of session or the House of Representatives has been dissolved. It also regulates what such ordinances can deal with, such as distributing daily necessities or controlling prices.

Expand central govt's role

When the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan did not declare a state of disaster emergency. This was apparently because the Diet was in session at that time, but also because it was concerned about so many regulations imposed by the law.

The government should consider expanding the scope of its emergency measures, with requisition of necessary materials as an example.

The government is also urged to consider a measure to extend support at its own discretion to local governments and bear costs in the event of an emergency. It will not be able to help disaster-hit areas as long as it is obsessed with the roles the central and local governments should play at ordinary times.

It should be allowable for the government to regulate private rights--such as restrictions on movement--to some extent during an emergency so it can maintain social order and ensure the common welfare.

It is important for the government to examine how to prepare for such a situation from a broad point of view, including revising not only the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Law but also the Constitution and establishing a basic contingency law such as the one that was once studied by the ruling and opposition parties.


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