- Japan Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (JVOAD)
- Peace Boat Disaster Relief
- Peace Winds Japan
- Rescue Stock Yard
Japan at a Glance
Population: 125.8 million
Major Threats: Typhoons, Floods, Landslides, Earthquakes, Tsunamis
Populations Affected: Urban & Rural Poor, Farmers, Coastal Communities
Locations Affected: All
Industries Affected: Agriculture, Fishing, Manufacturing
Compounding Issues: demographic trends, poverty in urban areas, supply chain, political instability
World Risk Index Ranking: 46
Global Climate Risk Index: 4 (2021)
Japan is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters because of its climate and topography, and it has experienced countless earthquakes, typhoons, and other types of disasters.
A number of factors contribute to the high incidence of natural disasters in Japan. First, the country is subject to extreme climatic variations, such as seasonal rain fronts and typhoons, as well as heavy snowfall on the Sea of Japan side of the archipelago. Second, Japan’s topography is rugged and there are many faults and steep inclines. Third, Japan is located in the Pacific earthquake belt and is frequently struck by earthquakes, while its complex coastline is vulnerable to tsunamis. And fourth, Japan is located in the circum-Pacific zone, in which almost all the volcanoes of the world are concentrated, and has 83 active volcanoes-one-tenth of the world total.
Since the archipelago is situated along the Ring of Fire, an area where several tectonic plates meet, it is vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Many people are reported missing or killed by natural disasters every year. Therefore, the Japanese government invests its disaster prevention budget in disaster prevention systems such as earthquake alert systems, emergency facilities, evacuation centers, as well as earthquake-resistant buildings, which are designed to move with the quake. Furthermore, participation in natural disaster drills is common and begins in kindergarten.
In recent years, typhoons accounted for the highest costs of damaged facilities. Typhoons regularly hit Japan and often cause heavy rain and floods. The tropical cyclones develop over the Pacific Ocean and are likely to approach the archipelago between July and October, during the peak of the typhoon season. Japan’s southernmost prefecture Okinawa gets hit regularly by typhoons, while the northernmost prefecture Hokkaido is the least affected area. Since the number of typhoons increased in recent years, the amount of damage caused by floods grew as well. In addition to intense volcanic activity, major earthquakes occur regularly, making the country vulnerable to tsunamis due to its oceanic setting.
The highest cost of damage caused by natural disasters was recorded in 2011, when the Great East Japan Earthquake, also referred to as Tohoku Earthquake, occurred. It was one of the strongest earthquakes worldwide according to measurements on the Richter scale. The damage caused by surging water from the resulting tsunami was more destructive than the earthquake itself, as it destroyed many Japanese cities and led to the death of over 15 thousand people. Furthermore, it caused a meltdown at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima Prefecture.
Major Threats and Economy
Since 1990, the Japanese economy has suffered from economic stagnation, and COVID-19 has worsened the situation. Japan’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is incomplete, and keeping it going will be critical. Supply chain issues, rising labor costs, and political issues have highlighted problems with Japan’s reliance on China as a base for its manufacturing investments. In addition, with a low birthrate and aging population, Japan’s social security system is under strain and is suffering from labor shortages.
While rising food and energy prices are a problem for every country, it’s even more severe for Japan, which is highly dependent on oil imports for its energy needs. High oil prices take a big chunk of household budgets, depressing further consumer spending, the primary factor behind the country’s three-decade-old stagnation. Nonetheless, overall inflation still remains low, verging on deflation. Consumer prices rose at an annual rate of 0.1% in October, the same as in September, and well below the 2% Bank of Japan target, which it has struggled to meet for years.
Climate Change Impacts
Being the fifth country around the world that emits the most carbon dioxide, Japan has pledged to be a carbon-neutral country by 2050. Prime Minister, Yoshihide Shuga, announced this goal during his first policy address to the Parliament in October 2020. Meanwhile, climate change has tremendously impacted Japan’s agriculture sector due to a significant increase in short-duration rainfall. It also triggered various landslides, floods, typhoons, and cyclones. Coral bleaching, caused by the rise in seawater temperature, is also seen in multiple parts of Japan’s coastal areas. In 2019, typhoon iHagibis, considered one of the strongest in 60 years, hit Japan, while not long before, the country was hit by Typhoon Faxai and severe heatwaves. According to the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index, Japan is the fourth most disaster-affected country in terms of fatalities and economic losses.
The rainy season in Japan is from early June to mid-July. However, the frequency of heavy rain occurrences is significantly increasing. As climate change-related disasters rise in Japan, the country experiences more floods and mudslides due to heavy rain, cyclones, or typhoons. Damages to infrastructures and homes are the most significant loss, especially when the disaster hits the same areas several times. The recovery process involves preparedness for the next disaster. Although the country has advanced technology in infrastructure and experience building disaster-proof housing (mainly earthquake-resistant buildings), most of the communities’ homes are not strong enough to withstand typhoons and floods. That said, Japan continues to improve its capacities in disaster management.
The Japanese archipelago is where several continental and oceanic plates meet, leading to frequent earthquakes, volcanoes, and hot springs all over the country. The “Great Sendai Earthquake” or “Great Tohoku Earthquake” in 2011 was the most disastrous earthquake, with a 9 Richter scale magnitude. It led to a tsunami and struck the Fukushima nuclear plant, causing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate and move permanently to avoid exposure to radiation. This was the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan and 4th most powerful earthquake in the world. An official report published in 2021 counted 19,747 deaths, 2,556 people missing, and 6,242 injured. A 7 Richter scale earthquake hit the same area in early 2022, but with the government’s significant investment in earthquake preparedness, the number of casualties was low. However, Japan is still considered a high-risk area for earthquakes and tsunamis.
Adaptation and Local Context
Since the archipelago is located along the Ring of Fire, a zone where a few structural plates meet, it is powerless against common catastrophes such as seismic tremors, tsunamis, and volcanic emissions. Numerous individuals are reported lost or killed each year. Therefore, the Japanese government contributes its calamity avoidance budget to preparedness frameworks such as seismic tremor alarm frameworks, crisis offices, clearing centers, and earthquake-resistant buildings, which are planned to move with the tremor. Moreover, standard catastrophe drills are common and start in kindergarten.
Investing in disaster risk reduction is critical to minimizing damage. Japan has been heavily investing its resources in DRR and has become one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to preparedness and mitigation. The study by Mikio Ishiwatari and Daisuke Sasaki found five investment cycles of flood protection from the late 19th century to the present. Following major flood disasters, Japan has established financing mechanisms, such as legislation and long-term plans. However, external shocks like war, economic recession, disaster, and tightened national finance have significantly impacted these investments. The fluctuations in the budget created an investment cycle. The country had increased its budget to 0.9% of its national income in the 1990s. It often experienced flood damage accounting for over 1% of the national income until 1961, but succeeded in decreasing the damage to less than 1%, and currently, it is limited to less than 0.4%. Financial mechanisms established from a long-term perspective could support an increase in budgets for flood protection, leading to a decrease in damage. That said, the study also identified that financing mechanisms might weaken the country’s financial flexibility.
Opportunities and Recommendations to International Donors
Disaster philanthropy in the Asia-Pacific is more crucial than ever as extreme weather events and climate uncertainty escalate. When we encourage donors to prioritize local needs and community-managed models, we help build stronger, more resilient societies and maximize our impact. Give2Asia’s model of supporting local groups and prioritizing immediate and longer-term needs has guided our donors toward more thoughtful grantmaking. Although the majority of funding traditionally goes toward recovery efforts, funding for resiliency steadily increased over the past 15 years, demonstrating a notable shift in donors’ overall approach to disaster philanthropy. These trends are encouraging, yet the sector as a whole still has much room to grow.
When we prioritize longer-term, multi-phase programming with a strong focus on resiliency, we give devastated communities a much greater chance of rebounding — and reduce the risk they face from future events. This comprehensive approach supports communities before, during, and after disaster events, setting them up for long-term sustainability.
As we commit to more forward-thinking approaches as a sector, we ask donors to do the same. We have an opportunity to demonstrate that complex programming works when you put communities at the center of all that we do.
Recommendations for the Sector:
- Continue investing more in disaster risk reduction, preparedness, and resiliency. Data shows that donor funding is inadequate, so communities are not being properly equipped for the next disaster.
- Increase attention to mental health and psychosocial support, given that disasters are incredibly traumatic for individuals and communities – the effects of which can last for years.
- Explore programming focused on indigenous knowledge — integrating local traditions and incorporating hyper-local actors. This currently represents less than 1% of overall disaster programming.