Private sector experience in Japan: Supporting disaster preparedness for evacuations under COVID-19
The shared trauma and experiences of disasters over the decades have helped shape Japan’s unique disaster culture, where all segments of society contribute to disaster prevention and mitigation. The current COVID-19 pandemic has been no exception, and under the guidance and coordination of the central government, the private sector has emerged as a key player in supporting prevention and response efforts.
The Japanese government’s current response phase is focused on trying to keep society running while preventing the spread of the virus. This has been coined as the ‘With Corona’ phase.
One area that has received considerable attention under this phase has been the country’s disaster evacuation protocols. To ensure preparedness and evacuation measures do not inadvertently fuel the pandemic, the Disaster Management division of the Cabinet Office has released a series of practical guidelines, which have been compiled into a general manual document accompanied by YouTube tutorials.
One of the key recommendations is wider engagement with the private sector to support the implementation of the revised evacuation procedures. This is where the member companies of ARISE Japan – the Japanese branch of UNDRR’s partnership alliance of private sector entities committed to DRR – along with other private sector actors, are playing instrumental roles.
To satisfy physical distancing guidelines at disaster shelters while securing the necessary capacity, the government recommends that local governments tap locally available private-owned facilities, such as hotels. The dual-use of private-owned facilities in times of disaster is a well-established practice in Japan that pre-dates the pandemic. But under COVID-19, the practice is being urgently expanded. Responding to these calls, four major accommodation industry associations have announced the preparation of 1,256 facilities nationwide to serve as emergency evacuation shelters, according to ARISE Japan member, JTB Tourism Research & Consulting.
In Japan, cross-utilization of business facilities for DRR purposes is not limited to hotels. Across the nation, 55 metropolitan areas have been designated as ‘Special Districts for Urban Regeneration,’ where facilities, such as shopping complexes, serve necessary disaster preparedness functions such as evacuation shelters or supply depots.
The private sector is also playing a part in raising awareness and educating the public on the importance of reassessing their preparedness plans in light of the pandemic. Under ‘With Corona’ evacuation protocols, people are being asked to consider additional evacuation destinations, such as the homes of family and friends or the higher floors of structurally-sound buildings. To help with this, Japan Conservation Engineers & Co., the creators of the game EVAG - a role-playing game that tests evacuation behavior - updated their simulation script, which already accounted for pandemic disasters, to encourage players to consider alternative evacuation destinations.
In the area of risk communication and closing the “last-mile” gap, the private sector is supporting the delivery of accurate and up-to-date information. In Japan, where a significant information barrier exists for non-Japanese speakers, multi-language call centers such as the Japan Visitor Hotline for the Japan National Tourism Organization are working to reduce this vulnerability. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, BRICK’s Corporation, an ARISE member which operates the hotline, have handled a surge in calls from a few hundred per month before COVID, to over 1,000 calls per month, which peaked in March at 5,300 calls.
The private sector is also helping officials better understand the risk environment and vulnerabilities through market research. Since the start of the pandemic, Japan has experienced a major climate-related disaster in the form of the July heavy rains which affected multiple regions. Web-based surveys conducted across all 47 prefectures by Survey Research Center Co., an ARISE member, revealed areas for improvement in the evacuation protocols developed under the ‘With Corona’ phase. Specifically, the analysis showed that public expectations were unsustainably skewed towards greater reliance on local governments to provide infection control measures, and less on personal or community preparedness.
One reason Japan’s private sector is able to serve as a reliable government partner is thanks to the investments it made in building its own resilience. ARISE Japan member companies report that their existing pandemic scenarios for business continuity, along with peer-to-peer communication through networks such as ARISE, have helped them guide their decision-making during this crisis. Their priorities include maintaining a healthy and productive workforce and maintaining their social responsibilities as a stakeholder organization, as highlighted in the testimony of Ms. Sandra Wu, CEO of Kokusai Kogyo Co. Ltd., an ARISE member.
Tackling far-reaching disasters, like COVID-19, requires a multi-stakeholder approach that brings together the strengths of each sector to fill in the gaps and augment the government’s reach. The examples highlighted of ARISE Japan’s contributions in the area of evacuation preparedness is only one aspect of how the private sector is lending their expertise, resources, and capabilities to build resilience for all.