In Tokyo When the Earthquake Hit… Mary Alice Haddad saw firsthand how the Japanese people coped with a devastating earthquake

When the earthquake in Tohoku, Japan, hit, I was emerging from a subway in Tokyo about 220 miles from the epicenter.

I was on my way to collect my children from school when it felt like someone grabbed the end of the escalator and gave it a very good shake. We all got to the closest wall and tried to keep our balance as the seemingly solid ground rolled beneath us. Within minutes there were announcements that the subways were being stopped as a precaution, so passengers should leave the station but not enter it. No one panicked. Everyone moved in a quick and orderly fashion out of the subway tunnels and onto the sidewalks above.

Ten minutes later I met my two children as they rushed out of school. They were not panicked or crying. My five-year-old greeted me excitedly: “Mama! This morning we had an earthquake drill and this afternoon we had a real one!” My three-year-old explained how they got under their desks and then filed out of the building in orderly lines. He had been in the country less than two months and already had the skills needed to conduct himself properly in an earthquake.

Later, I evacuated Tokyo with my family, and generous friends in Kobe hosted us. Now that much of the dust has settled, the benefits of Japan’s decade of exponential growth of new civil society organizations and the strengthening of its traditional groups are truly awe-inspiring. A lot of this can be attributed to the Japanese response to the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

Back then, 6,000 people were killed, and thousands more were injured. The country sustained hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Yet, the Japanese government reacted slowly. International relief workers were not allowed into the country. City agencies couldn’t coordinate relief efforts. Volunteers and supplies poured into the region, but there was nowhere to put them.

The Japanese government learned two important lessons from their mistakes in 1995, and their better preparation has been helping to abate the disaster today.

Perhaps the most visible lesson learned was that plans must be in place for when disaster strikes.

Soon after the 1995 quake, the national government, prefectures, cities, towns, and villages prepared multi-faceted disaster management plans. From what we can see already, most places were able to follow their plans, and responses to the 2011 earthquake were much better than they were in 1995. Self-Defense Forces were dispatched almost immediately; international rescue teams were on the ground within days; prefectural and city networks were helping to coordinate rescue and relief efforts even before communication had been restored to the hardest-hit areas; people who could move knew where their evacuation areas were and had made their way to them.

The other key lesson is that low-tech, local, community-based organizations are often the most effective first-responders.

In the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake professional, trained rescue personnel from fire departments, hospitals, and Self-Defense Forces were largely ineffective since they could not drive their emergency vehicles on the mangled roads. It was volunteer firefighters who knew their neighborhood and their neighbors, who offered the most effective first line of defense.

This year thousands of volunteer firefighters across the country stood ready with the training necessary to assist their neighbors and help coordinate rescue and relief efforts. Although Tokyo has a large, highly professional fire department, there are also 25,000 volunteer firefighters who train regularly, preparing to assist their neighbors in the event of a disaster. As my children played at the playground/evacuation center on Friday, volunteer firefighters stood ready next to their station only meters away, ready to cope with disaster should one of the aftershocks prove to be damaging.

Japanese civil society has a different organizational structure than that found in the United States or Europe. It has very few large nonprofit organizations with professional staff. Instead there are thousands of smaller, more informal, mostly volunteer groups spread across the country that form networks to address a wide variety of causes. Immediately after the earthquake, groups that usually work on issues ranging from social service provision to consumer protection were able to mobilize their networks to add earthquake relief to their regular activities.

Although only about one percent of the Japanese people are Christian, churches serve as one of the most important trans-local organizations for coordinating relief services. As I attended services in Kobe Union Church on Sunday, there were many other families like mine who had fled the disruptions and uncertainty of life in Tokyo. The church was collecting food and other supplies to send north and members were opening up their houses. One member had already been to Costco and bought futons and other bedding, preparing to offer dozens of people shelter in his weekend house.

I am certain that there will be plenty of discussion about things that government or other groups could have or should have done. However, from my perspective, in the face of three, simultaneous, large-scale disasters, the Japanese government at all levels has been very impressive. The actions of the private sector have been nothing short of extraordinary.

Mary Alice Haddad, assistant professor of government, is the author of Politics and Volunteering in Japan(Cambridge, 2007) and is currently an Abe Fellow—a program designed to encourage multidisciplinary research on topics of pressing global concern.