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Central gov't was desperate to swiftly respond to Kumamoto quake disaster

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, inspects a disaster site, where houses collapsed, in Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture, on April 23, 2016. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received the initial report of an earthquake measuring a maximum 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale hitting Kumamoto Prefecture when he was having dinner at a French restaurant in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on the evening of April 14. Ten minutes later at 9:36 p.m., the prime minister issued instructions to his office over the phone, urging them to work closely together on disaster response measures. At 9:54 p.m. on that evening, Prime Minister Abe entered the crisis management center at the prime minister's office to supervise Cabinet ministers and the senior government officials concerned.

The second Abe administration formed in 2012 was keenly aware of the possible impact of its handling of crisis situations on the government as it had dealt with many crisis-management cases including a hostage crisis involving Japanese nationals in Algeria, in addition to natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and torrential rains.

During day-to-day meetings of the emergency response taskforce, Prime Minister Abe, providing specific numbers of support personnel and other figures, repeatedly mentioned the words such as "swiftness," and "first move." But when the second earthquake measuring 7 on the Japanese intensity scale "unexpectedly" struck on April 16 and caused further damage to wider areas, flaws began to be seen in the government's response.

At a meeting of the local task force held at a Kumamoto Prefectural Government office on April 17, State Minister for the Cabinet Office Fumiaki Matsumoto, who was dispatched by the central government as head of the taskforce, raised his voice and said, "If (foodstuffs) reach only several evacuation centers, it will be reported by media and we will be in deep trouble." He went on to say, "If scenes of a site which has not received (gasoline) are broadcast, it will cause a big fuss. The prime minister's office will become even more critical and ask us, 'What are you doing?'"

After landslides disrupted traffic networks and desperate rescue operations were under way, people scared of aftershocks remained in evacuation centers and vehicles. The meeting room for the taskforce was shrouded in a cold atmosphere as the remarks made by Matsumoto were also taken to mean that the prime minister's office was worried only about how it looked in the eyes of the public. After the meeting, an official of the Kumamoto Prefectural Government expressed strong displeasure and said, "He doesn't understand on-site situations at all."

Matsumoto's behavior turned out to partly show how the government was losing its cool immediately after the second temblor. After the initial earthquake on April 14, which is viewed as a foreshock, the government was able to obtain practically the whole picture of the extent of damage by the evening of April 15. But the April 16 "principal" earthquake caused a sharp increase in the number of people killed and unaccounted for and the number of evacuees temporarily topped the 180,000 mark. The government was beginning to shift its focus to the second phase of extending support to evacuees and restoring infrastructure, among other measures. But Minister for Disaster Management Taro Kono said at that time, "Regrettably, we have returned to the original phase of emergency rescue operations." Prime Minister Abe postponed his visit to some of the disaster areas planned for April 16.

While remaining busy gathering information on the extent of damage, the government made a move by April 16 to pull things together. Based on lessons learned from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, after which officials took a long time to ascertain requests from affected local communities, the government started to use a so-called "push system" designed to send relief goods even without requests from disaster spots. The government sent a total of 2.55 million meals to Kumamoto, including 700,000 meals secured in cooperation with convenience store chains. Partly because local communities were not fully ready to accept such relief goods, evacuation centers remained without relief materials until around April 19. But the situation began to be improved gradually thereafter.

On April 23, Prime Minister Abe flew to Kumamoto Prefecture for the first time since the outbreak of the quake disaster and visited Mashiki and other areas. The following day, he instructed his government to compile a supplementary budget of hundreds of billions of yen. The government decided on April 25 to designate the series of Kumamoto earthquakes as a disaster of extreme severity. At the same time, the government made another move: On April 20, Abe called Matsumoto back to Tokyo, ostensibly for reporting the disaster situation, and replaced him with Parliamentary Vice-Minister of the Cabinet Office Yasuyuki Sakai. A government official explained, "He had been scheduled to be replaced from the very beginning after about a week." A senior Kumamoto Prefectural Government official said, "We have nothing to say about that matter."

Minister for Disaster Management Kono visited disaster-stricken areas on May 5 and told reporters confidently at the Kumamoto Prefectural Government, "We have completed the initial response." The government reappointed Matsumoto as head of the local disaster task force on May 8.

In line with the government's plans, infrastructure such as expressways and the Kyushu Shinkansen Line have fully returned to normal, gradually paving the way toward the reconstruction phase. But about 12,000 people are still taking shelter and they are worried about their future, uncertain where they will live -- a vital factor in rebuilding their livelihoods.

On April 29 -- 15 days after the outbreak of the Kumamoto Earthquake -- the Kumamoto Prefectural Government started building temporary housing units in the prefectural village of Nishihara and the town of Kosa. This was slower than after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake (three days after), the 2004 Chuetsu earthquake in Niigata Prefecture (four days after) and the Great East Japan Earthquake (eight days later).

Local governments are supposed to take charge of building temporary housing units, but a senior Kumamoto Prefectural Government official said, "The number of evacuees swelled as aftershocks occurred one after another, and we were too busy dealing with them to handle construction of temporary housing units. Earthquakes measuring 7 on the intensity scale occurred twice and we naturally had to look out for a third one. It also requires a lot of time to confirm the safety of construction sites such as the possibility of cracks opening in the ground."

On the afternoon of May 9, the 24th meeting of the emergency response task force was held at the prime minister's office. Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima, wearing work clothes, attended the meeting. Prime Minister Abe stated that his government would decide at a Cabinet meeting on May 10 to designate the Kumamoto earthquakes as an "emergency disaster" based on the large-scale disaster reconstruction law that allows the government to carry out reconstruction projects on behalf of local governments. Abe told Kumamoto Gov. Kabashima, sitting across from him, "We will fully back you up by taking all possible support measures."

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