TOKYO -- Disaster management has emerged as a key point of contention in the ongoing campaign for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election following a spate of serious natural disasters that has hit Japan.
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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 63, who is seeking re-election as president of the party, said his government will continue efforts to make the Japanese archipelago less vulnerable to natural disasters. His rival, 61-year-old former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, pledged to establish a disaster management ministry if elected LDP leader and prime minister.
Both candidates are trying to demonstrate their risk- and crisis-management capacity as the individual in charge of the government.
In a speech session between the two LDP presidential candidates on Sept. 10, Prime Minister Abe declared that the government will conduct emergency inspections of infrastructure, such as power grids and transportation systems, across the country. He made the announcement while bearing in mind a prefecture-wide power blackout triggered by a magnitude-6.7 earthquake in Hokkaido on Sept. 6, which left 41 people dead.
Abe then said the government will intensively implement emergency measures to prevent and lessen damage caused by powerful natural disasters over the next three years.
"We'll create a resilient Japan where people can feel secure," the prime minister said.
The policy of making Japan less vulnerable to disasters is part of flexible and swift use of public funds to implement policy measures, which is one of the "three arrows" of the "Abenomic" economic policy mix the second Abe government promoted shortly after it was launched in December 2012.
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who supports the prime minister's bid for a third three-year term as LDP president, attaches particular importance to the disaster management policy. Abe incorporated the issue in his campaign pledge on the recommendation of Nikai.
Prime Minister Abe is trying to demonstrate to the public that his government is swiftly responding to natural disasters, as he keeps in mind public criticism of an LDP drinking party held amid warnings of heavy rain shortly before a deluge hit western Japan in July. Abe himself attended the gathering.
The prime minister has held daily meetings of Cabinet ministers concerned to respond to Typhoon Jebi, which caused extensive damage in western Japan, and the huge Hokkaido quake. Abe inspected quake-hit areas in Hokkaido on Sept. 9 and announced that the government will allocate 540 million yen from reserve funds to support the restoration of areas devastated by the temblor. The Abe Cabinet approved the plan the following day.
At a joint news conference between the two LDP presidential candidates on Sept. 10, Ishiba criticized the government's system to deal with natural disasters.
"The system to respond to disasters shouldn't remain as it is," he said. He then expressed enthusiasm about integrating disaster prevention functions in the Cabinet Office, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry and other government bodies into a single organization.
While referring to his inspection on the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ishiba underscored the need to appoint a Cabinet minister specializing in disaster management and experts who have lengthy experience in one ministry.
During his tours of regional areas, Ishiba held talks with local assembly members over the matter and set up a page on his plan to establish a disaster management ministry as part of his special website for the LDP leadership race.
At the news conference, Ishiba emphasized his awareness of risk management saying, "It's not a question of how to respond after a disaster occurs."
Prime Minister Abe said the plan to set up a disaster management ministry is "worth considering."
However, Abe stressed that all Cabinet ministers are responsible for disaster management, which is part of his Cabinet policy of responding to the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis in March 2011.
"It is the prime minister that controls the Self-Defense Forces, the Japan Coast Guard and other government offices," Abe said, suggesting that the premier should exercise his leadership without reorganizing government bodies.
In July, the National Governors' Association adopted a resolution recommending that the central government establish a disaster management ministry.
However, the establishment of a ministry specializing in responses to natural disasters would require the realignment of national government ministries and agencies.
A senior official of the prime minister's office said, "The current system under which the prime minister's office controls disaster responses should be maintained."
(Japanese original by Keiko Takahashi and Minami Nomaguchi, Political News Department)