Japan in a post-coronavirus world by ISOBE Koichi

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments in the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Senior Consulting Fellow, API & Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on July 19, 2020:


API Geoeconomic Briefing

July 19, 2020

Japan in a post-coronavirus world

ISOBE Koichi, Senior Fellow, Asia Pacific Initiative (API)





After the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, I worked at the Defense Ministry’s Joint Staff Office responsible for unit operations, serving as a liaison between Japan and the United States for Operation Tomodachi, a relief effort undertaken by the U.S. military.

I intuitively felt that the day’s disasters, including the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown, were collectively the worst crisis since World War II.

And now, after nine years, we are facing yet another crisis — the COVID-19 outbreak.

This pandemic has forced people throughout the world to change their everyday lives, having a grave impact surpassing even that of the March 11 disasters. Urban functions have been paralyzed in major cities such as New York, Paris and London, revealing the vulnerability of megalopolises.

Having served as commanding general of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Eastern Army, taking command of defense, security and disaster relief operations in the metropolitan area comprising Tokyo and 10 other prefectures, I will discuss, based on my own experiences, the true risks behind the excessive concentration of population and key functions in Tokyo in the post-coronavirus world and how to overcome them.


Tokyo risks

While I was serving as commanding general for two years from the summer of 2013, the areas within the jurisdiction of the Eastern Army were hit by a number of disasters, including a landslide on Izu Oshima island, heavy snow in the Kanto-Koshinetsu region and the eruption of Mount Ontake. A total of more than 100,000 Self-Defense Forces personnel were dispatched for disaster relief operations.

During those operations and also in times of calm, what was constantly on my mind was the possibility of an earthquake directly hitting the capital without any indications beforehand.

Looking down from the sky, you can easily recognize the characteristics of the Tokyo metropolitan area. Skyscrapers standing close to each other in the Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Roppongi districts, houses squeezed along narrow, intricate streets, areas lying at sea level by the banks of the Edogawa, Arakawa and Sumida rivers, and the areas divided by rivers — street after street of densely populated areas, which make the city an extremely difficult place in which to dispatch rescue teams.

In the past, Japanese people used to say the most frightening things are earthquakes, thunder, fires and fathers. For the Tokyo of the present day, the most frightening things are earthquakes, floods and volcanoes, accompanied now by a new threat — the COVID-19 pandemic.

The risks of these threats can be described by the following predictions.

A magnitude 7.3 earthquake directly hitting Tokyo, which is predicted to occur in the next 30 years with a probability of 70 percent, would result in a maximum of 610,000 houses being completely destroyed or burned down and a maximum death toll of 23,000.

The Tone River breaking its banks and overflowing, which is predicted to occur once every 200 years, would result in areas along the river and its tributary, the Edogawa River, being flooded within a week, affecting up to 1.6 million residents and causing the deaths of up to 3,800.

An eruption of Mount Fuji of about the same size as its last, in 1707, would cause railways and road traffic to be suspended in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture within three hours because of falling volcanic ash. If it rains at the same time, the falling ash could cause the suspension of power and water supplies, as well as widespread communication breakdown.


True risks

The most serious risk factor in all of this is the number of victims that would follow a disaster. The population of Tokyo and its three neighboring prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa totals some 36.6 million, comprising around 30 percent of the entire nation’s population. (For comparison, the population of Seoul represents 49.6 percent of South Korea’s population; Paris has 18.2 percent of France’s population; and London makes up 13.4 percent of the British population.)

If one third of the population in the metropolitan area is presumed to be hit by a disaster, that is equivalent to some 12 million people. That’s a massive number, considering the number of evacuees following the March 11 disasters was roughly 330,000.

Would there be enough shelters to accommodate evacuees? How would it be possible to continue providing food and water? How would it be possible to dispose of excrement if the water supply is cut off? There are a number of challenges.

People might be thinking that the SDF or other first responders would come to the rescue in the case of a disaster, but that would not be so easy in metropolitan areas.

Because the SDF is also engaged in defense tasks, the maximum number of personnel that can be dispatched for disaster relief activities is around 110,000. If 10 million or more people are hit by a disaster, it would mean one SDF member for 100 people — an unprecedented number.

If a disaster occurs in a metropolitan area, rescue teams will head for the city center from outside areas using preplanned routes. But we should be aware that it would take a long time for them to arrive, considering that many roads and bridges would likely have been destroyed or filled with people and vehicles trying to evacuate.


Vulnerable to pandemics

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting new challenges for densely populated metropolitan areas. One measure to help prevent further spread of the virus involves people keeping two meters away from one another.

However, based on the population and total area of central Tokyo, the area available for each person turns out to be around 49 square meters, or a radius of 3.5 meters each.

This means it would become difficult in some areas to maintain a 2-meter distance if all the residents go to evacuation shelters. Considering that multiple disasters, such as a pandemic, an earthquake and floods, could occur simultaneously, it is necessary to review guidelines for evacuation.


Data centers

Keio University professor Jun Murai, who heads the API Institute of Geo-economic Studies, is sounding the alarm over the fact that many data centers that operate servers and data communication devices are concentrated in Tokyo.

Although such data centers are designed to be resistant to earthquakes, fire and power outages, it would be difficult to maintain their functions during a prolonged power cut or if a fire extends over a wide area.

Furthermore, the significance of data centers is increasing as more people are engaging in teleworking and teleconferencing amid the pandemic. The more data that is concentrated in Tokyo, the more serious the risk of that data being destroyed becomes in case of disasters hitting the capital.


Diversification is the key

Even in the post-COVID-19 world, Tokyo will remain a metropolis that attracts visitors from in and out of the country as a center of politics, economy and culture.

On the other hand, unless something is done to diversify this, the city could lose its function as a political and economic center in the event that it is hit by a major disaster.

Needless to say, Tokyo’s risks are Japan’s risks.

Yuichi Hosoya, a professor at Keio University, addresses the need for Japanese people to raise awareness on security issues as their own problem.

In his book, “Military Affairs and Politics: Japan’s Choice,” he writes: “Discussions have been insufficient on what measures should be taken to face up to danger and secure Japanese people’s safety, and what kind of activities the Self-Defense Forces should be engaged in.”

I would like to point to three things that will help Japan overcome these risks.

First, residents of metropolitan regions must be aware that they are living in areas with potentially high disaster risks and learn to protect their own lives. To begin with, they should stock at least a week’s supply of emergency food and water to live on.

Second, for businesses that have their data centers and other essential infrastructure concentrated in Tokyo, such firms should diversify those functions. Moreover, they should take advantage of an increase in teleworking and teleconferencing amid the pandemic and review their office locations and their employees’ work styles in order to diversify their risks.

Lastly, central and local governments should swiftly work on solving the problems accumulated in metropolitan areas, including overpopulation, uncomfortable living conditions and possible paralyzing of city functions in times of disaster.

It is necessary to restrict the population in risky, densely populated areas and promote the construction of a new society that is well-balanced as a nation and community as a whole.

If the national capital is hit by a disaster, the corridors of power could suffer damage, leading to a delay in decision making and initial response, hindering the government’s efforts to cope.

The best option would be to transfer national government functions out of Tokyo, or at least prepare backup facilities that would serve as government headquarters outside the metropolitan area.

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced central and local governments to think about what role they should play in fighting a national crisis. Moreover, the central government is facing a deep-rooted challenge of reviewing the current crisis management system in which the Cabinet Secretariat holds authority to coordinate overall policies while letting ministries maintain charge and control over their respective administrative affairs — a system that is beginning to show its limitations.

In 2012, New York suffered power outages after Hurricane Sandy hit the city, along with a high tide of more than three meters. Paris has experienced once-in-100-year floods many times in recent years. Following the March 11 disasters, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development actively worked on evaluating countries’ risk management policies and released a progress assessment report in 2018.

The risks behind the concentration of population and functions in Tokyo are no longer someone else’s problem for major cities around the world.


Disclaimer:The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.