Disaster Preparedness Will Help Make Japan a Top Tourist Destination

Seiji Fuji

Many people have not returned to pre-pandemic lifestyles

 The Japanese government reclassified the COVID-19 novel coronavirus one year ago on May 8, 2023, changing it from a Class II to a Class V Infectious Disease under the Act on the Prevention of Infectious Diseases and Medical Care for Patients with Infectious Diseases (other Class V diseases include seasonal influenza). This brings an end to the government’s fundamental infection prevention measures, as well as its requests for citizens to avoid leaving their homes as much as possible according to the aforementioned law. The number of medical institutions handling COVID-19 patients was limited, but today these have been expanded to a larger number. Individuals and businesses are able to decide what steps they will take to avoid infection. Public COVID subsidies were suspended at the end of March 2024, and the regular medical care system began in April. This means the pandemic has officially ended.
 Inbound travel to Japan is recovering due to the weak yen and increasing number of international tourists who have resumed traveling after the pandemic. In 2023, foreign travelers numbered approximately 25 million, roughly 80% of the pre-COVID number in 2019. But while about 20 million Japanese people traveled overseas in 2019, less than half (approximately 9.6 million) chose to do so in 2023. The Nomura Research Institute published a consumer behavior report in February, titled Japanese Citizens Cannot be Convinced to Return to Pre-COVID Lifestyles. According to this report, 34% of respondents to an online survey in December 2023 said they had returned to their pre-pandemic lifestyles, 49% said they had not fully done so, and 17% were still living the same way as during the pandemic. This attitude is also evident from spending trends; 40% of respondents were spending the same amount on dining out as before COVID-19, but their desire to spend money on domestic and foreign travel was even lower than the middle of the pandemic. The depreciating yen may be part of this, but the lack of interest in domestic travel suggests that numerous people have become used to more passive lifestyles. There are also many suffering from long COVID. Similarly, it seems like the economic activities of Japanese citizens are also beset by post-COVID effects.

Be on guard against misinformation during pandemics and disasters

 For many years, I have spoken about the following business risks: 1) Global pandemics, 2) Wars in neighboring countries, and 3) Major earthquakes and other natural disasters. The COVID-19 pandemic was part of the first category, just as I predicted. However, I think the biggest risk facing Japan today is a natural disaster, like the large earthquake that shook the Noto Peninsula on New Year’s Day. Rampant misinformation is spread after a natural disaster, and the news media incites fear among the people. This can cause more damage while hindering relief and restoration efforts. I believe the media has a particularly serious responsibility during pandemics and disasters.
 In his book, Dealers in the Truth: Who Spread Harmful Rumors and Created an Information Disaster? (Tokuma Shoten), journalist and Fukushima Prefecture resident Tomohiro Hayashi states that an “information disaster” occurred in Fukushima due to rumors and mistaken information spread by the media. Hayashi defines this as “a disaster in which erroneous information causes casualties and damage that could have been prevented.” He writes:

“It was a classic example of an information disaster. Anxiety and discontent were inflamed in the affected areas, while the government avoided proactive efforts because it was afraid of being criticized. This made the people of Fukushima confused and bewildered. However, extremist organizations were not the only perpetrators. The main actors involved in enlarging this damage included many intellectuals and their sympathizers (who have social status and generally act as if they are allies to vulnerable people), media outlets, scholars, politicians, and people involved in the arts and traditional religions.” “One example is Oishinbo, a manga series published in Big Comic Spirits, a weekly magazine from Shogakukan. In 2014, it was criticized for portraying the protagonist with a nosebleed of unknown origin after visiting TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. It encouraged many people to once again feel anxiety and believe that Fukushima is a dangerous place, with absolutely no scientific basis. We can regard this as one facet of the information disaster.” “Tetsu Kariya, the author, wrote in his blog as follows: ‘I spent two years collecting information in Fukushima. I don’t understand why I should be criticized for writing the truth as I saw it.’ I cannot imagine where Kariya gets his confidence, nor do I comprehend why he believes we should listen to this amateur’s ‘truth’ over the views of radiation and medical experts.” “Bleeding can result from radiation exposure around three sieverts (3,000 millisieverts), a much higher order of magnitude. Blood would flow unceasingly from the nose and other mucous membranes, and there would be an extremely high risk of death in that case.” “Looking at people claiming that they experienced nosebleeds since Kariya published that episode of his manga, there have been zero deaths due to radiation exposure. Publicly released data shows no significant increase in the number of people being seen for nosebleeds at medical institutions. In other words, despite the many intellectuals who spoke out and the residents of affected areas who feared greatly for their health after reading Oishinbo, none of them actually went to a hospital.” “Although society paid a huge amount of attention to claims of nosebleeds, they were not actually harmful. Despite this, countless people continued asserting that their nosebleeds were caused by radiation. For whose sake were these claims, and for what reason? How was justice served by supporting Kariya’s depictions of nosebleeds?”

 Hayashi also provides a specific example of how the media covers these issues:

“When the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) released a report in 2013, it was already clear that radiation exposure was not harming health in Fukushima. Despite this, most commentators disregarded this good news, and the media avoided giving it any airtime, even though they previously stirred up huge amounts of fear out of ‘worry’ and concern for Fukushima.” “Afterwards, the coverage on TV Asahi’s Hodo Station repeatedly opposed this viewpoint, including its statements that radiation was causing thyroid cancer. The Ministry of the Environment brought attention to this matter on its website, underneath the title ‘About the recent reporting on thyroid screenings,’ saying the claims could lead to a mistaken understanding of the actual situation. Hodo Station ignored this and obstinately continued reporting with the same tone.”

 Hayashi says these biased statements and news reports stem from “the fundamental illusion that authority itself is justice, as well as a latent elitism and discriminatory beliefs about Fukushima.” This means the media has widely propagated a fictitious story in which the residents of Fukushima – the site of the nuclear disaster – are people of an inferior rank who must be saved by eminent figures. We should not accept these news reports and other types of information without question. We must always verify them based on scientific proof to determine if something is probable or not in a cool-headed manner.

Working together to prevent fires caused by earthquakes

 The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake struck at 11:58 a.m., when many households were cooking lunch over open flames. Most homes were constructed of wood at that time, resulting in massive fires. Among the disaster victims, 87.1% died in fires and around 10% were crushed when their homes collapsed. For instance, approximately 40,000 people fled to a large, vacant lot that was the former site of the army clothing depot in today’s Sumida City. Multiple flames were blown together, becoming a firestorm that killed roughly 38,000 people. Although buildings in Tokyo have been built with non-combustible roof tiles since the Edo period, they caught fire from flying sparks when the tiles were displaced or knocked off by tremors. Seismic- and fire-resistance technologies have advanced since then. Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced its prediction that a near-field earthquake under Tokyo would have a death toll totaling 1/17th of the Great Kanto Earthquake, of which only 40% would be fire-related casualties. However, we must still take steps to protect ourselves from fires.
 Particular care is encouraged against fires caused by electrical wiring. The disaster planning section of NHK’s website includes an article titled “Watch out for Electrical Fires After an Earthquake!”

“It is said that over half of recent earthquake-related fires are due to electrical causes. We must pay particular attention to electrical fires ignited when power comes back on after an outage. This page describes steps you can take at home to protect yourself.” “Be aware that electrical fires can occur after an earthquake. These types of fires drew a great deal of attention at the time of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.” “Predictions say there is a 70% chance that a near-field earthquake will strike Tokyo within the next 30 years.” “According to Professor Ai Sekizawa of the Tokyo University of Science’s Center for Fire Science and Technology, ‘over half of recent earthquake fires were related to electricity.’” “Looking at the causes of these fires, electrical fires accounted for about 60% after the Great Hanshin Earthquake and more than 50% after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Of particular concern are fires caused by electrical wiring when power is restored after an outage. When power begins flowing through cords damaged by toppled furniture, sparks can be produced that set off fires. This can even happen when electrical power is restored several days after the earthquake.” “How can we prevent this type of electrical fire?” “1) Turn off the breaker and unplug cords from outlets.” “If an earthquake occurs, turn off your breaker and unplug appliance cords to prevent the flow of electricity until you can confirm that the situation is safe.” “2) Install a seismic breaker.” “If an earthquake strikes while you are away from home, you could return home to a fire.” “Sekizawa recommends seismic breakers as a means of prevention. These devices automatically turn off the electricity when they detect a certain level of shaking.” “There are several types of seismic breakers.” “With the circuit-breaker type, the breaker itself is equipped with this function. There are also varieties that turn off power at the outlet.” “One comparatively cheap type uses a weight attached to the breaker switch. When shaking makes the weight drop, the power goes off.” “After a near-field Tokyo earthquake, the Cabinet Office calculates that seismic breakers and other measures to prevent electrical fires could reduce the number of casualties and destroyed homes by nearly 50%.” “Some local governments are distributing seismic breakers or providing financial assistance to purchase them.”

 I think it is extremely important for individual households to take countermeasures such as those described on the NHK website.

The entire nation must be prepared for earthquakes

 Among the different areas of Tokyo, the Shitamachi in particular has many two-story wooden houses crowded on small plots of land along narrow roads that are difficult for fire engines to navigate. One example is Asakusa, which draws many foreign tourists and is experiencing temporary population growth. A major earthquake could cause many casualties in that area, which is why we must enhance our firefighting infrastructure and rethink urban plans as well.
 APA Hotels are concentrated in Tokyo and spread across the nation. We are actively carrying out fire drills because we cannot predict when and where major earthquakes will strike. Local governments, the national government, citizens, and businesses must do all they can to prepare for disasters and strengthen Japan’s position as a top destination for international tourists.

April 16 (Tuesday), 4:00 p.m.