Learning from Disaster: Resilience and Crisis Management in Japan (1923—2016)




Whitney, Justin Robert

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How has the repeated experience of disasters in Japan influenced the capacity of its crisis management stakeholders to cope with such events? Through a series of qualitative case studies of disasters between 1923 and 2016, this thesis considers how the learning approach in Japan has changed over the past century and why. The focus of this study is Japan’s three tiers of government, as well as stakeholders including not-for-profit organisations, the Council for Social Welfare (Shakyō), and a range of other associations that have traditionally been part of Japan’s disaster relief and recovery efforts. This thesis argues that as disasters may not necessarily occur in the same location, for a nation to be resilient, there needs to be a capacity for knowledge to be transferred from one context to another. This thesis thus searches for direct pathways of teaching and learning between disasters, and considers the mechanisms, institutions or strategies that facilitate or impede this transfer. Through this study, it has been found that historically, Japan has done much better at transferring the experience from a disaster across temporal boundaries than spatial ones. It was common, for example, for regions to refer to physically proximal disasters as sources of learning, even if that event had occurred centuries before. The 1961 enactment of the Basic Act on Disaster Countermeasures paved the way for a more robust framework for knowledge transfer both within and between the tiers of government in Japan. While this framework did not function as expected in the aftermath of the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, as it had remained largely untested, I argue that it played a crucial role as a benchmark for learning. This thesis finds that the existence of this benchmark helped to trigger horizontal and vertical integration of Japan’s disaster management arrangements, which have in turn facilitated boundary processes and improved the transfer of knowledge. It also finds, however, that while this has better-prepared jurisdictions that have not yet experienced a major disaster, questions remain as to whether too much experience has led to the undermining of some aspects of learning even in the most recent disaster events. These findings have important implications when considering how to benefit from the experience of disasters.



Japan, Disasters, Emergencies, Learning, Social Learning, Learning Across Scales, Resilience




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