What Local NPOs Can Do to Prepare for the Next Disaster – Proposals from the 311 Change Association InsightsEssays: Civil Society in Japan

Posted on February 07, 2024

Japan NPO Center (JNPOC) has a news & commentary site called NPO CROSS that discusses the role of NPOs/NGOs and civil society as well as social issues in Japan and abroad. We post articles contributed by various stakeholders, including NPOs, foundations, corporations, and volunteer writers.
For this JNPOC’s English site, we select some translated articles from NPO CROSS to introduce to our English-speaking readers.


What Local NPOs Can Do to Prepare for the Next Disaster – Proposals from the 311 Change Association


Based on the lessons learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent major natural disasters, a group called Towards a Better Future Disaster Recovery System Based on the Experiences of 3.11 (a.k.a. 311 Change Association) has proposed amendments to relevant laws and regulations related to disaster recovery in Japan. They made a direct appeal to the cross-party lawmakers of Diet at an emergency in-House Meeting held in July 2023.

The proposals of the 311 Change Association are wide-ranging, but two of the proposals call for cooperation between the private sector, including local NPOs, and local governments and other entities, both in normal times and in the event of a disaster: to place the cooperation with the private sector as one of the principles in supporting disaster victims, and to position disaster victim support in social security-related laws and train human resources from normal times. This paper considers what effective responses should be for grassroots NPOs when these proposals are adopted. In addition, we will discuss the endeavors in Okayama Prefecture, which has already established a system to prepare for a disaster.

*For further information on the meeting with members of Diet, please refer to the article “No One Left Behind” -Now is the Time to Reform Disaster Legislation.


Collaboration with the Private Sector Requires Identification of Issues at the time of a Disaster

According to the current laws and regulations, all support activities for disaster victims are to be carried out by the local authorities of the affected areas. The association’s proposal, to place the cooperation with the private sector as one of the principles in supporting disaster victims, is based on the idea that it is more reasonable to have the professionals from companies and non-profit organizations, who provide services during normal times, take on the areas of their expertise in supporting the disaster victims, and that the players in disaster victim support activities should be multi-sectoral. In addition, the proposal includes the following provisions: the national and local authorities and other public institutions must make efforts to cooperate with private organizations even before a disaster strikes, by agreeing on an appropriate division of roles and responsibilities, and by working together throughout the disaster response process.

In order to implement this appropriate division of roles, it is desirable to identify and list the specific issues required in each community in the event of a disaster first, and then share and agree on these items among the parties concerned. If roles were assigned without this process, unexpected omissions of support could occur at the time of a disaster, or necessary support activities might transpire to be difficult to implement due to unforeseen events. It is desirable for local NPOs to participate in this identification process to have the knowledge gained from their activities reflected in the procedure.


How Should Issues be Identified?

It can be anticipated, however, that some regions find it difficult to carry out such a process by themselves from scratch. For this reason, for example, a nationwide model could be created, or examples from forward-looking regions could be shared. However, from the perspective of reflecting individual regional circumstances and fostering a sense of ownership among those involved, it is important not to use national models or examples from other regions as is, but to create something that is acceptable to those involved in each region. When conducting such a study, it is desirable that discussions be based on experiences from past disasters to ensure that support is not omitted at the time of an emergency and that it is flexible enough to respond to actual onsite conditions. In addition, it is necessary to take into consideration the fact that the supports needed for disaster victims will change from immediately after the disaster to the period of recovery process, and from this perspective, there is much to be learned from the experiences of past disasters. Considering that major natural disasters have been occurring frequently in recent years, it would be preferable to start a regional discussion on how to identify and list what would be requisite, even before the revision of laws and regulations is realized.


Inventory Leads to Improved Response Measures

Using the list of items that will be needed in the event of a disaster, an inventory of who will be involved and how they will respond amongst parties concerned, including local governments and local nonprofits, may reveal important logistical issues or concerns; for instance, the current system may be inadequate and may result in omissions of support for certain disaster victims in the event of a disaster. Such an inventory, indeed, will enable additional measures to be taken by the local authorities, as well as proactive measures such as requesting cooperation from local businesses and other entities regarding their response in the event of such a disaster. On the other hand, it is highly likely that simply “stapling together” the existing measures and requests of the parties concerned will not lead to major improvements. From this perspective, we believe it is important for local NPOs to actively participate in the discussion.


Roles that Local NPO Support Centers Can Play

If it is difficult for individual NPOs, which tend to lack human resources, to participate directly in the process of identifying and taking inventory of disaster-related needs in their area, the local NPO support center could serve as a link between the local government and other concerned parties in the community. In addition, in the event of a large-scale disaster, it is expected that organizations operating at the national level and NPOs from other regions will play a certain role, in addition to the responses within the area. The local NPO support center, which may have a broader network than individual organizations, can serve as a link to incorporate these groups from outside the region as part of the local system in advance and facilitate their response in the event of a disaster. In order for the NPO support centers in each region to take on such linkage roles in the future, it would be good to consider having NPO support centers in regions that have experienced disasters in the past share their knowledge and support with each other.


Continuation of Welfare Services in the Event of a Disaster

The 311 Change Association further proposes that support for disaster victims be included in social security-related laws and that human resources be trained from normal times. This proposal includes the following: In the event of a disaster, prefectures and municipalities, with the participation of social welfare-related organizations, NPOs, and professional associations, should be obliged to provide consultation support, including home visits, and assistance in using various support systems. The purpose of this provision is to ensure that the various welfare services that are provided in non-emergency should also be provided in times of disaster without delay. NPOs involved in these services are often more closely involved with the authorities on a daily basis than those in other fields, and it can be assumed that discussions on specific countermeasures would proceed relatively smoothly when the association’s proposal is implemented. However, it is clear that in the event of a large-scale disaster, events will surface that will make it difficult to continue operations in various fields, such as securing personnel and logistics; it will be important for organizations engaged in these services to participate in discussions in the region regarding supports for disaster victims. Based on the results of the inventory and measures to be taken, it would be important to conduct community-wide exercises on cooperation and training courses on welfare services from normal times, to secure a wide range of local human resources who could be the bearers of welfare services in the event of a disaster.


Endeavors in Okayama Prefecture

So far, we have discussed desirable responses at a local level based on the proposals of the 311 Change Association. Many of these points have been adopted already in Okayama Prefecture, where 2018 West Japan Floods caused extensive damage.

Kurashiki, Okayama, July, 2018
image from Fire and Disaster Management Agency

After the disaster struck, the Disaster Relief Network Okayama, which currently has a secretariat at the Okayama NPO Center, a local intermediary support organization, was established and its current members include approximately 200 private organizations in various fields, including NPOs, licensed professionals’ associations, social welfare corporations, businesses, and universities. In addition, six local government officials, including one from Okayama Prefecture, serve as council members. The Network’s objective is to “provide effective and collaborative support activities by the private sector in Okayama Prefecture in the event of a disaster by forming a broad network both in normal times and in times of disaster, sharing information on the situation in the affected areas and each member’s activities, and coordinating with government agencies including considering and creating collaborative efforts.” The group, in other words, aims to provide support so that no one is left behind when a disaster strikes and is equipped with an organization fit for the purpose.

In addition, the network has five subcommittees, including “support for those living in evacuation shelters and temporary housing facilities” and “supports in materials,” which conduct activities to make preparations for next disasters in their subject matters; the network also holds monthly information sharing meetings for all parties concerned. These undertakings underline that the network is working on increasing the prefecture’s preparedness for the next natural disaster, in non-emergency times.

As a unique initiative of the Okayama NPO Center, it is promoting a database called the “Possible List,” which lists items that have been needed at evacuation centers and volunteer centers in the past, and registers items that businesses may be able to provide in the event of a future disaster. We believe that these endeavors could be a model for an inventory- and response-making, as we have discussed, in preparing for the next disaster.


What Only the Nonprofits Trusted by the Local Communities Can Achieve

We believe that a certain kind of support for disaster victims can only be provided by the organizations that are closely tied to the local communities and enjoy their trust. This is why it is incumbent on the grassroots NPOs to get involved proactively in enhancing disaster-preparedness of their communities during non-emergency times. Furthermore, we believe that local NPO support centers can play a major role as a link between grassroots organizations and the local government. Without doubt it is desirable that the important proposals of the 311 Change Association be promptly adopted. It is no surprise, however, that the next major disaster could occur at any time in Japan. Thus, even before laws and regulations are revised, we believe it is necessary for each region to simulate specific countermeasures and start implementing them. For this reason, we believe that the endeavors in Okayama Prefecture can serve as a model for other regions.


The authors are staff members of the Japan NPO Center, but this article is based entirely on the authors’ personal opinions. The discussion of the 311 Change Association’s proposals in this article is based entirely on the authors’ own initiative and without confirmation from the Association. The Japan NPO Center is co-managing the secretariat of the 311 Change Association, and Mr. Yoshifumi Tajiri, Executive Director of the Japan NPO Center, is one of its core members. In addition, the descriptions of the activities of the Disaster Relief Network Okayama and the Okayama NPO Center in this report are based on materials available on the websites of the two organizations and other sources, and were prepared by the authors on their own initiative. Tatsuya Ishihara, president of Okayama NPO Center, is a board member of the Japan NPO Center.


Original text by Masahiro Yokoyama and Masahiro Sato (JNPOC staff) originally posted on November 2, 2023; translated by JNPOC.