Japan is very vulnerable to natural disasters because of its climate and topography. In recent years, intense rainfalls damaged some localities of Japan and caused deaths. In response to frequent natural disasters, the Diet (Japan’s parliament) amended the Basic Act on Disaster Management (Act No. 223 of 1961) in order to strengthen the implementation system for disaster countermeasures and ensure smooth and prompt evacuation in the event of a disaster. (Act Amending Basic Act on Disaster Management, Act No. 30 of 2021.) The Amendment Act was promulgated on May 10, 2021, and became effective on May 20, 2021.
Before the amendment, the prime minister could, according to the level of damage, establish the Major Disaster Management Headquarters (headed by the minister of state for disaster management) or the Extreme Disaster Management Headquarters (headed by the prime minister) when a disaster occurred. (Basic Act on Disaster Management old arts. 24, 25, 28-2, 28-3.) The amended Basic Act on Disaster Management adds a lower level of disaster management headquarters, the Special Disaster Management Headquarters, which is headed by the minister of state for disaster management. (New arts. 23-3, 23-4.) A “special disaster” is one that causes dozens of deaths and missing persons. The Major Disaster Management Headquarters will now be headed by the prime minister under the amended act. (New art. 25.) In addition, the amended act enables the prime minister to establish the disaster management headquarters when it is likely a disaster will occur. (New arts. 23-3, 24, 28-2.) These headquarters establish the policies for disaster countermeasures and coordinate various emergency measures to be taken by various organizations. (New art. 23-5; arts 25, 28-4.)
The elderly are prone to be victims of disasters. Since 2013, the Basic Act on Disaster Management has obligated municipalities to prepare a list of people who require assistance for evacuation, such as elderly and disabled persons. (Art. 49-10.) However, the government found that the effectiveness of evacuation for these people must be improved. People who are 65 years of age or older accounted for about 65% of the victims of the East Japan typhoons in 2019 and about 79% of the victims of the heavy rains in 2020. The amended act obligates municipalities to endeavor to prepare evacuation plans for such individuals. The plans include information on persons who assist those victims and on evacuation routes. (New art. 49-14.)
Before the amendment, when the mayor of a municipality found it particularly necessary for protecting people from death or injury before or during a disaster, the mayor might make recommendations to the residents of a particular area to evacuate and seek refuge or, if it is urgent, give instructions to evacuate and seek refuge. (Old art. 60.) The evacuation recommendation meant to prompt people in danger areas to evacuate, while the evacuation instructions meant to make doubly sure an evacuation would occur when danger was imminent. However, the general public did not understand the difference between the recommendations and the instructions, and many did not start evacuating until evacuation instructions had been issued. The amended act abolishes this two-stage warning system and makes the evacuation instructions mean both recommending an evacuation and providing instructions for carrying it out. (New art. 60.)
The amended act also establishes a procedure whereby, when a disaster is expected, the mayor of a municipality confers with other mayors in the same prefecture to make residents evacuate to places in other municipalities when, under the circumstances, designated evacuation places within the first municipality are not suitable for evacuation. The other municipalities cannot refuse the evacuation without a justifiable reason. (New art. 61-4.) In cases when residents need to evacuate to other prefectures, the mayor can request the governor of his or her prefecture to confer with other governors. (New art. 61-5.)