If you want to know why the Japan tsunami turned into a far greater disaster than the initial earthquake and learn the 7 main reasons for this calamity, then read on. In this article we will touch on the government, closed cultures, leadership vacuum, system failures and Japanese crisis management, timing and information practices.Japan-tsunami.Crisis-Management.Tony-Ridley-300x300.jpg?width=300

By the end of this article you will have the information to act in a much more decisive manner during the next similar crisis or immediately review your crisis and continuity plans involving Japan.


The Japanese government and political leadership has been in constant turmoil for the past few years, with regular scandals and changes. This constant change and lack of continuity has resulted in each successive party’s rebirth and having to learn “on the job” without a clear political vision. Lack of experience in power coupled with perpetual flux for all government employees and agencies results in limited growth, development and the absence of clear leadership. This is not the type of situation you want during great times of disaster but the current situation Japan has, on top of the natural calamity, and it has been a major contributor to the compounding problems and lack of appropriate action at all stages. This was both foreseeable and likely.

Many public utilities are privately owned and have enjoyed limited government oversight or interference. The government is all but powerless to correct the lack of oversight and accountability at this late stage and are dependent on the private companies for all the decision and action taking. For reasons mentioned further on, this is perfect storm of failure in the making.

Japanese governance is an extension of norms and culture, which have created this malaise.


Most will be aware that the Japanese culture and sense of community is very unique in many ways. However, with nearly 25% of the population over 65, growing generational gaps, history and habit of covering up the truth in order to save face, lack of leadership at all functional levels and a group culture of sufferance and stoic resolve in the face of adversity do not strengthen the county or business sectors capacity to plan, manage and respond to crisis. In weakens it.

Internationally, Japanese executives and companies are known for their lack of crisis management plans and decision making. The country and national businesses have enjoyed fantastic economic success and have never seen the need to change or evolve without the pressure of failure or the demand to innovate. This is significantly more so within the ranks of Japanese government agencies. Therefore, they have not embraced or implemented current competencies for crisis management as they have not seen the “need”.

Culture often determines the strengths and weaknesses of the planning process but it must be assessed objectively as culture is the one common element to all societies, locations and plans.

Crisis Management Preparedness

The evolution of crisis management and disaster prevention has been accelerated by the acknowledgment that while their may be “acts of god” there is much man can do to plan, manage and respond to such acts without a spiritual belief that one must simply accept ones’ fate. This is not the case with much of Japan’s executive leadership. Therefore they fail to plan for many natural disasters in an adequate and holistic manner. Most Japanese simply accept disaster, whether secular or religious.

One statement summed up the issue by stating “they had no crisis management because they were never ready for crisis”.

Most companies and foreigners in Japan have failed to understand or mitigate against this reality which has left them very vulnerable and greatly affected.

Despite the “first world” label applied to Japan, many parts of the country are still less advanced and from the perspective of a foreigner, signs, language, decision making and government services are still very exclusively “Japanese access” preferred. In time of disaster, access and benefit from any internal resource is further diminished.

I have said before, crisis leadership is always preferable to crisis management but an absence of leadership can be deadly.

Leadership Vacuum

Only the elderly and senior management are permitted to make decisions. This may work in a functioning communications and repetitive work environment but not in a dynamic crisis situation or natural calamity. Lack of communication and a vacuum of independent thought and decision making have compounded the event beyond it’s initial occurrence.

No person is to blame for a natural disaster but each and everyone affected or responsible will be judged on how they manage and respond to such events. Most have been found wanting.

Leaders need information to act. You can act in the absence of information but continuos limitations on information and its impact create even more chaos and disaster.

Information Access and Release

Nearly all Japanese businesses and government agencies are very protective of information even secretive, especially around unpleasant or embarrassing information. Cover ups, information filtering, trickle release, lies and lack of understanding play a role and have been demonstrated throughout.

No one received accurate and truthful information as to the state of the affected nuclear plants. Only hindsight will reveal just how wide spread the issue was but it was predictable and evident from the beginning that it would be managed in this way.

Again, cultural trends indicate those responsible would rather fail outright, apologies later, cry in public or just fade away than accept responsibility now, act now and share all the facts and truth about the situation from the onset of disaster.

All plans and response are dependent on supporting systems. Lose one, lose them all and you need an alternate response in order to be effective.

Systems Failure

All the best plans and considerations are inclusive of single and multiple system failures. Not in Japan. Little to no consideration has been given to a series of system failures such as communications, transport, access, health care, utilities and food supplies. This is painfully evident and compounded the issues while most have only discovered this lack of planning and preparation, after the fact.


Disasters and crisis seldom occur at a time of your choosing. Planning, training, rehearsals and response all need to be inclusive of the “worst possible time” concept. Weather has played a significant role in this calamity and it’s painfully evident that all supporting plans (as limited as we now know) clearly did not encompass the foreseeable and historical bad weather patterns experienced in Japan. Rain, hail, sleet and snow all have an impact on the response to an earthquake, fire, tsunami and flood. Sometimes positively but also negatively.

Here we have seen a lack of preparation, triggered at the worst possible time, creating the mess that has affected millions of citizens, residents, expatriates, companies and travellers.


Japan and the Japanese people are not blame for this natural calamity but their culture and unique circumstances have compounded the response and increased suffering.

Any company or foreigner “caught out” by this phenomena has failed to localize their plans, management and response to crisis. These oversights have resulted in poor accountability for missing people, delayed decision making, failed plans, over confidence in government advice, diminished ownership/action by companies along with heightened risk to those affected.

Now that you understand the additional factors contributing to this particular calamity such as government, culture, timing, leadership, management, information and system failures you can immediately correct your errors or fix the flaws in your current plans.

Condolences to those affected by this recent tragedy but lack of planning and preparation is no excuse when faced with foreseeable and likely crisis, no matter the source.

Tony Ridley



Tony Ridley's blog

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