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Concerns mount as mercy mission takes disastrous turn in Japan

Haneda crash highlights potential vulnerability in nation’s emergency response system
An official looks at the wreckage of a Japan Coast Guard plane on the tarmac at Tokyo International Airport at Haneda in Tokyo on Jan. 3, the morning after a Japan Airlines (JAL) airliner hit the smaller Coast Guard plane on the ground killing five people

An official looks at the wreckage of a Japan Coast Guard plane on the tarmac at Tokyo International Airport at Haneda in Tokyo on Jan. 3, the morning after a Japan Airlines (JAL) airliner hit the smaller Coast Guard plane on the ground killing five people. (Photo: AFP)

Published: January 04, 2024 10:50 AM GMT
Updated: January 04, 2024 10:53 AM GMT

In the afternoon of New Year's Day, Ishikawa Prefecture was jolted by a strong earthquake, measuring 7.6 in magnitude. This natural disaster, the largest among a series of quakes hitting the Noto area since December 2020, has led to the unfortunate death of at least 78 people so far and left many unaccounted for.

In response to this calamity, Japan's well-oiled emergency mechanisms kicked into gear. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the opening of a sea route to deliver aid to remote areas and the mobilization of the Self-Defense Forces, the Coast Guard, the fire brigade, and the police for disaster management.

Despite logistical challenges, the government managed to send supplies by ship to areas difficult to access by road. As of the latest reports, about 1,000 Japanese Self-Defense Forces personnel were involved in rescue operations, with more than 46,000 people evacuated from areas in Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures​.

A significant aspect of this response was the dispatch of a Coast Guard plane from Tokyo's Haneda Airport, tasked with delivering aid to the earthquake-affected zone. Tragically, this mission of mercy took a disastrous turn.

The Coast Guard aircraft, a Bombardier-built Dash-8 maritime patrol plane, collided with a Japan Airlines Airbus A350 during its take-off. This collision led to the Airbus bursting into flames and skidding down the tarmac, a horrifying scene captured live and shared widely on social media.

Remarkably, all 379 passengers and crew aboard the Japan Airlines plane escaped the fire. However, the collision resulted in the death of five of the six crew members aboard the Coast Guard plane. The sole survivor, the captain who miraculously escaped from the plane, sustained serious injuries.

"The Haneda crash highlights a potential vulnerability in Japan's emergency response system"

The Coast Guard plane was bound for Niigata on Japan's west coast to deliver aid to those affected by the Ishikawa earthquake. This fact stresses a critical point: the plane, and consequently its crew, would not have been at Haneda Airport at that time if not for the earthquake and the urgent need to transport supplies to the victims.

The tragedy at Haneda Airport, therefore, can be seen as an indirect but very real consequence of the earthquake in Ishikawa.

Japanese authorities are renowned for their efficiency and preparedness in dealing with routine operations and natural disasters. However, the Haneda crash highlights a potential vulnerability in Japan's emergency response system — the challenge of adapting to rapidly changing situations.

In the face of unforeseen events, even the most well-prepared systems can falter, as evidenced by the miscommunication or misunderstanding between the flight controllers and the two aircraft involved in the collision.

The ongoing investigation into the cause of the collision at Haneda Airport reveals complexities in air traffic control and emergency protocols during crisis situations. Reports indicate that while the Japan Airlines flight had landing permission, there are uncertainties about the communication between the flight controllers and the Coast Guard aircraft.

The control tower reportedly instructed the Coast Guard plane to hold short of the runway, yet the Coast Guard official stated that the pilot had permission to take off.

"Japanese corporate culture is often characterized by a strong adherence to hierarchy and protocol"

One of the key lessons from these incidents is the paramount importance of effective communication and coordination. In rapidly evolving situations, the flow of accurate information and seamless coordination among various response agencies can mean the difference between timely intervention and disaster.

In the context of emergency response and adaptability to rapidly changing situations, Japan has shown strengths and weaknesses. For example, Japan's humanitarian assistance, while substantial, has faced challenges due to its reliance on tightly earmarked individual projects and heavy administrative procedures. This approach can limit flexibility in rapidly evolving contexts.

It is also well-known that the Japanese corporate culture is often characterized by a strong adherence to hierarchy and protocol, which fosters efficiency and precision in well-defined situations. However, this can sometimes lead to challenges in swiftly adapting to market changes or innovative trends, where a more flexible and dynamic approach is required.

We have also seen this happening in the context of the gig economy, which thrives on flexibility and rapid scaling, and often finds itself at odds with stringent regulations that can slow down innovation and adaptation processes.

While Japan's response system has initially performed with reliability, the existing mechanisms for disaster response, while commendable, face a test when confronted with the stress of the unexpected, emphasizing the need for continuous improvement in these areas.

This is second part of a two-part article. Read first part here

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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