In a time when instantaneous communication is the norm and in a country that boasts of one of the fastest Internet connections in the world, Japan’s well-documented love affair with the almost half-a-century old technology of the fax machine might actually be to blame for the failure to warn citizens of the dangers of the recent record-breaking Typhoon Wipha. The typhoon, described by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) as a “once a decade” storm because of its strength, brought with it heavy rains that caused deadly mudlsides that killed at least 28 people, and almost 20 more unaccounted for.
Typhoon Wipha was the worst storm to hit Japan in a decade, and the JMA issued mudslide warnings for the islands of Izu-Oshima and Miyakejima, 120 kilometers off the coast of Tokyo at around 6:05 PM local time on October 15. This was relayed to the Tokyo Metropolitan government which then sent a fax transmission to the affected local governments. While the Miyake government got the warning and advised residents to evacuate, on Izu-Oshima, all the staff had already left the town office, with only a lone security guard still on watch. Officials didn’t see the advisory until six hours later, near midnight. By then, they decided it was too dangerous to ask residents to leave their homes. Japan boasts of one of the world’s fastest Internet connections and placing near the top in global rankings of number of Web users, but it is certainly anachronistic that officials and corporate Japan continue to rely heavily on the fax machine, which first came into widespread use in Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Government offices relied heavily on fax machines even in the Fukushima nuclear disasters. The safety manual for the Fukushima Daiichi power plant specified that operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) send faxes to authorities to alert them of problems. The Tokyo Metropolitan government is still stubbornly defending its use of the fax system, saying that system has worked well in the past. A Tokyo Metropolitan government official said it will keep the current system in place, although it has now collected mobile numbers for those in charge of disaster prevention and control at local governments so it can contact them directly when fax communications break down. “That’s the system we have now. With a fax, we can transmit warnings all at once,” said Kunio Takatsuka, head of the disaster response department at the Metropolitan Tokyo government.
[via Wall Street Journal]
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