Disaster Preparedness and Leadership Style in the United States and Japan

    Political leaders often find themselves facing one crisis or another, ranging from natural disasters to man-made crises such as terrorism and armed conflict. According to Roger Congleton of Gorge Mason University, a crisis has three salient characteristics: first, a crisis is unexpected, a complete surprise; second, a crisis is normally unpleasant in that current plans are found to work less well than had been anticipated; third, a crisis requires an urgent response of some kind. That is to say, an immediate change of plans is expected to reduce or avoid the worst consequences associated with the unpleasant surprise. In a similar vein, Frank Knight articulates that a crisis is not categorized as risk but uncertainty, arguing that uncertainty is different from risk in that the latter is predictable, while the former is not.

     As history repeatedly shows, the fate of an administration may hinge on the leader’s response to a crisis or what Knight calls uncertainty; presidents and prime ministers can earn valuable credit for dealing effectively with such situations; poor management, on the other hand, will cause them to lose credibility. Therefore, it is clear that a leader’s personal capacity and leadership skills, those required to manage a crisis, can be critically important in this context. At the same time, however, it is irrational to expect a leader to inevitably find a panacea and solve all the issues when responding to a crisis. According to a crisis cycle model advocated by Nagamatsu Shingo of Kansai University, leadership is vitally important after a crisis occurs, but equally important is preparation and preparedness before the crisis arises in the first place. More concretely, preparedness refers to establishing a system for leaders to rely on in dealing with a crisis.

     The argument of this paper is that systems are varied and each system requires a different type of leadership. For example, the system for responding to a crisis in Japan is relatively horizontal and decentralized. Japan’s “Basic Act on Disaster Control Measures” stipulates the role that the administration, ministries, and local governments should play after a crisis occurs; the administration delegates decision-making authority to each level of ministry and local government. Therefore, the administration does not need to comprehend all the information and make an order. The administration’s main role is to mediate among ministries and local governments, which demands leaders to act more in the capacity of moderator than commander-in-chief.

     On the other hand, the system in the U.S. is vertical and centralized. Local governments are required to follow the National Incident Management System, which stipulates the standardized rules for responding to a crisis. Thus, they do not have responsibility or authority; FEMA makes every single order for them to follow. FEMA is expected to gather all the information necessary for the leaders to efficiently make decisions. Thus, the administration’s role is to constantly make orders through FEMA, which demands the leader to be more of a commander-in-chief than a moderator.

     Therefore, each system requires a different type of leadership style. This paper will consider this hypothesis by carefully investigating natural disasters that have occurred in Japan and the U.S. and how leaders responded to those disasters. More specifically, the Hanshin Earthquake and the 3.11 disaster in Japan and Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil accident in the U.S. will be examined.

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