James P. Zumwalt
JASWDC Chairman of the Board

April 13, 2020

Greetings to all of the members and supporters of the Japan America Society of Washington DC.  As we disrupt our normal lives to maintain physical distance on the advice of health experts, I have had time to reflect on my experiences managing the U.S. Government response to the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  At the time, I was serving as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy Tokyo and was responsible for coordinating the U.S. government’s civilian response to the disaster.   Although that crisis was completely different from our present public health situation, I learned many lessons that remain relevant today.  I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts on crisis management.

The March 11th earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan and the resulting destructive tsunamis caused 22,000 deaths, left 400,000 persons homeless, and damaged 300 billion dollars of property. The following day, as Japan struggled to manage this unexpected humanitarian crisis, the government declared a nuclear disaster at two large nuclear power plants that threatened to release radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere.

  1. Be Prepared: Staff training is essential. Schedule regular fire and first responder training, stock emergency supplies, and establish alternate disaster communication channels.  U.S. Embassy Tokyo staff understood their roles in evacuating the Embassy chancery because we had just conducted a fire drill.
  2. Communicate, communicate, communicate: Organizations must communicate with their own employees and the public clearly early and regularly. The U.S. Embassy Tokyo communicated with its staff with daily morning briefings to promote transparency and to reassure staff of their safety. Communications with the public must be timely, relevant, clear, consistent, and credible. Embassy Tokyo hired a health risk communications expert to improve our public communications posture.
  3. Organize staff efforts for a long-term a response: Organizations must organize their staff workflow to sustain a crisis response. Crisis responders need time for eating, sleeping, and exercise if they are to continue essential operations throughout a crisis.
  4. Promote mental health: Organization leaders must manage the mental health of their staff as their organization responds to public needs. The responders from a community in crisis are themselves crisis victims with mental health needs.
  5. Make timely decisions, then adjust: Organization leaders must make decisions with imperfect information during a crisis. As more information becomes available, it may then be necessary to change course, so leaders must be flexible in adjusting previous decisions. (But don’t waste time criticizing past actions.  There will be time for a lessons-learned exercise after the crisis is over.  For now, focus on the present and future, not the past.)
  6. Bring in expertise – then listen: During the crisis in Japan, the U.S. government consulted experts from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Health, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Department. Their expertise was critical to forging an effective response to the triple disaster.
  7. Organize a whole-of-government response: No one entity can manage a large-scale crisis alone. It is important to consult, communicate and coordinate, and to then organize all entities’ contributions into a coherent whole-of-government crisis response.

Although we are now facing a new crisis, I remain confident that Americans again will rise to the challenge to manage this threat.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the Japan America Society of Washington DC for their continuing support at a challenging moment.  Although the Society has been forced to cancel some events this Spring, we are implementing online programs to continue our mission to promote greater understanding between the United States and Japan.  Please stay tuned for more information on these innovative new programs.