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Volume 31, Issue 4

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The volcanoes on the islands of Japan bring a mixed blessing to the people who live there. On one hand, the volcanoes are responsible for forming natural mineral hot springs, used for Onsen bathing, an economic mainstay for the island's people. On the other hand, these same volcanoes also threaten the people's economic well-being by depriving them of access to their homes and businesses. Just such a situation occurred recently when Mt. Usu, a volcano on the northernmost island of Japan, erupted.
Mt. Usu became highly active at about 1:10 p.m. on March 31, 2000. Thankfully, no lives were lost to this recent eruption due to accurate forewarnings by volcano experts which allowed authorities to take prompt preventative action and begin smooth evacuation of the surrounding population as early as two days prior to the eruption.

t its peak, more than 16,600 residents were evacuated. As the volcanic eruptions have slowly settled down, the evacuation orders for various districts have been gradually lifted and residents have been allowed back into their homes and businesses. Nearly 1,700 households, or more than 3,000 individuals from the Abuta township's Toyako Onsen district, remained in evacuation centers more than two months after the eruption.

he Onsen spas are an enormous industry, and Mt. Usu can be safely characterized as the economic lifeblood of the local region. More than 50,000 people live in three townships at the volcano's base, and the vast majority of them earn their living either directly or indirectly from the hot springs. Tourism is by far the largest industry with approximately four million visitors per year. So in addition to the simple risk to immediate life and property, this latest eruption of Mt. Usu has major long-term economic significance to the people and businesses of the area.

Already, overall travel to the island of Hokkaido is down by 10% and tourist travel in the southwestern area of the island is even more highly affected. Lake Toya and the Toyako Onsen were a kind of 'station' or typical stop along a famous tourist course and the eruption has disrupted the flow of tourist traffic throughout the area. When the last series of eruptions from Mt. Usu began in 1977, tourist traffic fell 60%. By one estimate, the drop in tourism this year will result in a $450 million reduction in revenue for the lakeshore region. 

 

Karakami Kankou, Co., Ltd., which owns and operates two large hotels on the shores of Lake Toya, was apparently well prepared for the evacuation. On the afternoon of March 29th, they mobilized their 350 employees into a special 'task force' and quickly proceeded to redirect more than 1,000 existing guests and those with immediate reservations to other hotels on the island; hotels either owned by themselves or were members of their hotel group. After employees canceled orders on all outside contracts such as linen services and food caterers they locked up the hotel and they all took refuge.

Since the evacuation orders for the Sobetsu township of Toyako Onsen were lifted on May 12th, cleanup efforts at one large sightseeing hotel, 'Toya Sun Palace' continue in full stride. Workers are preparing for reopening by laboriously cleaning up all external signs of the volcanic ash from the hotel, especially in the large outdoor bathhouse and swimming pool. However, it is hard to know exactly when it is safe to resume business. Mt. Usu's last series of eruptions began in 1977, but it was not until 1982 that the eruptions were officially declared 'ended' and the volcano was declared 'safe.'

After the 1977 eruptions, revival of tourism was essential to the economic livelihood of the area. Few could have expected another eruption, just 18 years later. Great efforts were made to bring back the tourists. Museums and exhibits about volcanoes were built to attract more tourists. Lake Toya is also the birthplace of Japan's newest volcano, Showa Shizan or 'Showa New Mountain'. A museum was built with exhibits documenting the birth and development of this 'baby' volcano which suddenly sprouted from a farmer's potato field in1945. In addition, the Abuta Volcano Museum located at the foot of Mt. Usu dramatically documents the 1977 eruption, while the Abuta Municipality Volcano Science Building features exhibits that reproduce the conditions of an eruption. Finally, the Showa Niiyama Botanical Garden utilizes the geological heat from the volcanoes to warm its famous hothouses, while it attracts more tourists to the area.

Furthermore, in the effort to revive tourism, the Lake Toya community began its famous fireworks displays in 1982. These popular 'long run' fireworks events are held on boats out on the lake every night for about 200 consecutive days from spring to autumn.

These tourism revival efforts, most particularly the fireworks, had proven quite effective and Lake Toya had succeeded in recapturing its tourist traffic when Mt. Usu erupted again this year. Once this latest round of volcanic activity is settled, another economic revival plan will be necessary to help quickly restore tourism and other business activity to its previous levels.

Unfortunately, compared with other natural disasters, it is difficult to establish the timing of the business restoration plan. There is little choice but to simply wait until the eruption activity finally reaches a lull. In the case of a volcano, you cannot predict how long you will be closed for business, nor can you easily reopen your business elsewhere. Because even if you could re-open elsewhere, without the volcano and its all-important hot springs, you could not expect your tourist customers to be there. This leads to an ongoing economic disaster on the community level and it will require the community's united efforts to successfully overcome it as they did in 1982.

The successes of this disaster should be emphasized. Certainly the early prediction of the eruption was vital in the saving of lives. While the Japanese government was criticized for its slow response to the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and for poor emergency management after the accident at the Tokaimura nuclear plant last September, the government's response went quite well. The Department of Crisis Management took charge and delegated authority appropriately, so that there was no need to check with multiple departments before taking action. The Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) took quick and effective action during the evacuation and centralized a radio information center for police and fire. While there is always room for improvement, it is clear that importyant lessons have been learned from Kobe.

But, this latest extended evacuation of residents from Mt. Usu's Toyako Onsen leads to important questions. Some say residents should not be allowed to return to such a dangerous location and should be relocated elsewhere. While this may seem a logical decision, it is difficult to apply in light of the fact that it is the dangerous location itself that permits their main economic livelihood. Others wonder what the appropriate long-term role of the public sector should be and how long the public should support those living in evacuation centers. These and other questions will be greatly debated as the community attempts to reconcile their lives and livelihood with Mt. Usu's mixed blessings.


Shinji Hostsubo helped develop and is the Secretary-General of CMPO, or Crisis Management and Preparedness Organization. This is a membership driven non-profit organization dedicated to corporate and community disaster preparedness in Japan. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Nathan Rhoden was also raised in Japan, yet educated in English. Nathan's professional career has primarily been in new business development for Japanese corporations and he now works as a consultant in Tokyo. He has served on the CMPO's board of directors for the past two years. He can be reached at or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Both authors were born on Hokkaido, the northern Japanese island where Mt. Usu is located.