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August 2012 · Volume 94 · Number 7


Special Report: Ultraland Japan

by Clay Pearson and Bill Hammon

On a first trip to Japan three years ago to look at the country’s local government structure and community-building activities, one coauthor, Clay Pearson, came away talking about impressions of the land of ultras: ultraclean, ultrasafe, ultraprompt, ultratasty, and ultracohesive.

A return to Japan with the ICMA International Committee in April 2012 for a work study and meeting did nothing to diminish that characterization, even following the epic earthquake and tsunami disasters and subsequent Fukushima nuclear reactor problems of March 2011. We heard how the Japanese have planned for and now cope with such significant widespread disaster. The prefectures of Japan have developed individual 10-year plans to recover, rebuild, and improve because 10 years is a realistic timeframe for a disaster of such scale.

International committee members met in Tokyo for a series of meetings with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the home office of the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), and the National Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Participating ICMA members from around the United States, Canada, and Slovakia attended with logistical support from ICMA but underwrote their own attendance. ICMA President-elect Simon Farbrother, city manager, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; ICMA Vice President Peter Agh, city manager, Novezamby, Skovakia, and International Committee Chairman Mark Watson, city manager, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, led the delegation throughout the week.

The ICMA Japan tour was arranged and supported by CLAIR headquarters in Tokyo and the Japan Local Government Center in New York and the CLAIR staff who stayed with our group during the entire visit.

Tokyo is a city of 13 million people that runs like clockwork. Trains, commerce, connections, and deliveries are ultrasmooth. The Tokyo government is a uni-government, encompassing traditional state, county, and city functions under one umbrella. It works well.

The vice governor for the consolidated Tokyo Metropolitan Government hosted us in its massive towered government offices; ultragood hospitality and generosity remained a hallmark even at these high levels of government. We were also hosted for a meeting series with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the Japan Association of City Mayors. The Association of City Mayors functions much as the National League of Cities in the United States, providing a forum for local elected officials to meet and confer.

Ultrahospitality and Ultraefficiency

While the local government managers in our travel group marveled that every pavement striping and asphalt work looked like it had just been newly completed, the people of Tokyo moved with ultragrace and welcomed us with ultrahospitality. You can guess the adjective for the speed and efficiency of the Shinkansen bullet train that took us from Tokyo to Sendai City in the Miyagi Prefecture. Yes, ultrafast!

The bullet train’s two-hour ride (driving takes more than five hours) is part of a nationwide network that has operated for more than 50 years without incident. Trains leave spot-on at the appointed time, the cars glide across the countryside up to 180 miles per hour, and the carriages are clean and well-served.

Zipping by parts of the country that represent the third largest economy in the world, one keeps in mind that all this has been achieved since rebuilding began in 1945. In just over 65 years, Japan has transformed itself from desolation and destruction to a leading democracy.

Japan’s democracy is real; there are (too) frequent changes in national prime minister leadership. There is continuity with the public service sector, extending into the local governments.

There are not city managers in the traditional ICMA sense. Public servants are part of a system with an elected mayor as chief executive officer, per the national constitution. The local officials tend to stay with their jurisdictions for their working careers, rotating among jobs in often large units of government.

The CLAIR program provides an opportunity for those local officials to work outside of Japan for up to three years, learning best practices at one of seven offices around the world. ICMA has a long positive working relationship with the CLAIR office in New York. Many of the CLAIR staff members who have attended ICMA conferences were able to renew friendships during the International Committee visit.

ICMA International Committee members meet Miyagi Prefecture officials.

Sendai Airport Executive Director Teruo Odaira. Former residential areas outside the airport are barren after the tsunami.

Setting Sights on Recovery

Sendai City is the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, which endured the greatest direct damage and suffering from the March 2011 tsunami. Even though Japan emergency preparedness is “tops in the world,” the scale of the disaster remains daunting, even as the recovery has accomplished so much.

One measure is the debris. There are mountainous piles of neatly sorted materials along the coastline. There is as much debris to dispose as the prefecture would normally produce in 23 years. There are an estimated 250,000 housing units to replace. Such scale would make most despair, but not the Japanese.

We met with Miyagi Prefecture officials who shared their 10-year recovery, reconstruction, and improvement plans. There was ultrafocus and ultracooperation. We realize that these official briefings are the packaging and planning. There are obviously going to be skirmishes between the local governments and the national government about resources and direction.

One just gets the sense that the selfless cooperation will make this recovery work. Sendai City, a city of more than 1 million people, which has its center several miles inland, is bright and bustling still. The city is quite large and does have coastal areas, but the central business district was unaffected directly by the encroachment of sea water.

The chilling site visit included a trip to the Sendai Airport. The airport was one of the countless tsunami videos made public in the wake of the disaster. The airport is just a couple of miles from the seacoast and images showed the mass of water and debris sweeping across it.

Yet, the airport reopened within four days for relief flights and then commercial flight resumed within one month. Many times there was appreciation expressed for the support of the United States residents from the beginning of the disaster, especially the U.S. military’s work at the airport to assist Japanese forces.

While the airport is refurbished and ramping back up to pre-disaster levels, the former residential areas are laid level.

Where there were housing and shops, there is cleared open land and an occasional wrecked fishing boat. There are no definitive decisions yet, but rebuilding housing this close to the coastline is likely not in the future. Whatever gets done, you know it will be ultraright.

Clay Pearson is city manager, Novi, Michigan (cpearson@cityofnovi.org), and Bill Hammon is assistant city manager, Alcoa, Tennessee (bhammom@cityofalcoa-tn.gov).

Participants in ICMA’s April 2012 Japanese Study Tour Cite Cultural Resiliency, Determination to Overcome Obstacles

A Protean Country

I found the International Committee meeting and study tour informative and interesting. I would like to thank ICMA and the Japanese Council of Local Authorities for International Relations for planning the event. It is well known that Japan is a major economic power in the world and although there was a minor downturn after the tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant shutdown, the economy is back on track. With the implementation of a variety of incentives, tax reductions, and an aggressive marketing campaign, a number of new businesses are being constructed or reestablished.

Japan has been a leader in climate change initiatives and a presentation on the Tokyo Climate Change Strategy from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government officials was insightful; it was also evident that similar programs exist throughout the country. Reducing energy is an important issue as Japan reviews its future use of nuclear power. During our visit to Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture, the extent of the decimation and damage the tsunami caused was clear.

On a positive note, it was apparent in the hard work and determination of the various levels of government and Japan's residents that this area was getting back to normal within a year of the catastrophic event. We were told that professional staff from all levels of government and prefectures from across the country were shared with the impacted prefectures to help with the initial cleanup and then with the recovery and reconstruction plans of the damaged areas—a true team spirit in a time of need.

The reuse and recycling project in Miyagi Prefecture was also impressive and well planned. I am thankful I had the opportunity to attend this event.

Jim Toye
City Manager
North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada

Going Further

While on a visit to a cultural landmark in Japan, a member of the group mentioned how industrious the people of Japan seemed and how impressed she was with the obvious commitment to education and learning. The guide said that after World War II, Japan had to rebuild from practically nothing, and its residents have had to work extremely hard to do so.

This intensity and commitment to address issues and challenges were evident in all our conversations with the officials we met. I should add that the friendliness of the Japanese residents and their willingness to go out of their way to assist an oftentimes bewildered visitor was remarkable. Kampai! (Translation: Cheers!)

Greg Bielawski
ICMA/Illinois City/County Management Association Range Rider
ICMA Senior Advisor and Range Rider Program Coordinator
Wheaton, Illinois

Model Quality

The study tour was beneficial to me to be able to see and understand how another government’s organization works. Even though there are differences in management philosophy, the issues are the same: lack of funding, aging populations, globally positioning communities for business interest, and environmental concerns. I was also impressed with how respectful the business environment is with an individual’s time.

Tokyo’s strict energy-conservation design guidelines and carbon-reduction plans can serve as a model for other local governments as they pursue green initiatives.

David Rowlands
City Manager
Clayton, Ohio

True Appreciation

For a number of years, ICMA's International Committee has had the wisdom to promote international cooperation and strengthen relationships between managers worldwide. Its recent spring meeting and study tour of where the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake hit showed how managers from other parts of the world can face similar experiences and learn from each other.

There was much to learn from our Japanese counterparts who were forced to come up with new ideas and new ways of dealing with this disaster in just hours and days. It was when learning that more than 250,000 people were relocated in 30 minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami, while 10,000 were lost in this tragedy in Miyagi, that I was struck with how remarkable this feat was. My appreciation of Japanese people is great for their almost military discipline as they face all tragedies resiliently and like the ancient Phoenix, come back from ashes every time.

I spent my last two days in Hiroshima, the city of the A-bomb, where the day after the bomb was dropped, citizens were hooking up electrical power lines. On the third day, the streetcar service started, and two weeks after the bombing, the first city council meeting was held in the destroyed city hall building. Today, some 67 years later, it is a beautiful lively city with almost 2 million inhabitants. Another excellent example of the Japanese people's strong will.

Peter Agh
ICMA International Vice President
City Manager
Nove Zamky, Slovakia

A Resilient People

Our committee meeting and visit in Japan was educational and instructional from many perspectives. First, were the incredible hospitality and graciousness exhibited by our CLAIR (Council of Local Authorities for International Relations) hosts, various government officials that we met, and the Japanese people. Warm, polite, and exceptionally accommodating are descriptors that come to mind in thinking how well we were treated, both as part of our formal visit and our self-guided stay that followed.

One cannot help but be humbled and impressed by the resiliency and dedication of the Japanese people in bouncing back and recovering from the tragic consequences and adversity that beset them resulting from last year's earthquake and tsunami. More than 10,000 lives lost and more than 250,000 people relocated in Miyagi Prefecture alone. Villages and homes totally obliterated. All that remains are concrete foundations. That they have been as successful as they have in cleaning up and rebounding from that tragedy is truly impressive.

Second, was the extent to which an island nation with more than 60 percent of its land area covered in mountains has maximized the use of available land resources for living, working, and farming. It was of interest to learn that 85 percent of the country's population of some 126 million reside on just 16 percent of the nation's land area. It was impressive to observe good planning and responsible land stewardship in practice.

Third, was the extent to which the country has made efficient and cost-effective use of high-speed rail service to connect virtually all parts of the country. Riding the trains, which were incredibly clean and well maintained, to different destination cities was a real treat and a convenient and easy way to get around. Equally impressive was the extensive and easy-to-use subway system in two of the cities we visited - Tokyo and Kyoto. So much more could be written about our visit, the impressions that were made, and what was learned but these are memories that stand out for me.

Terry Zerkle
ICMA Life Member
Cave Creek, Arizona

Impressive Progress

My impression from the study tour was the benefit of being enlightened and educated. Even though the Japanese government does not take advantage of the council-manager form of government, the creation of the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) initiative is an impressive accomplishment. The CLAIR program links individual local governments and then provides a platform for global engagement. It has served to create a worldwide network of both individuals and local governments.

It was also impressive to see how much progress has been made in dealing with the aftermath of death and destruction from the 2011 earthquake. It is mind boggling to have to deal with managing such a large disaster as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant reactors, much less two. Recovering from the nuclear disaster has impacted the national energy policy, which is affecting individual buildings and homes.

The tsunami impacts to the Sendai area in the Miyagi Prefecture were staggering. Even though there still is a long road to recovery, I was surprised to see how well the Japanese had handled the loss of life, destruction of property, and disruption of public services caused by the tsunami.

It appears that as a region and a country, the Japanese are totally committed to a sustainable recovery.

G. William Hammon
Assistant City Manager
Alcoa, Tennessee

Working Through Challenges

Japan has the third-largest economy in the world, yet is an island country the size of the state of California, and it must import nearly all raw materials. It faces major challenges, including loss of its nuclear power plants, rising sea levels, and a dwindling workforce due to an aging population and a low birth rate.

The March 2011 tsunami destroyed more than 100,000 homes and killed 10,000 people in Miyagi Prefecture alone. Our study tour helped me to understand how the unique culture of Japan is enabling people to adjust and deal with the aftermath of the tsunami, as well as other challenges facing the country.

Tokyo Metropolitan government, for example, did not wait for national or international action on cap and trade but implemented its own program to require reduced energy use. In Miyagi Prefecture, the tsunami wreckage has been nearly all removed and neatly sorted for recycling.

The entire country is participating in reducing energy use in response to the loss of the Fukushima power plant. Japan allows no immigration and has no plans to do so. The country relies on new technology and increased efficiency to make up for workforce losses. I was pleased to see professional women in some of our official meetings, something I never saw on my first visit to Japan 20 years ago.

New technology is quickly adopted and used in Japan, making it possible, for example, to operate a soba noodle shop with only one employee because customers ordered and paid through a menu board. I expect that innovation and resilience will ensure Japan's continued success.

Cynthia Seelhammer
Interim Assistant City Manager
Queen Creek, Arizona

Information Transfer

A number of years ago, the ICMA Executive Board had the foresight to establish an International Committee, and the recent expansion of the board to include a third international vice president was another significant step in moving the "I" in ICMA forward.

So what is the value in this initiative? In my opinion, it is in the fact that to be successful in a global economy, managers need to broaden their perspectives and share information that is relevant to local leadership irrespective of its geographic location.

The International Committee meeting was a good example of this. Representatives from a number of nations participated in the meeting and had an opportunity to experience how Japanese city management has responded to significant tragedy (the 2011 tsunami), to being leaders in innovation (the green building initiative of the city of Tokyo), and to the expansion of leadership and learning (the CLAIR initiative).

Many of the experiences shared and the lessons learned are immediately transferable to our North American reality. At a local level, personal friendships were created and the global network of local government management expanded.

Simon Farbrother
City Manager
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Truly Ultra

The Japan meeting provided many insights into the full impact of good planning and making things better. Upon visiting one of the tsunami impact sites in Miyagi Prefecture, I was struck by the utter destruction surrounding me where 10,000 souls were lost, all being underwater, and with tons of debris. And yet, I found hope in the public service motivation by Japanese public servants to recover quickly and better.

A 10-year plan, with benchmarks and processes, was readily identified by national, prefecture, and local governments to assist. Free-taxation zones were established to encourage immediate development of jobs. Local governments examined new ways to plan parks and open space where rebuilding was not desirable.

I was impressed with the desire to learn from this event, which was epitomized by the Sendai International Airport director who told us he was collecting thoughts and directives on the airport’s experience and sharing it with every major airport in the world! This disaster even affected my community's Sister City of Naka, nearly 35 kilometers from the coast, where people were without water systems and roads for two weeks after the earthquake. A 200-year-old local sake brewery shared spring water with the local townsfolk until the system was repaired.

Truly, Japan has resilient people with ultra-abilities to respond to the worst of disasters!

Mark Watson
City Manager
Oak Ridge, Tennessee

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