Blame flies over Japan’ s killer snow storm

Abe dined on fine tempura while 23 perished, charge critics, who also accuse authorities of being ill-prepared for worst blizzard in 30 years

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 February, 2014, 10:39am

As eastern Japan digs itself out of its heaviest snowfall in three decades, authorities are being accused of being underprepared and botching efforts to get the country up and running again.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even came under fire for dining out at an upscale tempura restaurant as Tokyo was paralysed by the snow.

At least 23 people have been killed as a result of the snow storm, including some crushed as buildings collapsed under the weight of as much as 50cm of snow. Others were killed as they tried to clear snow from the roofs of buildings, and at least one man froze to death after his car broke down.

There was no sense of urgency… It’s really regrettable

Thousands of people are still cut off, mostly in isolated mountain communities, and many roads remain impassable. Shops reported running out of food and no new deliveries were able to get through, while heating oil also was being blocked.

In a stranded community in Chichibu, restaurant owner Seiichi Chishima said: "Perhaps because we've never experienced a disaster this bad, I felt the measures taken were one step behind. I was told the Self-Defence Force was coming with food, medicine and kerosene but snow has not been removed. I wonder if they can deliver them to every household."

Watch: Tokyo hit by heavy snowfall, worst in 45 years

A national disaster headquarters was set up only on Tuesday morning, four days after snow started pounding the Kanto and Koshin areas covering Tokyo, Saitama and Yamanashi.

At its first meeting, Abe instructed officials to "take every possible measure" to handle the situation.

A senior lawmaker of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan scorned Abe's show of leadership, saying it was intended to fend off criticism that the government had been "inadequate in taking action at an early stage".

But Abe said on Facebook: "The government confirmed preliminary measures with relevant ministries and agencies starting on Friday before snow started falling."

DPJ lawmaker Jin Matsubara took a stab at Abe for dining out on tempura on Sunday night while the snow damage was expanding.

"There was no sense of urgency," he said. "There were already communities and cars stranded in snow as of Sunday. It's really regrettable."

Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture is one of the small towns cut off by the storm since Saturday. The municipal government repeatedly called on the prefecture to dispatch Self-Defence Force troops to help dig residents out but was spurned.

Mayor Kuniyasu Kuki wrote on his blog: "We made repeated requests … but were only turned down." A city official said the urgency of the situation apparently was not understood.

The prefectural government did finally request the SDF to send troops. Governor Kiyoshi Ueda said: "It's not that we turned them away but the situation was not urgent enough."

Kofu City, in the mountainous prefecture of Yamanashi, recorded 114 cm of snow on Friday and Saturday, more than twice the amount of its previous record high.

Questions are also being asked of the Japan Meteorological Agency, which failed to issue emergency warnings before the weather worsened on Friday morning and then stuck rigidly to criteria for declaring an emergency after the storm hit.

"We haven't had such heavy snow on the Pacific coast before," a weather official said. "It didn't occur to us to consider such a possibility when we worked out criteria for emergency warnings."

The government's poor handling of the crisis has prompted comparisons with the response to the killer typhoon that battered islands to the south of Tokyo in October. The authorities were criticised for failing to issue warnings of the power of the storm or that it could trigger major landslides.