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Kobe Shakeout: Officials Promise Quicker Response

CRISES can bring out the best and worst in people. After the giant earthquake that rocked the city of Kobe two weeks ago, Japan's government came across as slow and inept. But harsh criticism forced it to get ahead of the expensive task of rebuilding.

Japan's much-maligned prime minister is showing a brave face, and making some badly needed improvements to the bureaucratic mare's-nest that so hindered rescue operations in the first few days after the quake.

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On Friday, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama proposed 83 recommendations for dealing with the aftermath of the quake, including a proposal to set up procedures for crisis management at the Cabinet level.

Two days after the Kobe quake, he was forced to set up a Cabinet emergency headquarters in Tokyo after the National Land Agency's disaster headquarters, which is supposed to coordinate disaster relief, began bickering with local governments in the Kobe area.

Mr. Murayama's bravest act so far has been to tackle the issue of the role of the military, known as the Self Defense Forces, in disaster relief.

He has come under heavy fire for refusing to send the SDF to Kobe immediately after the disaster. To the socialist party, which he heads, the military still bears the stigma of World War II. Critics say the chilly relationship between the Social Democratic Party of Japan and the military cost lives in the delay over rescuing people.

The SDF has come out of the disaster looking good despite its late start. Playing to Japanese sensibilities, a high-ranking SDF official scored points when he apologized in tears for the military's failure to coordinate better with prefectural authorities. Japanese listeners realized it was the local authorities who had kept them at a distance.

If the Japanese military gains more emergency powers as a result of the Kobe quake, it will be a critical step in their postwar rehabilitation, says Hideo Sato of Tsukuba University. ''The stigma attached to the SDF will be substantially reduced,'' he says.

Such an improvement in the military's image could have consequences broader than domestic disaster relief. The constitutional ambiguity of Japan's defense legislation hobbles Japan's participation in United Nations peacekeeping activities as well as domestic emergency operations.

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As a first show of faith in the SDF, Mr. Murayama decided Jan. 28 to include the military in the $1.5 billion cleanup operations of the 79,786 private homes that were affected by the earthquake.

Even with the actions that are being taken now, political analysts said that Murayama is unlikely to be able to save his political skin. ''Soon after we have taken care of the aftereffects of the disaster, he should resign,'' says Professor Sato.

The most compelling failures revealed by the earthquake, however, were in the bureaucracy. Their limping response almost certainly added to the death toll, now at 5,092 with 14 still missing.

Bureaucratic pride lay behind Japan's refusal to accept help from all but a few of the 100 foreign countries that offered it. Red tape also tied up the efforts of volunteer groups that headed to Kobe without official invitations.

''They should have accepted foreign relief right away,'' said Arthur Johnson, an American who organized a team of medical volunteers, in a phone call from Kobe. ''The US military could have been in with supplies within minutes of the disaster. Everything was offered.''

Instead, little more than tents and blankets from the US, temporary shelters from Canada, and emergency specialists from France and Switzerland was accepted.

Some of the destruction to public infrastructure may also be blamed on Japanese bureaucrats. Reports that came in late last week, from the transport and construction ministries, as well as from independent experts, were a sweeping indictment of Japanese construction practices.

According to professors from Takao University, who joined an official inspection team in Kobe, the city was reported to have postponed taking measures to strengthen its highways until 1997.

Although the government has been widely criticized for not taking action earlier, Tokyo announced last week that it would initiate major revisions of Japanese construction standards. The codes date back to 1923, when a similar earthquake devastated Tokyo.

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