Disaster expo shows off flourishing Japan industry dedicated to coping with catastrophe

Mankind is powerless to prevent calamities such as typhoons and earthquakes, but in Japan where the devastating 2011 tsunami still looms large, there's a flourishing industry in devising ways to cope with catastrophe.

Some of the products on display at an exhibition on the sidelines of a recent United Nations disaster conference in the northeastern city of Sendai featured high-tech innovations and new materials. But many were just inventive, practical solutions for challenges such as quickly getting people out of harm's way.

Products like Masayoshi Nakamura's "Jinriki" — custom-made handles designed for easily hustling wheelchairs over debris and up hills. "I just wanted to do something to help," said Nakamura, jumping into a wheelchair as he urged a visitor to give it a try.

The snap- and screw-on handles, which turn a wheelchair into a modern version of a "rickshaw" like the ones seen in old movies, enable a person to push or pull a wheelchair over sand and snow, up and down stairs, with relative ease.

Nakamura knew from early on that pushing a wheelchair can be hard work, having often pushed his disabled brother around as they played with friends as children. He thought up the idea for the Jinriki while working on a tourism-related project, but was only able to turn it into a reality after the March 2011 disasters.

Being able to quickly escape to higher ground was a life-or-death matter when a tsunami up to 40 meters (131 feet) high thrashed Japan's northeastern coast, including Sendai's port and coastal suburbs, killing more than 18,500 people.

Many of the elderly people living in Japan's seaside villages could not escape in time. Pioneer Seiko Co.'s people-carrier frame, something of a cross between a toddler backpack and an adult-sized chair, can be used by an adult to carry another adult on his or her back.

Exact figures on disaster-related spending and manufacturing are hard to come by. The market spans both government and private spending, and includes an entire universe of goods ranging from tarps and water containers to sophisticated early-warning systems for tsunamis and typhoons.

Globally, disaster-related spending is on the rise as losses from weather-related catastrophes surge. Heeding estimates showing that $1 spending on prevention can yield up to $36 in savings from losses, in 2012-14 the World Bank allocated $1.4 billion on preparedness, nearly half the $3 billion committed to post-disaster rebuilding.

Takahisa Kishimoto of Teijin Frontier Co., a subsidiary of textiles giant Teijin, was peddling a blanket with hand-holes that can be used to haul an injured person out of a disaster zone when a stretcher isn't handy.

Many of the exhibitors in Sendai traveled from Japan's western industrial center of Osaka, seeking to expand into northern Japan and beyond. That includes Takashi Torano, a disaster expert at Fujiwara Industry Co., a maker of tsunami escape towers, among many other types of disaster equipment.

Fujiwara also makes beds fitted with overhead steel slats to shield up to three adults from falling debris.

"The idea is to create a safe space in the home," said Torano. Other offerings included an emergency kit for helping extricate people from collapsed houses, and hard-hats designed to look like baseball caps.

"You can walk around town and not have to worry about a quake knocking something onto your head," Torano said.

On a larger scale, Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Products Co. and contractor Shimizu Corp. have developed an "anti-seismic surgical floor" to keep operating tables steady in case of a quake.

As it strives to revive the sluggish economy, the government is aggressively peddling disaster-related technology.

At the U.N. conference, the Japan Bosai Platform Bureau, set up with support from the Land and Transport Ministry, was offering its one-stop online service center for major construction and building materials companies hoping to export their products and expertise.

The Japanese government announced plans this week for a new 10-year risk management strategy intended to slash in half estimated deaths and damages in the earthquake-prone Tokyo region.

Apart from retrofitting buildings and reducing congestion in fire-prone riverside districts, the government intends to stockpile 72 million meals, 6 million blankets and 54 million-use portable toilets.

While the earthquake simulator, all-terrain vehicles and other big-ticket items drew the biggest crowds in Sendai, some of the more innovative products were on a much smaller scale. Like the "Opticure Splint," made of a resin that when exposed to LED light hardens into a light but strong and supple cast for immobilizing broken limbs, or even whole bodies, in the case of an infant.

"Handling babies whose backs or necks are broken has always been a big problem because there is no neck brace to fit them," said Yoshikazu Matsumoto of Alcare Ltd. Medical Engineering Laboratory, a Tokyo-based startup.

On an even smaller scale, Icomes Lab Co., a mechatronics company affiliated with Iwate University in Iwate, one of the areas hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami, was displaying micro-pumps that can be used to feed IV drips to a patient without having to keep the bag of solution high enough to rely on gravity.

One of the biggest exhibitors in Sendai was Japan's military, which was showing off a wide array of vehicles, tents, open air clinics and portable kitchens it has developed for use in disasters.

Soldier Kazuma Kita beamed as he explained the use of a huge, open air public bath that was deployed during the 2011 crisis to help keep victims and rescuers clean, soothing both bodies and spirits.

"We helped 120,000 people to relax," he explained.