In the aftermath of the Jan. 17, 1995, earthquake that ravaged Kobe, Japan, the Japanese government was criticized for not responding quickly enough, poorly managing volunteer efforts and refusing offers of aid from dozens of countries.

The government cited language differences and the lack of local medical accreditation as reasons for turning down help from outside agencies.

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People in Yamada, northern Japan, welcome a helicopter loaded with emergency food aid. ((Takashi Ozaki/The Yomiuri Shimbun/Associated Press))

That quake killed almost 6,500 people.

There were bureaucratic snafus: Swiss rescue dogs sent to help in the relief efforts were held up at Kansai airport, near Osaka, when officials insisted they be quarantined. Communication between various levels of government was less than ideal. In some cases, it took more than a week to co-ordinate assistance from neighbouring prefectures.

The country's reaction to offers of aid in the wake of the March 11 earthquake has been much more positive, with rescue efforts better organized.

The government has deployed 100,000 troops to the affected areas, including 9,500 firefighters and 920 police officers. The Japanese Red Cross has deployed 95 medical teams, with a total of 735 people, including doctors and nurses.

This time the Japanese government has been quick to accept outside help. Among foreign groups now in Japan are urban search and rescue teams from:

  • Australia: 72 personnel, two dogs.
  • Germany: 43 personnel, three dogs.
  • Mexico: nine personnel, six dogs.
  • United States: 148 personnel, 12 dogs.
  • South Korea: 105 personnel, two dogs.
  • China: 15 personnel.
  • Russian Federation: 54 personnel, three vehicles.
  • Mongolia: 12 personnel.

The United Nations has sent a seven-member disaster response team, which includes specialists from France, U.K., Sweden, India, South Korea and Japan. The UN says since Japan already has a strong disaster preparedness and response mechanism in place, the team will focus on:

  • Assisting the response effort by "disseminating accurate and timely information to the international community on the emergency and ongoing government response."
  • Helping the government limit the amount of unsolicited contributions coming from other countries.

Several Canadian branches of international relief agencies have teams in the hardest-hit areas, including:

  • Save the Children.
  • Oxfam.
  • World Vision. 
  • CARE.
  • Global Medic.

A team from the Canadian branch of Médecins sans Frontières is working in evacuation centres with local medical staff.

The government of Singapore has given its local Red Cross almost $385,000 Cdn to help with relief efforts. The money will be used for items like blankets, mattresses and water bottles.

On Mar. 15, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan shifted the focus from rescue to humanitarian operations — providing essential services to people trying to cope without food, water, heat or electricity.

Some 1.4 million households are without water, more than 840,000 households have no power, and more than half a million people are living in temporary shelters.

The great unknown continues to be what will happen to the nuclear power plants that have been damaged in the quake and tsunami. Nuclear experts from the United States, Canada, Hungary and Ukraine have offered their expertise to monitor that situation.