The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of how economic reconstruction is carried out after major natural disasters in Japan, where disaster casualties have been declining but economic damage has been increasing over the past century. The Kobe and Tohoku earthquakes were exceptionally rare incidents. The Great Hanshin–Awaji Earthquake (Kobe) on 17 January 1995 killed more than 6000 people, and the Great East Japan Earthquake (Tohoku) on 11 March 2011 killed approximately 18 000 people. We will recapitulate the post-disaster reconstruction process in Kobe and draw lessons for Tohoku. After discussing the relative magnitude of economic damage, public and private finance for reconstruction, political leadership and the role of the academic community, we conclude that post-disaster reconstruction means a whole new process of economic development for the affected people, the communities and the nation alike.