This is the fifth installment in the second half of the first part of a series of articles examining ways to restore Japan’s vitality.
Seventeen years have passed since the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated and paralyzed Kobe. Almost 16 years on from the disaster, a highway dubbed “a symbolic road of recovery” was finally completed.
The Yamate Kansen trunk road is a 29.6-kilometer stretch linking Kobe’s Nagata Ward with Amagasaki by way of Ashiya and Nishinomiya, all in Hyogo Prefecture. This key transport artery hugs the sea to the south and is overlooked by mountains to the north.
Although the plan to build the road had been given the go-ahead as part of a city redevelopment project immediately after World War II, purchasing land for the road ran into many obstacles. At the start of 1995, a six-kilometer section had yet to be constructed.
The decision to upgrade the road to an “antidisaster trunk road” was prompted by the 1995 quake. Relief activities were badly hampered because the elevated Hanshin Expressway collapsed in the disaster, causing National Highway Route 42 running just beneath it to become hopelessly blocked.
Some residents living along the road, however, objected to this road development. They accused the local governments of attempting to kick-start the once-abandoned road project “by exploiting confusion caused by the earthquake.”
The road was completed and opened to traffic in 2010. Warehouses stocked with antidisaster supplies were built along the road in response to requests from locals.
Menace of epicentral quake
A recent report suggested there is a high possibility of Tokyo being directly hit by a massive earthquake in the next few years.
The Tokyo metropolitan government is well aware of the need to be prepared for such an earthquake. It has put in place a range of measures to protect the lives of Tokyoites and ensure key urban functions of the metropolis will not be disrupted by a major temblor.
A set of disaster response guidelines the metropolitan government drew up after the Great East Japan Earthquake says, “Tokyo is the nation’s brain and heart, so paralysis of its functions would have immense consequences for the entire country.”
Projects to make Tokyo more resilient in times of disaster, however, have made little progress.
Areas with many wooden houses built close together are situated in Tokyo’s low-lying districts and along some trunk roads. The metropolitan government has designated these areas as urgently requiring work to make them highly fireproof.
However, the “fireproof area rate,” an index for gauging how many structures are fireproof, was just 56 percent in these areas as of 2006.
Furthermore, roads that will serve as evacuation routes or exclusively for emergency vehicles in a disaster are only about 60 percent complete. One major barrier to increasing these figures is “private property rights”–the same factor that held back building the Yamate Kansen road.
Condominium buildings constructed before earthquake-resistance criteria under the Building Standards Law were strengthened in 1981 are becoming dilapidated. According to the metropolitan government, 245,000 condominium buildings in Tokyo will be 40 years old or older in 2018, and the number will rise to 428,000 in 2023.
The metropolitan government enacted an ordinance in 2011 that obliges owners of office and condominium buildings along “emergency transport roads,” most of which are major trunk roads, to have their buildings undergo earthquake-resistance checks. However, opposition from tenants could make it impossible to conduct strengthening work or rebuild these buildings.
Former Tokyo Vice Gov. Yasushi Aoyama, currently a Meiji University professor specializing in city planning and crisis management, believes the greater good should prevail over individual wants.
“Saying ‘I want to live here until I die’ is very self-centered from the viewpoint of disaster management,” Aoyama said. “Administrative authorities must make a list of buildings vulnerable to a major disaster and, if need be, forcibly have them reinforced against quakes or rebuilt.”
The degradation of aging public infrastructure urgently needs to be addressed.
Take Shibuya Station, one of Tokyo’s busiest terminals. Several JR, private and subway lines meet at this station, which adjoins several department stores.
According to disaster management experts, damage to one of these facilities in a disaster could quickly spread to the others.
As part of a redevelopment project of the area around Shibuya Station, platforms and other railway facilities are being moved or remodeled to minimize the likelihood they could be damaged in a disaster. Other similar examples abound.
Some of Tokyo’s expressways and bridges also require such repairs.
Info disclosure crucial
Earthquakes are not the only potential disaster that could strike Japan.
Many factories and homes in major cities have been built on former farmland that was reclaimed by draining marshes. They are vulnerable to flooding when it rains heavily.
Tokyo is a typical example of this. Many parts of its eastern low-lying area, through which the Sumidagawa and Arakawa rivers flow, are below sea level.
However, many residents in the area were until recently largely oblivious to the need to be prepared for floods, according to experts. This lack of awareness does seem to be changing since the Great East Japan Earthquake, the ferocity of which was far beyond expectations.
While the to-do list is long, money to fund this work is limited in both the private and public sectors.
University of Tokyo Prof. Hitoshi Ieda, an expert in social infrastructure studies, says authorities need to expect the unexpected.
“Disaster management authorities need to tell the public which places are susceptible to disasters, conduct safety checks two or three times, and assume that an unpredictably devastating event could occur,” Ieda said. “It’s also essential to clarify what can and what can’t be done in a certain time frame to prevent disasters.”
In the government’s disaster management study meetings, officials are drawing up worst-case scenarios, and then figuring out what the priorities should be in the response.
According to estimates, a major epicentral earthquake striking the northern area of Tokyo Bay would kill or injure about 167,000 people and destroy about 470,000 buildings.
The March 11 quake and tsunami caused unimaginable damage. A ray of light that could emerge from the destruction is that it might change people’s awareness about the need to make preparations that can minimize the damage in the next disaster.