Ever since the March 2011 earthquake, Tokyo has been reassessing its disaster preparedness policies with mixed results. Though the residents of the city have definitely become more knowledgeable about their vulnerability and what needs to be done to save as many lives as possible in the event of a major quake, not much, in fact, has been done, owing mainly to the usual issues involving private property versus public responsibility. Tens of thousands of old wooden houses, packed tightly together in some neighborhoods, are basically kindling for the inevitable conflagrations that will start after an earthquake hits. Since the local government doesn’t feel it can force these people to move or rebuild their houses (which would, in accordance with zoning laws that have gone into effect since they were originally built, force them to construct smaller abodes then they already occupy) their dire prediction falls on deaf ears. Libertarians and individuals with fond feelings about Tokyo’s uniquely quaint neighborhoods condemn any sort of regulatory move that would change the character of those neighborhoods, but it’s clear that these neighborhoods, as well as the people who live in them, won’t survive a big quake. They didn’t survive the 1923 quake, and the situation isn’t really that much different.
The same seems to go for condominiums and apartments, though in a different way. Late last year, the Tokyo government sent out questionnaires to building management companies and condo owner associations to determine the status of quake-proofing for collective housing in the city. Owner-occupied and rental combined, Tokyo has some 132,600 multi-resident buildings, 24,000 of which were built before 1981 when stricter quake-proofing standards went into effect. About 52,000 questionnaires were sent out, and one-tenth were completed and returned. Of these, only 11 percent said that their buildings have been inspected for structural integrity–17 percent for condos and 6 percent for rental apartments. Another 8 percent said they “planned to carry out inspections,” while 9 percent plan to “discuss the matter.” Sixty-three percent responded that they have no plans to do anything. Among the buildings that did carry out inspections, 60 percent were told that they needed “further reinforcements,” but only 4 percent have actually carried out any reinforcement work.
The results are not encouraging, and hardly surprising given how weakly quake-proofing standards have been enforced. Even after the earthquake, structural reinforcement has been only partially mandated. The city passed a regulation obligating 5,000 buildings that stand along major arteries to undergo inspections since their collapse in a quake would exacerbate the disaster by blocking emergeny roads. But the regulation only talks about inspection, not actual renovation work. Tokyo Shimbun went to one 33-year-old building in Nishi Kasai with 300 units. After the quake of 311, the union of owners started talking about reinforcement more seriously, and it was determined that the inspection alone would cost ¥400 million. According to the union’s charter any major repair or renovation work must be approved by at least 75 percent of the residents, and a good portion are older people on fixed incomes. If the residents approve the plan, there is enough money in the repair fund to pay for inspection reinforcement since Tokyo increased its subsidy for such work from 23 to 50 percent of the total cost. But while those repairs are taking place people may have to move out temporarily.
Obviously, it’s a very complicated and time-consuming process, and according to Tokyo Shimbun many resident associations and building management companies just don’t want the hassle. Apparently, for a lot of older buildings there aren’t even blueprints on file–which makes you wonder what’s the point of having a building code in the first place–so any inspections would involve intrusive work that greatly multiplies the cost. In a sense, the residents of these older buildings are in the same situation as the residents of all those little wooden houses. There’s nothing the authorities can do, so the only implied recourse is to let an earthquake wipe them out and start from scratch afterwards.