Last week, the media was filled with reports on Tokyo’s latest projections regarding what residents could expect if a major earthquake struck the capital. The parameters used for the simulation were a 7.3M quake that occurred directly beneath the prefecture’s 23 wards, with a shindo reading of 6+ for the city center, and shindo 7 for riverbank and coastal areas. It would occur in the wintertime with wind speeds of 8m/second. For the most part, the news was relatively good in that the number of deaths (6,200) and amount of damage (194,000 structures) estimated were less than in past projections—30 percent less, as a matter of fact.
In detail, 50 percent of the deaths would be caused by collapsed houses, and 40 percent the result of fires. In both cases, the houses involved would be older wooden structures that are densely concentrated, so the prefectural government has said—not for the first time—that it will work harder on providing subsidies for the rebuilding of such houses to make them less vulnerable to earthquakes.
An important factor in the lower casualty and damage numbers estimated by the report is improved quake-proofing since the last report was compiled. The portion of houses that have been quake-proofed since 2010 increased by 10.8 percent, which means 92 percent of all homes in Tokyo have some form of quake-proofing. In addition, the total area of densely packed wooden houses has decreased by 46 percent since 2012. The government now estimates that 4.53 million workers who live outside the capital would not be able to return home on the day of a major earthquake, and of the city’s residents 2.99 million would have to evacuate their homes. But while these numbers sound high, they are down by 12 percent from the last report.
However, there is one sector where matters have not improved: high-rise residential apartment buildings. As we’ve written in this blog numerous times in the past, so-called “tower mansions” have unique problems when it comes to earthquakes that have nothing really to do with their ability to withstand the tremor itself. All multi-story buildings in Japan, whether for commercial or residential use, are constructed to the world’s strictest quake-proofing standards, and are expected to maintain their integrity even during a catastrophic temblor. The problems occur after the shaking, and none have been solved in the past decade while at the same time there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of high-rise residential apartment buildings and condos during that time. At present, there are some 600 “tower mansions” in Tokyo, which are defined as multi-residence buildings that are at least 45 meters tall.
Since the earthquake of Mar. 11, I have been extra sensitive to stories of people living in Tokyo high-rises and have expected to see more dispatches like the one I wrote above. Interestingly, they’ve been few and far between, and mostly dwell on how well these high-rises performed during the earthquake. I said as much in my blog post, but that’s not the most salient observation I took away from the experience and I doubt if others who live in tall buildings did as well. Then, last week Asahi Shimbun printed an article relating the experiences of two koso mansion owners. Unfortunately, since then the story is gone from the Asahi.com site, either locked behind a pay wall or taken off completely. I doubt the latter, but M. says she read a few tweets from people who thought Asahi might have been pressured by developers or real estate companies, who are big advertisers. That seems a fairly conspiratorial take on the matter, but one thing’s for sure: New high-rise luxury condos have been one of the few reliable success stories in the Tokyo real estate market in the past few years.
In the article, a 32-year-old full-time housewife was in her 55th floor apartment in Chuo Ward when the quake struck. She ducked under a table. The swaying lasted for a full five minutes. Terrified, she remained under the table during the subsequent aftershocks while she tried to call her husband, a doctor, and the day care center where her two children were. (M.: “She’s a full-time housewife. Why are her two kids in day care?”) She couldn’t get through to either. Read More
I certainly don’t believe any of that “divine retribution” crap, which happens to unify the philosophies of right wing broadcaster Glenn Beck and Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara; but I can appreciate a cosmic joke. The massive earthquake that hit northeast Japan on Mar. 11 came right in the middle of moving season. The Japanese fiscal year, not to mention the school year, begins April 1 or thereabouts, and traditionally many people move house during the month of March, because of job transfers, university admission, or they just like to do what everybody else is doing. Consequently, there were a few trucks outside our 38-story building the weekend after the quake, carrying furniture for folks who were moving in. Fortunately, the freight elevator was operational again by the morning of the 12th, but what did those new arrivals think standing in their new apartment while it swayed back and forth during one of the many aftershocks?
Who knows? Maybe they were in a high-rise before, but in any case the quake helped test a theory, at least partially: Would all these earthquake-proofed structures actually withstand a massive quake? Of course, the epicenter of the one we experienced was a hundred kilometers off the coast of Iwate Prefecture, but according to reports, no buildings collapsed in Sendai, the nearest large city to the quake and one with its own share of skyscrapers. So the technology seems to work, and while it certainly saves lives and property, it doesn’t solve a more intractable problem: Once you’ve been in a large earthquake in a high rise, you don’t want to be in another one. Read More