As the government continues to push for an increase in the consumption tax, a question related to last year’s disaster is still being debated: How much of the burden for rebuilding should be shouldered by taxpayers? We live in a resolutely capitalist country that stresses personal responsibility, and in the last few months the media have finally gotten around to studying earthquake insurance.
So far, ¥1.2 trillion has been paid out for quake insurance claims related to the March 11 temblor. Sixty-five percent of the money went to policy holders in the three stricken prefectures covering 750,000 claims. This is 15 times the amount paid out on claims for the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, a discrepancy that has less to do with the respective scales of the quakes than with the higher profile of quake insurance brought about by the Hanshin disaster. In 1994, only 9 percent of homes in Japan had earthquake coverage, but by the end of 2009 that portion had increased to 23 percent. Since last March, the number of policy holders has tripled.
A big quake boosts sales, but since so few people had insurance before the Hanshin quake, it wasn’t until last year’s disaster that enough claims were filed to give an idea of just what sort of coverage they provide. A recent article in Aera looked at the experience of a certain Ms. A who owns a 30-year-old apartment in the Tokyo Metropolitan area. Her unit was not seriously damaged by the quake: The apartment shook, some books fell off the shelf, the furniture moved a few centimeters. However, when an acquaintance asked her if she had quake insurance and she said yes, the person urged her to file a claim. “You’ll definitely get something,” he said.
In Japan, what is called earthquake insurance is basically an add-on to fire insurance. Because Japan is so prone to earthquakes, private insurance companies are averse to covering property damage from temblors, but in the 1960s the Japanese government persuaded them to go part way by promising to provide financial backup. Quake coverage provides only 30 percent to 50 percent of what a fire insurance policy would cover, so if a homeowner takes out, say, ¥10 million worth of fire insurance with a quake provision, he can receive at most ¥3 — 5 million if his house is damaged in an earthquake. But the amount of payment is dependent on an assessment carried out by the insurance company.
Ms. A, who paid ¥20,000 a year in premiums, didn’t understand how she could qualify for compensation when nothing was damaged, but having been told by her friend that she had nothing to lose she called. An investigator came to her apartment and said compensation was divided into “possessions and structure.” When asked if there were any problems with her appliances since the quake, Ms. A mentioned that her refrigerator door was more difficult to open, the dishwasher didn’t drain properly and the washing machine was noisier. She showed him some small cracks in the wall that were obviously cosmetic and not structural. The investigator took notes and pictures and left. The interview took an hour. In the end, the insurance company deemed that Ms. A’s condo had suffered “partial damage” and gave her ¥600,000. She told Aera, “I felt bad,” but she took the money.
A report on NHK’s in-depth news show “Closeup Gendai” offered a different story. NHK looked at one condominium in Sendai that was covered by earthquake insurance. All the residents contributed to premiums for coverage of common areas (private areas had to be covered by individual policies, like Ms. A’s), but while the building had suffered a lot of damage, the insurance company didn’t pay, because the policy only covered the basic structure of the building, meaning beams and columns, which it deemed were not seriously damaged. Elevators, plumbing and walls were not covered. It was the same thing with condos in areas where liquefaction occurred. Subsidence damaged infrastructure, landscaping and outside walls, but if the building frame was unaffected, there was no compensation.
Earthquake insurance is based on a three-tier assessment system. Damage is evaluated as being either complete (zenkai), half (hankai) or partial (ichibu), with no gradations in between. Complete damage means the maximum coverage is paid out, while a “half” assessment pays half the maximum. However, “partial” results in only 5 percent of the coverage being paid, and in most of the cases NHK saw, the assessments were found to be partial or none, meaning when there were payments they were far below what was really needed to restore the property to its original state.
After residents in the Sendai condo complained to the insurance company, the building was reassessed and found to have partial damage, so the policy holders received 5 percent of the maximum coverage, which is low enough for insurance companies to still make a profit.
It seems obvious that insurers would never be able to cover all the damage from a truly massive earthquake, which is why it needs the government. In the case of a major earthquake, private insurers are required to pay 100 percent up to ¥115 billion in legitimate claims, but after that it splits payments with the government 50-50 up to ¥871 billion. Beyond that, the government pays 100 percent. Insurance companies would be bankrupted if a major earthquake occurred and they had to cover the maximum for every policy holder. The government might be bankrupted, too. There is a law that says when the government implements “earthquake preparation,” implying that it expects one to strike soon, it can suspend new sales of earthquake insurance or increases in coverage for existing policies.
So homeowners have to ask themselves: Is it worth it? An expert interviewed by NHK said that, strictly speaking, earthquake insurance isn’t property insurance at all. It’s closer in spirit to mimaikin, cash gifts offered as a token of sympathy. In the real world of personal responsibility, that seems to be all they can hope for.