Infrastructure in Japan is up to world standards in most areas, and in terms of public transportation it often surpasses those standards — but there’s one field it falls way behind: utility poles and overhead cables that carry electrical power and telecommunications.

In London, Paris and Hong Kong, all utility cables are placed underground. In Taipei, 95 percent of the cables are buried. In Seoul, 46 percent. In Tokyo, however, only 7 percent are hidden below ground in the metropolis’ 23 wards. In Osaka, it’s 5 percent. For Japan as a whole, only 1 percent of cables are underground.

This is a special problem for a disaster-prone country like Japan, which also has characteristically narrow streets. Fallen poles and cables make it very difficult for emergency vehicles to reach victims. About 50,000 poles fell down during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, and 8,000 during the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. A 2003 typhoon that hit Miyakojima, Okinawa, felled 800 poles and a tornado damaged 46 in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, in 2013.

According to an article in the Feb. 6 Asahi Shimbun, there are 35½ million utility poles in Japan, and each year this number increases by about 70,000. After World War II, the priority was reconstruction as quickly as possible, and the technology at the time made it expensive and time-consuming to bury cables. The government actually started promoting a plan to shift cables underground in the 1980s, but little progress has been made.

Right now, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike is trying to strengthen regulations that will rid Tokyo of utility poles by prohibiting the erection of new ones on roads controlled by the city. Though she has said she wants to have all cables buried by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, that seems unlikely given the amount of work required. Other municipalities, most prominently Kyoto, Kanazawa and Tsukuba, have already made regulations to bury cables, but not always on a citywide basis.

The most effective means of reversing the utility pole blight is to have cables buried when new housing developments are built, and more and more developers are opting to do that, but it takes some effort. First of all, the kind of infrastructure that requires utility poles comes under the control of at least three different bureaucratic organs: electrical power is the bailiwick of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, while telecommunications is controlled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, and the roads themselves are the responsibility of the land ministry but supervised by the National Police Agency. All these entities must be consulted when it comes to burying cables, and according to Asahi they don’t always work well together.

Also, burying cables is more expensive than suspending them from poles, so the price of land in neighborhoods where cables are buried will invariably be more expensive, even if the developers themselves don’t pay for it. It costs about ¥530 million per kilometer to bury cables, and while two-thirds of this cost is shouldered by central and local governments, the rest is covered by the relevant utilities, which pass the cost on to users, but the point is that land without poles tend to be assessed at higher values, and not just for aesthetic reasons. As already mentioned, poles can cause safety problems during disasters, but in neighborhoods with narrow streets and sidewalks they also pose a danger as obstacles to traffic and pedestrians. For families with young children who walk to school, they are a real concern.

In order to have existing utility poles in a given neighborhood taken down and cables buried, it is important to gain the cooperation of residents. The poles themselves tend to be owned by power companies, which consider them an asset and a kind of visual reminder of their presence in a community. These companies have no particular motivation for removing them. Moreover, burying cables requires the acquisition of land, and while the roads under which the cables will be buried are usually publicly administered, adjacent private property always comes into play, so property owners and residents need to be persuaded in order for construction to start.

When cables are buried, large utility boxes still must be installed above ground in certain locations, since they have to be checked and serviced, so space needs to be secured. Residents must also understand that if and when power outages occur with buried cables, it may take longer to restore service. Such inconveniences, however, can’t compare to toppled poles. People who come into contact with live wires on the ground have been electrocuted.

The utility boxes are also public property that could be used for other things. A report in the Tokyo Shimbun on Feb. 13 mentioned a new technology developed by Panasonic for interactive “electrical signboards” that are placed in public spaces to inform residents of important local news. However, finding public spaces for these boards in certain communities can be difficult, so Panasonic proposed installing them on utility boxes.

As Gov. Koike told reporters last December when she talked about her plan to bury cables, Japan needs to “promote technologies to speed up pole reduction,” and one way of doing this would be to involve private companies like Panasonic in the planning. Another progressive idea is the promotion of so-called smart communities wherein all utilities are connected to a common grid that improves efficiency of distribution.

Anything to get the wires out of the sky.

Notice: The Lifestyle & Culture page will be published on Mondays from April. Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.

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