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The thicket of wood houses and small shops that line the warren of alleys just east of Tokyo’s Sumida River in the Higashi-Mukojima 1-chome district has been deemed “highly dangerous” by disaster-preparedness authorities.

The Sumida Ward neighborhood is one of many areas in the capital that are so designated and in need of improved disaster-prevention measures to gird for a major earthquake, authorities say.

But although many of the aging structures may not withstand a major temblor and may also be prone to fires, the community has in fact been preparing for a major event like the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which struck southern Hyogo Prefecture 10 years ago.

“Many residents have lived here for decades, and we’ve discussed this community’s problems,” said Takao Aoki, 70, chairman of the 650-household Naka-machi block council of Higashi-Mukojima 1-chome.

The Hanshin quake was a wakeup call to local governments and citizens nationwide of the need to better prepare their communities against quake damage.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government revised its quake-preparedness ordinance in 2000 to encourage municipalities and residents to build more quake-resistant communities and become more self-reliant in containing the damage of major disasters — and citizen participation is a key component of this policy.

Most resident associations in Tokyo’s 23 wards have formed disaster-prevention teams, tasking leaders with various roles, including firefighting, rescue, information-gathering and supplying emergency food and water, according to the metro government.

Many have also drawn up plans on how to run emergency shelters at schools and have distributed evacuation maps that contain vital information, including locations of shelters, water supplies and narrow alleyways to avoid.

Higashi-Mukojima 1-chome, with its 1,547 households, considers itself ahead of other communities in terms of disaster-preparedness.

Residents formed a group in 1985 and have discussed how to make the community strong against disasters and made various efforts, including turning empty spaces into parks in cooperation with the ward and placing several 250-liter rainwater-collection tanks along streets or atop building roofs for use in fighting fires and for drinking.

“When a big earthquake occurs, rescue efforts by local authorities may be delayed. We shouldn’t rely too much on them.” Aoki said.

Perils of crowded areas

The 7.3-magnitude Great Hanshin Earthquake laid bare the vulnerability of Japan’s crowded urban districts.

The worst hit districts in Kobe were the old ones, crowded with small wooden houses and shops. Most of about 250,000 buildings that were destroyed by the temblor were built before the Building Standard Law was revised in 1981 to improve earthquake-proof levels, according to a government database on the quake.

About 80 percent of the more than 6,400 victims of the disaster were either crushed to death under collapsed structures or left trapped in them, only to die in the fires that ran out of control for days after the temblor, it said.

According to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, about 30 percent of the nation’s 44 million houses do not clear the current quake-resistance standard.

Other major cities besides Tokyo, including Yokohama and Osaka, also have old, crowded districts that would be at high risk.

Some districts are prewar carry-overs that escaped the U.S. air raids and postwar urban reconstruction boom.

Others are proof of how Japan gave short shrift to disaster prevention in its postwar urban development.

Many low-quality wooden apartments were built to house the large number of people who flocked to Tokyo during Japan’s rapid economic growth period through the early 1970s, and local governments approved zoning that cleared minimum legal standards, including street widths, a land ministry official said.

“It’s not easy to promote rebuilding” where such structures stand because owners are reluctant to spend millions of yen or give up part of their land so streets can be widened to better cope with disasters, he said, adding that elderly renters in particular often refuse to move out.

If a quake on the scale of the Kobe temblor strikes the Tokyo area, the losses would be greater, according to a specific scenario up by the government’s Central Disaster Prevention Council. It predicted in December that a magnitude 6.9 quake hitting west central Tokyo could kill 12,000 people and destroy 790,000 structures — either on initial impact or in subsequent fires.

The report “Megacities — Megarisks” issued by the reinsurer Munich Re Group last week, however, points to a very high risk for the Tokyo-Yokohama area, and says a massive temblor could cause hundreds of thousands of casualties and trillions of dollars in economic losses, enough to impact the world economy.

The government’s Earthquake Research Committee meanwhile reported in August that the probability of a magnitude-7 quake hitting the southern Kanto region, including Tokyo, over the next 30 years is 70 percent.

To minimize the damage from a strong quake, Japan must better compel the public to strengthen their houses, said Osamu Hiroi, a professor on disaster information at the University of Tokyo.

The central and local governments provide subsidies to people who check their houses’ quake-resistance or repair them. But little progress has been made due to the high modification costs, Hiroi said.

Officials and the private sector should introduce a low-cost method of beefing up houses and provide more insurance discounts for quake-proof structures, Hiroi argued.

Strengthening a wooden two-story house would cost 1.19 million yen on average, according to the Japan Wooden Housing Earthquake-proof Reinforcing Business Cooperative, an industrial group promoting evaluations of the seismic threshold of wooded structures.

The figure was calculated based on 9,668 houses repaired between July 2000 and October 2004 by its member firms nationwide. Insurance firms currently offer up to 30 percent premium discounts on quake insurance for a reinforced house.

“People don’t want to pay much money to prepare for a disaster that they aren’t sure will happen,” Hiroi said. “The government should introduce a program to encourage people to make their homes quake-resistant.”

Risk factors vary

According to 2002 metropolitan government research on the quake vulnerability of 5,037 Tokyo communities, Higashi-Mukojima 1-chome was ranked 21st among those with a high risk of building collapse and 44th among those with a high fire risk.

But Higashi-Mukojima residents are confident of their disaster preparedness.

In a joint program with the metro government and Sumida Ward, about 20 local residential and business leaders took part in several workshops in fiscal 2003 and 2004, checking dangerous locations, including leaning walls and dead-end streets, and simulating the evacuation of elderly people and shelter operations, Aoki said. Participants practiced setting up tents and operating water purification systems.

“If we hadn’t done anything, we wouldn’t know what to do,” Aoki said. “It’s good to take part in these workshops because they get more people to think about how they can help each other.”

Five other Tokyo communities have participated in the program. The metro government plans to continue the project in other parts of the capital in fiscal 2005.

“This project provides the experience of collaboration between residents and local governments to rebuild their communities,” said Hiroshi Mochimaru, deputy director of the metro government disaster prevention division’s reconstruction, planning and management section.

Higashi-Mukojima’s residents are even already discussing problems they may face if they have to rebuild their community after a quake, and are involving lawyers and other legal and construction experts, according to Aoki.

After the Hanshin quake, some residents in the quake-ravaged areas opposed local government rezoning plans, leading to delayed reconstruction of communities and lives, said Mochimaru of the metro government.

Aoki, however, has a new concern: how to communicate with residents who have moved into new apartments in the district.

“We know where elderly (long-term residents) and those who would need care when a disaster strikes,” he said, adding that information is needed about apartment dwellers, especially recent arrivals, in the event they need to be rescued or taken to a shelter.

Experts admit that communities with high residential turnover tend to lag behind in emergency planning.

“It’s difficult for districts crowded with apartments to share an awareness of the dangers of a disaster,” said Hiroaki Yoshii, a professor on disaster information at Tokyo Keizai University.

Local governments must ask citizens who have frequent contacts with neighbors through sports, welfare or other activities to take the lead in raising community awareness of antidisaster efforts, he said.

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