Not a few residents in Tokyo and surrounding areas have reacted with fear and anger after being told that they live in condominiums constructed according to designs that included falsified earthquake-resistance data. Since Japan is a quake-prone country, this crisis should worry the whole nation.

On Nov. 17, the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry announced that Aneha Design Office in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, fabricated such data for 20 condominiums and a hotel in Tokyo, Chiba and Kanagawa. The announcement was made following notification from a state-designated building design certification agency that it had failed to detect the data fabricated by Mr. Hidetsugu Aneha of the design office.

A 1981 stipulation under the Building Standards Law says that buildings, be they ferroconcrete or wooden, must not be damaged by a jolt of 5-plus intensity on the Japanese scale of 7 and must not collapse in a quake of at least 6-plus intensity.

Fourteen of the 20 condominiums were found to have 26 percent to 78 percent of their required strength. Thirteen were considered susceptible to collapse in a 5-plus-intensity quake.

On Nov. 28, the ministry announced that Mr. Aneha had calculated quake-resistance design data for 201 buildings, and that data was found to have been falsified for 36 of them — 21 condominiums and 15 hotels (including buildings counted in the Nov. 17 announcement.) Three design certification agencies failed to notice the data fabrication. In addition, five local governments were unable to detect the fabrication. The building-safety scandal is widening, with the number of structures determined to have been built with falsified quake-resistance data having climbed to 47 as of Dec. 2.

What is most worrisome is the possibility that the current scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. As part of the move to relegate as much government work as possible to the private sector, a revision to the law enabled government-designated private agencies to certify building designs beginning in 1999. At present, there are 122 such agencies. In fiscal 2004, private agencies checked some 420,000 building designs while local governments checked about 330,000.

Mr. Aneha told ministry officials that construction companies had told him they would switch to another design office if he did not reduce the number of concrete reinforcing bars in designs. During a Nov. 29 Diet hearing, however, officials from construction companies denied that their companies had exerted any pressure on Mr. Aneha.

The Diet hearing revealed rather strange behavior on the part of a ministry official. The president of a certification firm, whose notification led to the ministry’s Nov. 17 announcement, told the Diet that although he sent an e-mail informing the ministry that data falsification had been detected, the ministry official responded only that the firm should settle the matter and that the ministry would not involve itself.

The president also disclosed that a structure design expert had tipped him off that another certification firm became aware of data falsification by Mr. Aneha about a year before the scandal surfaced. On the basis of this tipoff, the president said, his firm had checked the design data and confirmed the falsification. The firm mentioned in the tipoff admitted later that it had received a report that Mr. Aneha’s work was shoddy.

Former National Land Agency chief Kosuke Ito was found to have visited the ministry, together with the presidents of two condominium developers involved in the scandal, but allegedly sat silently beside them throughout their explanations to a ministry official before the Nov. 17 announcement.

Suspicions about this unfolding scandal deepen even more because the players involved — Mr. Aneha, the design certification agencies, construction firms and condominium developers, and perhaps even the ministry — appear repugnantly reluctant to take responsibility, unable to understand their situation or void of professional ethics.

Police should carry out a vigorous criminal investigation and do their best to uncover the whole picture, including whether other parties did indeed exert undue pressure on Mr. Aneha.

Some residents affected by the scandal have already been ordered to evacuate their condominiums. The number of such victims will increase. They must deal with finding new residences, paying for the move, paying back their housing loans, and demolishing and replacing their buildings.

The government should extend the greatest possible help to them, including offering free public housing. It may even need to consider doing more than it is allowed to do under present law. It also should find out why design certification agencies failed to detect the data fabrication.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.