No one wants to get stuck in an elevator, but with the possibility looming of a major earthquake in the Kanto area, the government has at last begun to pay attention to the safety of elevators. The land and infrastructure ministry announced it is offering to cover one-third of renovation costs to help make elevators more quake-resistant.

Japan’s estimated 700,000 elevators are in need of thorough inspection, upgrading and safety features that the subsidies cannot completely cover. When the March 11, 2011, earthquake hit, 84 elevators in Tokyo were confirmed to have stopped, leaving people stranded inside. No doubt many more elevator problems went unreported. The land and infrastructure ministry’s plans to help pay for safety features to handle major earthquakes should be hastened. One study estimated that more than 10,000 people could be stuck in an elevator if a major quake strikes Tokyo, but the actual number must surely be higher.

After a revision to the building standards act in 2009, new elevators must have equipment installed for quake resistance and a mechanism to halt the elevator at the closest floor when tremors are detected. However, adding safety equipment to older elevators is costly and difficult. Japan’s older elevators are in desperate need of improved safety, which will depend on inspections and enforcement as much as on subsidies. Inspections and upgrades should be hastened.

Elevators are such a common and essential part of Japanese life that they can be considered part of the basic infrastructure of the country. As taller and taller buildings continue to be built, more and more Japanese become dependent on elevators in their daily lives. The movement ever upward, though, has its consequences, as many found out after their elevators stopped running during last summer’s electricity outages.

No one wants to walk up dozens of stories on a regular basis. Many people in Tokyo take several elevators every single day.

As an island country with limited land, Japan’s relentless push upward has been something of a necessity, but it’s also a point of pride. The tallest buildings, though, can only function with elevators. The national trend toward ever-higher buildings may be a sign of a certain sort of progress, but it is one that depends entirely on functioning elevators.

This fundamental part of Japan should be made safe.

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