The tilting of a Yokohama condominium blamed on faulty piling work for its foundation has shaken public trust in housing safety in this quake-prone country. Revelations that several workers at a subsidiary of Asahi Kasei Corp. — in addition to the one in charge of the work at the Yokohama condo — were falsifying data on piling work at possibly hundreds of buildings across Japan over the past decade have stirred up suspicions that such practices are widespread in the construction industry. The companies involved must reveal as quickly as possible the whole picture of the wrongdoings and find out whether and how they affect the safety of the buildings in question. The industry and relevant authorities also need to get to the bottom of why these problems are allowed to happen.

Residents of the Yokohama condominium complex, which was completed in 2007, noticed last year that handrails in one of the buildings connected through passageways with those of the adjacent building had sunk about 2 cm — an indication that something was amiss. Asahi Kasei Construction Materials Corp., a subcontractor in charge of the work to drive piles into the ground to provide underground support for the buildings, admitted last month that data on the work on dozens of such piles had been manipulated and that eight of the piles supporting the tilting structure had either not reached the solid ground called the support layer or were not driven into it deeply enough.

The data falsification was initially blamed on one employee responsible for the work at the Yokohama complex, who was also found to have been involved in piling work at 43 other buildings over the past decade. Asahi Kasei Construction Materials and its parent company later revealed that piling work data had been falsified in 19 buildings. The companies also confirmed that more workers were similarly falsifying data on piling work for other projects. Although they have not disclosed the number of workers and the buildings in question, media reports suggest that at least 10 employees had fabricated such data in about 10 percent of the roughly 3,000 construction sites where the Asahi Kasei subsidiary was in charge of piling work over the last 10 years, ranging from condominiums and factories to school buildings, medical facilities and hotels.

The data fabrication does not necessarily mean that the piling work was faulty. Details of how and why the data was manipulated by the workers have not been made known, and Asahi Kasei says that except for the Yokohama condominium, it has not received any other reports of problems in the building in question, such as tilting or cracks developing. But the company also says it will be difficult to confirm the safety of the buildings by the end of this week — the time that it hopes to wrap up its initial probe into all 3,000 cases.

The immediate priority should be on identifying the possible problems — whether the piling work was in fact faulty and how that affects the structures’ safety — thereby addressing the fears of the residents and other people who use the buildings.

But the revelations that more than one employee was falsifying data on piling work in large numbers of buildings naturally lead one to wonder whether it is an isolated problem at the Asahi Kasei subsidiary or whether such practice is not uncommon in other companies. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, which raided the office of Asahi Kasei Construction Materials last week to probe the company’s work process management and supervision system, will reportedly consider whether the probe should be expanded to cover the entire construction industry.

It does not appear the blame can be laid entirely on the unscrupulous acts of individual workers. The effort to prevent such problems in the future needs to look not just at whether individual companies are appropriately supervising the work of their employees to check against wrongdoing, but also whether the industry’s structure and practices, as well as the system of governmental supervision, are adequate to stop the problems from happening. As a land ministry panel of experts discussing preventive measures prepares to wrap up an interim report by the end of the year, land minister Keiichi Ishii has indicated that possible revisions to the current laws on building safety will be on the agenda.

The current framework of administrative screening for the building construction process was unable to stop the piling work data manipulation. The system was revamped in the wake of a 2005 scandal in which a structural engineer was found to have falsified quake-resistance data in building designs and condominiums. The Building Standards Law was revised to beef up administrative checks on buildings before construction begins. However, screening on piling work depends on data provided after the work has been done — a system based on the assumption that workers engaged in building construction do not engage in misconduct.

It has also been pointed out that the structure of the construction industry, in which the multiple layers of subcontractors — numbering in the hundreds for some major projects — make it difficult for the main contractor to check for unscrupulous work by smaller businesses at the lower end of the hierarchy. On the other hand, these subcontractors are said to be in a weak position to rebuff pressure to meet onerous deadlines and reduce costs. It should be determined if this industry structure is forcing subcontractors to cut corners when problems arise.

The probe into the piling work data scandal should not conclude by only highlighting the misconduct of individual companies and workers — it needs to go deeper to the root of the problem.

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.