Monday, September 29, 2003

A couple of thoughts on the Hokkaido earthquake

It doesn't appear that anyone was killed in the recent Japanese earthquake. (How much of this was due to good preparedness and how much due to the quake hitting a remote area, I don't know). This is obviously very good news. Virginia Postrel has a couple of posts on the question of earthquake preparedness in the country. One problem is that many buildings in Japan have wooden frames and tile roofs. According to one of Postrel's readers, new buildings built since the 1980s do not follow this pattern, and they survived the Kobe earthquake in 1995 much better than older buildings. Still, though, the majority of the housing stock was of the old kind, and this is one reason why that quake had an absolutely horrendous death toll of 6000 people despite occurring at 6am when most people were in bed. (Try to think of another natural disaster in a rich country that killed 6000 people?). Kobe wasn't considered to be as vulnerable to earthquakes as some other parts of the country, an was thus less prepared than some other parts of the country, but the level of preparedness and emergency response was sufficiently woeful that one wonders how much better it actually would have been in the rest of the country. (Japan does appear to have learned clear lessons, however, so things will certainly be better next time they have a major earthquake in a populated area).

Of course, the question is why in an area so obviously subject to earthquakes as Japan, buildings with tile roofs were still being normally built as late as 1980? I have heard some very cynical explanations. One of the less impressive things about Japan is the country is run for the benefit of (a) rice farmers and (b) the construction industry. The pre-eminent role of the construction industry is one reason why so much of Japan seems to be covered with concrete, and is also a reason why Japan's response to its economic woes over the last decade has been to build more and more railways, tunnels, and bridges to nowhere. Construction in Japan is extremely regulated, often for reasons that are overtly about earthquake preparedness. However, a these regulations have also largely kept foreign construction companies out of Japan. Some people would say that was the point, and in fact although earthquake preparedness was the overt reason for the regulations, it wasn't actually given due consideration. And a price was paid for that in 1995.

Japan's preparedness has clearly improved a lot since 1995, and it was clearly improving before then, although from a woeful base. The question is how much it has improved, and I don't think we will know the answer until there is another big quake near a city. Hopefully that will not be for a long time, but we do not of course know when it will be.

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