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From Underground Stores to Satellite Monitoring

April 2, 1998

Using shock-absorbing rubber and other resilient materials in building foundations is said to be the best available quake-resistance technology. (Photo: Penta-Ocean Construction)

More than three years have now passed since the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck the Kobe region, claiming around 6,300 lives. Drawing on the lessons of the January 1995 disaster, which exposed the weaknesses of urban functions, local governments and citizens--especially those in the disaster area--are working together to build a disaster-resistant city. At the national and municipal levels also, efforts are continuing to strengthen seismic monitoring and establish crisis-management systems.

Fully Equipped Evacuation Sites
The Great Hanshin Earthquake exposed the basic fragility of urban functions--that is, the failure to supply water and food to evacuees immediately after the quake. Reflecting on this weakness, local governments in the disaster area have been making efforts to strengthen the disaster-prevention functions of parks, which would become the focal points for taking in evacuees and ensuring supplies in times of disaster. Hyogo Prefecture, which was the main region hit by the Great Hanshin Earthquake, plans to invest about 40 billion yen (300 million U.S. dollars at 130 yen to the dollar) into its parks (163 hectares) to create disaster-proof spaces. In these parks, in addition to extensive evacuation areas, there will be earthquake-resistant underground water storage tanks, storehouses for food, and other facilities. The parks will be outfitted in other ways in preparation for a disaster. Kobe, the prefectural capital, plans to construct water storage tanks and emergency water supply facilities in four parks in the city that would serve as evacuation spaces in case of a disaster. Kobe aims to complete this plan by March 1998. Such disaster-resistant parks are being set up at 16 places in Hyogo Prefecture.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of large buildings, such as condominium and office blocks, have shock-absorbing structures that reduce shaking by using rubber or other resilient materials in their foundations. According to construction sector sources, there were only two buildings with such technology in the prefecture before the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Now the number has risen to more than 30. In all of Japan, only about 90 of these buildings went up in the 10 years before the Kobe quake, but in the last three years the total has risen to more than 500. The method is said to be the best available quake-resistance technology, and its use is expected to continue to spread.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake also caused enormous damage to essential urban infrastructure, such as electricity, gas, and telecommunications services. Nationwide, suppliers of these services are making efforts to improve their disaster preparedness. In the disaster area, Kansai Electric Power Co., which saw electricity supplies cut off to 2.6 million homes, offices, and factories, is making improvements to its physical facilities, such as generation plants and pylons, and to its post-disaster capabilities, such as network restoration and information gathering. In FY 1998 Kansai Electric plans to complete a system to analyze disaster-related information gathered from its branches using an in-house personal-computer communications network.

Osaka Gas Co. drew up a five-year plan for improving earthquake response in 1996 and is proceeding with a switch to earthquake-resistant piping and other measures. In April 1998 it plans to begin operating a new subcenter in Kyoto to act as a backup for its operating center in Osaka.

Telephone lines crashed at the time of the Great Hanshin Earthquake because of an inundation of outside calls from worried friends and relatives. Responding to this, Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Co. (NTT) has opened messaging centers outside disaster areas to disperse the calls. Using these centers, people will be able to verify the safety of their relatives in times of disaster. Those caught in a disaster area would call NTT, input their own phone numbers in accordance with voice directions, and say whether they and their families are safe in a 30-second message. NTT would then record and make this message available for two days at messaging centers nationwide. Relatives and family members in other areas would be able to access it by calling a center and then dialing the phone number of the person affected. NTT would be able to record about 8 million messages nationwide in this way. The system was completed in March 1998.

Improving Crisis Management
The national and local governments are also advancing their crisis-management systems. Immediately after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the government set up a crisis-management center within the prime minister's residence. Following major earthquakes or other disasters, the center will report immediately to the prime minister, chief cabinet secretary, and other senior officials; an emergency team headed by the deputy chief cabinet secretary will then be assembled at the center to formulate immediate responses. From FY 1998 (April 1998 to March 1999), with the establishment of a crisis monitoring body reporting to the deputy chief cabinet secretary, it will be possible to achieve better coordination among the ministries and agencies that oversee the Self-Defense Forces, firefighters, police, and other rescue services.

The Meteorological Agency is also steadily building up its network of seismic observation stations. From October 1997 it has been able to base its work on real-time observation data taken from multiple sources, such as the University of Tokyo and the Science and Technology Agency. In this way, the network has been boosted from some 180 monitoring sites to about 500. It is now possible to pinpoint epicenters and track distribution of aftershocks more precisely, making emergency action easier to organize. Beginning in FY 1998, the agency will install a new system for earthquake prediction. The system uses the U.S. Global Positioning System of satellites to detect diastrophism, the movement and displacement of the earth's crust.

The National Land Agency began operation of a "prompt appraisal system" for earthquake damage in April 1996. This system enables the agency to estimate casualties and structural damage, even when direct reports are difficult to obtain, by examining quake magnitude and topographic data. In the case of earthquakes with an intensity of four or higher on the Japanese seven-stage scale, it can provide a rough estimate of the scale of damage within 30 minutes, so it could prove very useful for initial decision-making. The agency also plans to introduce during FY 1998 a simulation system for emergency action based on damage reports.

Meanwhile, Hyogo Prefecture, mindful of the fact that it took over an hour to set up an emergency center after the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck, established a telecommunications network in April 1996 to cover all its municipalities, police stations, and main fire-department offices.

In this way, initiatives are underway on various fronts. But disaster readiness can never be complete. There are still many lessons to be learned from the experience of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

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Trends in Japan Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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