“The first floor collapsed, the ceiling fell on top of me with a bang,” says Michio Otsuka, depicting the situation with his hands. “I was squatting next to a bookcase, which took the biggest hit. If it hadn’t been there, I would have been dead.” The Japanese barely survived the great earthquake in Kobe in 1995. His house was not resistant to this type of natural disaster.
The earthquakes in Turkey and Syria showed how buildings can collapse like a house of cards if they are not built correctly. Japan is now known as the country with the best earthquake-resistant technology, but this was not always the case. The 1995 earthquake was, according to experts, the big turning point. 6,434 people lost their lives, most of them from collapsed buildings. More than 200,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed.
Tighten building regulations
“Very few people die from the earthquake itself,” said Akira Wada, a former professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “It’s structurally bad buildings that kill people.” Japan already had strict building codes before the Kobe quake, but they didn’t apply to old buildings. Most victims therefore fell in the old quarters of the city. Many houses there were made of wood. Entire neighborhoods catch fire.
The Seismic Renovation Act was introduced, in which the existing building regulations were considerably tightened. All buildings had to be earthquake resistant. Architects, contractors, developers and landlords were given more responsibility. Partly because of this, the whole country hastened towards a new form of building.
Buildings move along
“The 1995 earthquake was a turning point,” confirms Hiromasa Aida, a structural engineer at Kozo Keikaku Engineering in Tokyo. “It was a different kind of quake, one that hit right under the city and did massive damage.”
His company building prominently features hydraulic shock absorbers in the facades. They absorb the blow when an earthquake occurs. “When the building was completed in 1999, thirty employees stood on the roof. They ran back and forth from one side to the other. We could measure exactly how much effect that had, the building moved a few centimetres. “
Applying this type of earthquake-resistant technology is expensive. “A hydraulic shock absorber can cost tens of thousands of euros, and you need several for each floor.” Economically, Japan also had the resources to renovate entire cities, an option not all countries have.
“You shouldn’t think like that. You’re investing for the long term,” says scientist Wada. “The intention is that you can continue to use a building after an earthquake.” Sturdy buildings save lives, but critical infrastructure also remains intact. In addition, a country or city can keep the economy running: “You can continue with your daily life and that makes it cheaper. The problem is that the government must also be prepared to invest in it.”
Thousands of earthquakes every year
Japan is hit by thousands of mostly weaker earthquakes every year. The larger earthquakes only happen once every few decades, or even centuries. Despite this, earthquake-resistant construction is a high priority for many Japanese. “My new house can withstand the second strongest earthquake,” says Otsuka proudly.
Buildings must comply with strict rules, Aida explains. “It’s okay if there’s a crack somewhere, as long as the building doesn’t collapse in an earthquake. Protecting people’s lives has the highest priority. It also gives people a sense of security if you can say that a building is safe.”
Otsuka shows photos of his house, which collapsed in 1995, a two-story single-family home. “I never forget the fear I felt,” he says. One of his neighbors was less fortunate. He lived in a similar house. “It may cost a lot of money to build or renovate a house, but someone who has died will never come back.”
Watch a look back at the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake here:
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