Tokyo Quake May Risk 650,000 Fires as Defenses Seen Lacking

Tokyo Boosts Quake Measures
Attendants participate in a disaster drill conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government at East Japan Railway Co.'s Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. Photographer: Koichi Kamoshida/Bloomberg

Tokyo’s preparedness for dealing with a major earthquake after last year’s record temblor in northeast Japan that left more than 19,000 dead or missing may not significantly cut deaths or damage, says Kazuchika Asano, who has studied the city’s emergency procedures for two decades.

A magnitude-7.3 quake in north Tokyo Bay may kill 11,000, injure 210,000 people and cause 112 trillion yen ($1.4 trillion) in damage, Japan’s cabinet office estimates. Since the disaster on March 11 last year, the city has upgraded plans to house commuters and is urging citizens and companies to stock emergency supplies, while the national government plans to boost Tokyo Bay’s tsunami defenses. Authorities haven’t done much to prevent the building collapses and fires that would cause the most casualties and damage, according to Asano.

“There hasn’t been a lot of progress,” Asano, a senior consultant at Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo, said in an interview. “Unless there’s a fundamental change, casualties aren’t going to be reduced.”

A magnitude-7.3 quake in Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis with more than 35 million people, could start fires in about 650,000 buildings, causing 6,100 deaths, according to the cabinet office. Another 150,000 buildings may collapse, killing 3,100 people.

The quake last year, Japan’s strongest on record with a magnitude of 9, and the resulting tsunami destroyed or damaged more than 1 million houses and is estimated by the government to have caused 16.9 trillion yen of damage.


A 2009 survey by Nomura Research Institute showed that 45 percent of Japanese people thought their homes needed to be made more earthquake-resistant. Of those, 57 percent said they hadn’t done anything about it because of the cost.

Efforts to strengthen buildings remain inadequate, said Asano.

“There’s no system for rewarding people who make their houses more earthquake-resistant,” he said. “The government subsidizes the cost of reinforcing homes, but homeowners still have to pay.”

Last hit directly by a major earthquake in 1923, Tokyo has a 70 percent chance of being struck by a magnitude-7 temblor in the next 30 years, according to the government.

A magnitude-9 quake is 355 times stronger than a magnitude-7.3 in terms of energy released, according to the website of the U.S. Geological Survey. Aside from aftershocks that continue to rattle Tokyo, last year’s disaster neither increased nor decreased the risk of subsequent large quakes, according to the USGS.

Capital Chaos

The March 11 quake nonetheless highlighted the prospect of chaos gripping the capital. Fearing panic, top officials kept quiet about discussions of a worst-case scenario in which Tokyo would have to be evacuated due to radiation from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. Then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan revealed the discussions in interviews in September, after stepping down.

“If we made it public, some people could have overreacted, even though it was an unrealistic scenario,” Goshi Hosono, now the minister in charge of the crisis and at the time a special adviser to Kan, said in a Feb. 23 interview. “It would have created unrest.”

Even as the March 11 earthquake struck 373 kilometers (232 miles) from Tokyo, off Japan’s northeast coast, the city ground to a halt. Phone networks were overloaded, trains stopped, roads were jammed and highways closed. The temblor hit on a Friday afternoon, prompting workers to pour out of offices and onto the streets to make their way home, many forced to walk for hours.

‘Huge Traffic Jams’

“People tried different ways to get home such as walking, or taking buses and cars, which led to huge traffic jams,” said Kunio Takatsuka, a manager in charge of disaster information at Tokyo’s metropolitan government.

Since then, the local government has developed plans to accommodate stranded commuters in train stations, with help from railroad companies.

The national government predicts about 6.5 million people, or about a third of the 21 million people at work on a weekday in the Tokyo area, may be unable to walk home should a magnitude-7.3 quake strike in the middle of a business day. Streets would be overcrowded and increase the time needed to get home.

Train-Station Drills

On a cold morning last month, about 10,000 people gathered at three of the city’s busiest train stations for a practice drill. At Tokyo station, facing the Marunouchi business district, railway workers handed out water and emergency blankets as station operator East Japan Railway Co. tried to assess how many people it could house.

JR East, the largest railroad operator in the Tokyo area, has prepared 30,000 blankets and 60,000 bottles of water to distribute to passengers, spread across 30 stations, said Satohiko Asakura, a spokesman for the company.

Tokyo’s metropolitan government is also urging companies to prepare facilities and supplies to let workers stay overnight, after a survey showed only 21 percent of offices distributed food and water to employees during the March 11 disaster.

“It’s usually safer to stay in your office than walk home,” said Takatsuka of the metropolitan government. “We’re trying to get places to store enough food for three days.”

Enabling people to stay put will also help keep roads open for emergency traffic, Takatsuka said.

Three Days

At the Marunouchi Building, situated between Tokyo station and the Imperial Palace, operator Mitsubishi Estate Co. has stockpiled bottled water to last three days. The office building, completed in 2002, has its own generators in the basement, a well that can pump water for toilets and washing, and dampers that limit its movement.

Mitsubishi Estate accommodated 3,500 people in its buildings during the March 11 disaster, said Seitaro Tsuji, a general manager in the company’s property-management division.

Demand for shelter in the buildings could be as high as 400,000 people, “so it’s still short by a factor of 10,” he said. “We still need to work with authorities on how to provide shelter.”

NTT DoCoMo Inc., Japan’s biggest mobile-phone company, is promoting its message board for emergencies when users can’t get through on the phone. The system allows users to leave a message confirming their safety, which can then be seen by other people by typing the person’s phone number into the phone.

Loop Roads

“Unless people can confirm their family is safe, they’re likely to try and get home to check even if they’re asked to stay put,” said Takatsuka of the metropolitan government. “Instead of getting people to return home, we’re trying to find ways to confirm their safety.”

Three loop roads are also being built in and around Tokyo to enable smoother flow of traffic and alternative routes, and the city government is studying how to ensure materials and land are available for emergency housing, it said in a report last year.

The Tokyo metropolitan government plans to use public housing, build temporary dwellings and rent private accommodation to house the homeless, it said in the report.

In September, a panel of the national transportation and infrastructure ministry began working on a plan to boost tsunami defenses in Tokyo Bay, Kyodo News reported last month.

Water Tanks

Tokyo’s waterworks bureau is also studying how to upgrade generators after power cuts following the March 11 earthquake meant some facilities couldn’t pump water, said Gen Ozeki, a director at the bureau.

The city has a network of water tanks and stations, built over three decades starting in the 1960s, to ensure no resident is more than a 2-kilometer walk from emergency water supplies, Ozeki said. The tanks, fed from the main water supply, are built to withstand a major quake and hold enough water to supply each citizen with 3 liters a day, he said.

The wards, cities, towns and villages that make up the Tokyo metropolitan region have about 15.8 million meals stored for emergencies, according to the local government’s report.

Japan lies on the so-called “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines surrounding the Pacific Basin, and sits at the meeting point of three tectonic plates, the North American, Eurasian and Philippine Sea plates.

The country is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, with more than a fifth of the largest temblors, according to the cabinet office.

Kobe Quake

A 7.3 earthquake in Kobe, western Japan, in 1995 killed about 6,400 people and caused 9.6 trillion yen of damage, according to the government, while the magnitude-7.9 Great Kanto Quake of 1923 destroyed about 293,000 structures and killed an estimated 105,000 people, according to the Japanese government.

“The two most important things to remember are to take cover when an earthquake strikes,” said Takahashi Tamio, a disaster broadcaster at radio station Nippon Cultural Broadcasting Inc., who has worked there for 40 years. “Then, ensure you open doors to secure an escape route.”

The metropolitan government is also urging private citizens to stock emergency supplies in their homes. Panic buying after the March 11 disaster caused supermarkets to run out of goods including bottled water, pasta and cooking-gas canisters, its report said.

Individual preparedness is critical, said Asano of the Nomura Research Institute.

“A lot of people say, ‘I think I’ll be OK,’ without anything to support their reasoning,” he said. “People need to think about what they would do if an earthquake hits -- where they would escape to, what would happen if their house was damaged.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE