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Japan

Don’t worry. 634m Tokyo Skytree is earthquake proof. Maybe

  • Company that quake-proofed more than 1,000 buildings – including two Olympic venues – admits falsifying tests and using cheap equipment
  • Japanese government swoops in with assurances that everything’s okay – prompting some to draw parallels to 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 9:14pm

The Japanese government has moved quickly to play down suggestions that more than 1,000 buildings across the nation – including at least two venues for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and the 634-metre-tall Tokyo Skytree – are at risk of collapsing in a major earthquake.

But an awful lot of people do not trust that declaration.

The infrastructure ministry said last week there was “no chance” that some of Japan’s most iconic buildings – which also include Tokyo Station, the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower and hospital, university and local government properties – would collapse after KYB Corporation admitted the previous day that it had been falsifying quality inspection data for seismic shock absorbers since March 2000.

Incorporated into the structures of buildings, the equipment is designed to absorb and control the impact of earthquakes, to which Japan is notoriously prone. KYB controls around 40 per cent of the Japanese market for some types of shock absorbers and vibration dampers and the ministry believes that 7,550 absorbers at 903 structures and 3,378 dampers at a further 83 sites fall short of government standards. For now, the scandal appears limited to the domestic market, though a company official confirmed to the South China Morning Post that equipment had been installed in at least one building in Taiwan.

The company’s admission has had building owners scrambling to assess their facilities, with the scandal worsening on Friday when senior management at KYB admitted that as well as falsifying test data, it also replaced components that met government standards with uncertified, cheaper parts. Some 165 buildings are believed to have been fitted with substandard equipment.

“This is more than a corporate problem; it is a social problem,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a former politician and now a professor in the school of social sciences at Waseda University.

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“Japanese people are conscious of the dangers that earthquakes pose, but they are also proud of the government regulations and the construction industry’s standards as the best in the world to protect us from earthquakes,” she said.

“And now we find out that we have been cheated. People are really wondering how this could happen.”

Why staff at the company deliberately falsified test documentation for equipment is not clear, but speculation has included that it had too few staff to keep up with demand.

It has also been suggested that because Japanese regulations on earthquake-resistance equipment are so high that it does not matter if the components fell short of those standards.

“This has come as a big surprise because so many companies have used their products in buildings, but I think the government’s confidence remains high because the regulations in Japan are the most stringent in the world,” said Hiroo Ichikawa, a professor of urban planning at Meiji University.

“Standards are typically three times higher than the anticipated danger, although companies are still trying to determine just how much risk there is now,” he said.

The question would inevitably be asked about how the company had managed to evade meeting government standards for so many years, Professor Ichikawa said, and this was arguably a bigger concern.

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“The regulations are very strict, so how did they get around them?” he asked. “It’s hard to trust a company like this and it is very possible that they will go bankrupt because of this.”

Nakabayashi agreed that the problem ran deeper than whether the buildings were safe or not.

“Japan’s corporate ethics have collapsed. There are all sorts of companies that have had similar problems,” she claimed, singling out corporate misbehaviour in recent years at Toshiba, Nissan Motor, Olympus and Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant crippled by an earthquake in 2011.

The speed with which the ministry moved to reassure the public that there was no danger – it issued a blanket statement that all 1,000 buildings were safe less than 24 hours after the issue first came to light – has also raised eyebrows.

“I suspect the ministry may have decided that Japanese regulations are higher than elsewhere and decided to try to make people not worry, but it is very worrisome because to me it resembles that pattern of denials that Tepco put out in 2011 saying that there had been no meltdowns in the reactors and that there was nothing to worry about,” Nakabayashi said.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which is overseeing the construction of the Olympics Aquatics Centre and the Ariake Arena for the 2020 Games has said it was unlikely that all the shock absorbers already installed in the structures could be replaced before the Olympics.

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The company that operates the Tokyo Skytree, one of the city’s most popular tourist sights, has confirmed that 225 dampers have been incorporated into the structure to control vibrations in the event of an earthquake and that it has requested an explanation from KYB.

Ichiro Matsui, the governor of Osaka Prefecture, accused the company of installing “defective products” in the local authority’s headquarters and demanded the components be replaced and compensation paid.

“It shows a decline in corporate ethics,” he said. “I want the company to recognise that falsified data could put people’s lives at risk.”

Yasusuke Nakajima, president of KYB – the corporate logo of which declares “Our precision, your advantage” – said last week he would determine responsibility after an external investigation. That probe is expected to be carried out by the ministry, although no schedule has been set.