Shaky Recovery

Three years after a devastating earthquake, Kobe is still in ruins. Why can't Japan cope with diasasters?

On January 17, 1995, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale rocked the port city of Kobe, Japan. The quake, which came almost exactly a year after one of a similar magnitude in the Los Angeles suburb of Northridge, dominated the news with the images of ruin and desperation that inevitably follow such a disaster: displaced residents mourning the dead and worrying over the missing; elevated highways turned perpendicular to the ground; buildings reduced to rubble. The toll of the Kobe earthquake was stunning: 6,400 dead, $100 billion in damage.

Confusion and disruption are the rule in an earthquake and its aftermath. This is to be expected when solid earth turns to shifting mass, when streets split open and buildings fall under their own weight. But such a crisis tests far more than the faith of victims and the integrity of existing structures. It also tests the limits of how social, political, and economic systems--and the people operating within those systems--adapt, recover, and rebound from dramatically changed circumstances. An earthquake is a special case, one that brings to light usually subterranean organizing principles even as it brings down buildings and roadways. In this sense, the story of how Kobe responded (and continues to respond) to the quake is about much more than a city righting itself after a natural disaster. It is about how underlying rules and customs either facilitate or retard not just recovery from a natural disaster, but the ability to adapt and develop over time.

This is, then, a frustrating story. It is one that raises serious questions about Japan's much-vaunted devotion to top-down order and stability and its implementation of a "plan-rational" at almost every level of society. Over the past two decades and as the first of the great Asian tigers, Japan has been hailed for the success of its "administrative guidance," its ability to implement elite economic planning that somehow managed to steer clear both of the "excesses" of unbridled capitalism and the poverty of a command economy. As its economy went into recession in the '90s, enthusiasm for Japanese-style economic management and planning understandably waned. A close look at the Kobe earthquake and the city's slow recovery efforts suggests reasons for the larger problems in Japan's economy.

The disaster in Kobe reveals a set of guiding principles that not only hampered rescue efforts but even contributed to the quake's damage. Indeed, those policies have helped ensure that more than 27,000 families are still living and working in temporary buildings three years after the disaster--despite Japan's wealth. By substituting bureaucratic regularity for entrepreneurial innovation, government dictates for market processes, and vague group ownership for clear-cut property rights, the status quo in Japan has helped make the rebuilding of Kobe immeasurably more difficult than it needs to be.

Such problems became evident as soon as the earth stopped shaking. A post-quake report issued by the Kobe YMCA is filled with anecdotes such as this one: Three days after the quake, two women from Kobe Citizens Central Hospital appeared at city hall asking for 10 volunteers to help carry water at the hospital, located about a mile away. Water duty, they explained to city workers, pulled too many skilled nurses from more-urgent medical tasks. Officials on the first floor of city hall turned the women away. Yet on the eighth floor of the same building was a list of 5,000 registered volunteers willing to help any way they could. When the women came back for more help, officials told them to return later with a written request.

Similar bureaucratic procedures beset rescue and recovery efforts at the national level as well. Officials turned away doctors from the United States because they were not certified to practice medicine in Japan. They quarantined European search dogs while Kobe residents picked through the rubble by hand. Even offers of help from within Japan were refused: Although a disabled phone system presented a critical problem to search-and-rescue efforts, officials refused to distribute cellular phones donated by Nippon Motorola because they didn't want to issue the required telephone identification numbers. Officials initially rejected an early offer of medical help from the Japanese Association of Acute Medicine because they were unfamiliar with that organization; they changed their minds a week later as a flu virus raged through evacuation shelters.

The director of Kobe's international affairs division, Kiyoyuki Kanemitsu, exemplifies the distaste many officials show for stepping out of their regulated routine. When asked about the frequently hostile attitude toward volunteers wanting to assist rescue and emergency care operations, Kanemitsu explains, "In order to coordinate [the volunteers] it would take a lot of time, and we needed a bigger picture of the total damage. Also, we didn't know much about the people who volunteered. Frankly, we couldn't verify the trustworthiness of the people who volunteered, so we could not take responsibility for them."

Once a "bigger picture" developed, however, officials seemed no more interested in expediting recovery efforts. In Japan, plumbers are certified by municipal authorities and are prohibited from working outside their particular area. In the weeks after the earthquake, plumbers from Osaka, Kyoto, and other cities could not legally work in Kobe, even though the water supply system was in desperate need of repair. For Kanemitsu, the earthquake wasn't enough of a reason to relax such rules. Plumbers, he states firmly, "have to be qualified for our city. They have to be qualified to use the right tools....We will have another problem if we start another system. It's not good for us in the long term to consider this kind of action." A similar problem afflicted construction workers, especially carpenters who specialize in building traditional Japanese homes. Normal operating procedure requires craftsmen to be certified for such work. The post-quake need for repairs--and the strictly limited supply of labor--was no cause for change. As one city official told the Los Angeles Times, "Even in an emergency, we don't desire letting in simple laborers." (More than a year later, some of the requirements affecting carpenters were finally relaxed.)

Such responses were in marked contrast to succor offered from less-official sectors of Japanese society: Immediately after the earthquake, the Kobe YMCA was swamped with volunteers, many of whom had been turned away by city hall. YMCA managers quickly established an emergency headquarters and organized the volunteers into teams that canvassed damaged neighborhoods and reported back on what victims needed most. By bicycle and on foot--and wearing identifying numbers normally used for YMCA sporting events--volunteers delivered food, water, clothes, and blankets. Even members of the yakuza--Japan's organized crime gangs--used their networks to bring food, water, and other supplies into the area. Right-wing political groups, whose loudspeaker trucks regularly roam city streets calling for the restoration of the emperor, dropped their act and used their trucks to deliver hot tea to stricken neighborhoods. This all happened as boxes of instant noodles donated by local merchants sat outside city hall in the rain, untouched and undistributed.

Surveying the post-quake landscape in April 1995, the then-editor of Tokyo Business Today, Hiroshi Fukunga, summarized a disturbing but inescapable lesson from the Kobe experience. "It now seems clear that even in a national emergency the nation's pen-pushers will not swerve a millimeter from official procedures, even if fellow citizens' lives are at risk," wrote Fukunga. "While the hours slopped by and thousands lost their lives in the fiery ruins left by the Kobe disaster, Japanese officials' top priorities were observing protocol and following precedent."

Fukunga was absolutely right, but his analysis was incomplete. A major contributor to damage in Kobe had nothing to do with unresponsiveness after the quake. Rather, it reflected longstanding and popular governmental agricultural and land-use policies that have helped make housing and building costs in Japan among the most expensive in the world. These policies are intricately linked to Japan's valorization of a planned society that emphasizes the good of the community rather than the importance of the individual. They affected Kobe in two distinct ways. First, they encouraged construction of non-earthquake-resistant structures. Second, they created a confusing system of property ownership that, in the name of empowering all affected parties, makes rebuilding much more complicated than it needs to be.

Japan's historically intense concerns about agricultural self-sufficiency have led to generous price supports and other subsidies for farmers. Post-World War II land-reform efforts such as the 1952 Agricultural Land Act have "severely restricted land transfers, tenures, tenant rents, and so forth, in an attempt to prevent the concentration of land and to protect the welfare of tenants," notes Clark University economist Robert C. Hsu. Such policies, along with lower property and inheritance taxes on land used for food production, have encouraged farmers to continue farming, even though many do so now only part time.

There is a more perverse unintended consequence to such protectionism, however, one that bears directly on Kobe: In urban areas widely recognized as the most expensive housing markets on the planet, significant portions of land are still set aside for growing crops. Indeed, some analysts estimate that as much as 5 percent of Tokyo, a city known for its dense population and tiny living quarters, is set aside for farming. In Japan: Who Governs? (1995), Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, points out that Tokyo's 23 wards have about 62,000 acres of housing land on which 8.35 million people live. He notes, however, that there are about 89,000 acres of urban farmland in greater Tokyo, which includes the city proper and surrounding suburbs. Farmers are not the only Japanese property owners who hold land, either. One newspaper reports 116,000 acres of vacant land or "areas used only for open air storage spaces" in the country's three largest urban areas (Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya).

Over the decades, such policies have removed large amounts of land from the market and spurred development of "reclaimed land," or man-made islands, especially in coastal cities such as Kobe. In fact, Kobe's port facility sits on Port Island, an artificial land mass linked to the mainland by rail and expressway. Nearby Rokko Island, a commercial and residential area, was created by transferring large sections of the Rokko Mountains into the sea. According to a report by EQE International, a highly regarded earthquake and seismic engineering firm based in San Francisco, such land is "the worst soil possible for earthquakes" and added greatly to the quake's damage.

The way in which Japan's property laws obscure ownership, and hence retard rebuilding efforts, similarly surfaced in the aftermath of the quake. Partly as a reaction to extravagant land-sales taxes, it is common for the land under any given structure--say, a high-rise condominium--to consist of several plots owned by different owners. Given the constraints of the system, this sort of cooperation makes perfect sense. It allows the development of property without taxable land sales. When it comes to severely damaged or destroyed buildings, however, cooperation becomes much more complicated. In the wake of the Kobe quake, these two levels of stakeholders--landowners and building owners--have had great difficulty agreeing on whether or how to rebuild. In some cases, notes attorney Toshifumi Motohara, a high-ranking member of the Restoration Committee of the Kobe Bar Association, it is often exceedingly difficult just to locate all the relevant owners: "They may be from different places in Japan. Or they have passed land ownership on to their children who have long ago moved out of Kobe."

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