How Japan’s Laws Saved Millions of Lives in the Face of Tragic Tsunami

The tsunami that rocked Japan last night will be a tragedy of great proportions no matter what: Hundreds are presumed dead, and the damage to infrastructure and private property will be devastating. But the truth is that it could have been much, much worse. Many earthquake-hit Japanese buildings have stayed standing, orderly evacuations have been carried out across the nation, and emergency rations await the stranded.

In fact, out of anyplace in the world, Japan may be the nation best prepared to be hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami — here’s why: It’s all about the strict building codes, good engineering, and preparedness education. These three things have lead to literally millions of lives being saved.

The Telegraph reports:

Damage to buildings in Tokyo was slight as a result of Japan’s stringent building regulations that ensure that skyscrapers sway in during a quake, but don’t collapse. Buildings are made earthquake proof with the aid of deep foundation and massive shock absorbers that dampen seismic energy. Another method allows the base of a building to move semi-independently to its superstructure, reducing the shaking caused by a quake.

To repeat, building codes ordain that structures be built this way.

Furthermore, Japan ensures that every schoolchild participates in elaborate monthly earthquake drills, and the fire department is enlisted to help teach them what it actually feels like to be in an earthquake. Which is why the Telegraph reports that, as a result, “television footage from school and offices in Tokyo during Friday’s quake showed workers and students behaving with extraordinary calm and composure as buildings shook violently, sending files tumbling from desks and books from shelves.” The reporter was flabbergasted by the masses of children calmly forming lines at muster points, donning protective helmets.

Finally, Japanese law ensures that there will be emergency rations in public buildings in the event that an earthquake strands people there.

This Al Jazeera video shows the absolute devastation that Japan’s preparedness helped the people survive:

All in all, the measures Japan has taken to protect its population — despite any grumbling of construction firms about higher costs, we see now why strict building codes are so, so important — should be applauded and emulated. It’s why Dave Ewing tweeted the following in response to the quake and tsunami:

The headline you won’t be reading: “Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes”. Buts it’s the truth.”

Indeed — it helps that Japan is a rich, industrialized country, but the government of every nation should go to such lengths to protect its citizens.

UPDATE (3/13): The death toll is rising in Japan, and the tragedy is even greater than initially presumed to be — but it has been confirmed: Japan’s strict building codes nonetheless saved countless lives.

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About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to GOOD.is, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

80 thoughts on “How Japan’s Laws Saved Millions of Lives in the Face of Tragic Tsunami

  1. Laws don’t save people. That’s not how laws work. It’s just common sense that buildings in a part of the world where earthquakes are prevalent would be made to withstand earthquakes. We don’t need a law to tell us this.

    1. Countless lives were saved because of these building code laws and government inspections to ensure they are enforced. Very few people actually have any “common sense”, and even fewer of people have the engineering background to make decisions such as this. In fact, very few construction companies in Japan were willing to build to such a high level of safety before government mandated them to, because it made them uncompetitive.

      If it were left up to “common sense”, a LOT more people would have died!

    2. In many earthquake zones around the world there are building laws and regulations that require certain types of earthquake proofing, however in some parts of the world these common sense rules were not abided by and hence have caused loss of life! Japan is more prepared as it has the enforcement behind these laws to keep them. Laws do save lives! Japan also is able to cope as it is an MEDC which will enable it to use resources within its country and around the globe. The reason the death toll is so high is not becuase of the earthquake but becuase people had so little time about 45 to 20 mins to get to higher ground before the tsunami struck.

    3. No, you don’t need laws to “tell us that”

      What you DO need the laws for is to force construction firms not to just ignore that to cut material and construction costs to turn a bigger profit. If you think they would just all build to standards that could withstand a 9.0 quake all by themselves you’re living in a fantasy world.

    4. Yes, sometimes laws do save lives. Because the rich and greedy are willing to risk the lives of innocent people in order to save a buck to line their own pockets with money meant to protect the public. If laws were not in place there would be MANY more dead right now.

    5. B.S.

      People respond to incentives. There is ALWAYS an incentive structure. People innovate and compete within its parameters. Government strongly influences the incentive structure, in all cases, like it or not. To have no law is a choice about the market’s shape, just as making a law is a choice. Either way, lawmakers (i.e. citizens) are determining which business models succeed.

      Without building codes, short-term incentives for contractors encourage flimsy buildings. The low bid process (another market structure) encourages short-term thinking. Building codes determine how short-term.

      Incentive structures which reward short-term thinking demolished our economy. And as a dude who works with one of the economists who saw this crash coming long beforehand, I can say as much. It’s beside the point, however.

      So, “Common sense” is that yes, earthquake-resistant buildings near a fault line are wise. But “common sense” also says people respond to incentives, and there is a law of diminishing returns. In other words, safety becomes incrementally more expensive–building to resist an 7.0 earthquake may be half as costly as building to resist an 8.0, hypothetically. So at some point, a builder has a huge financial incentive to cut an incremental amount of quality. The law incentivizes considering the long-term.

  2. Absolute rubbish!! Certainly, Japan is better prepared to deal with the aftermath than most countries but the reason there are limited casualties is because the worst damage hit the north of Japan instead of Tokyo. Sendai only has one million people (Kobe has a bigger population). Tokyo has 12 million in an incredibly densely packed area with buildings of all ages and lots of gas and power lines.

    Even older buildings here were more or less untouched here. Japan does have pretty good building regulations but only for commercial buildings. Private homes are little more than prefabricated wooden structures with a little plasterwork. Look at the footage of the sendai tsunami and you’ll see most of the debris consist of wood!!

    Even anecdotally this makes little sense to me; we were evacuated from my company “in a calm and collected way” but to the wrong place and everyone was told to re-enter the building without any check with the emergency services on secondary quakes. The second quake hit while we were on the stairs!!

  3. I just stumbled upon this page, so I don’t know what kind of readership you usually have – but it’s anything like the rest of the internet I expect a wide array of small government/tea party/libertarian/the invisible hand of the market-people to show up soon with their cries about “No, no, no government regulations are always bad! It limits freedom and the free market always solves things so that they are better for everyone. If there weren’t all these oppressive regulations companies would have more money to make better products and things would be even better!”

    At least that’s what I’ve seen everywhere else on the internet, as soon as government regulations are even mentioned. But perhaps in the light of this tragedy some of them will have the good sense to shut up and accept that companies that complain about the costs of following regulations would in fact not have made safer or better buildings if they weren’t bound by those regulations.

    1. Yeah, ok, so I stand corrected. Once through the moderation-queue the very first comment is a “Hah, regulations aren’t needed, people do this out of common sense if they live in earthquake areas. I will ignore the fact that companies complain about the cost of following regulations and pretend like they would have done the same without the laws in place.”

      Never fails.

  4. Zabinatrix are you kidding me? Why do you think the innovations that allow earthquake-proof buildings come through in the first place? Because the government tells them to? No, it’s because people innovate, all on their own, to create a better world. All that’s happened is that people made the world better, then government stepped in to take all the credit.

    By all means, keep on strawmanning me, the fact is that you haven’t been able to respond to what I’ve actually said.

    1. In case you missed my point – this isn’t the least bit about innovation, this is about incentive to use those innovations.

      A large, for profit construction firm, with its many shareholders wanting payout on their investment as soon as possible, has a big incentive to save money. And sure, Japan is often hit by earthquakes, but few of them very serious, so cutting back on some of the most costly safety measures is something I’m sure many companies want to do – because those costs show up immediately in the bottom line, while any positive effects will only come in the unlikely event of a catastrophe like this.

      A government can look at the bigger picture more easily, and make laws that require the construction firms to use those safety measures – even if it’s costly.

      We’ve seen this in a multitude of different areas. A river so polluted that it’s literally catching on fire until government regulations step in and tell the factory owners to take the extra cost of cleaning up their waste. A car that is a death trap until government regulations tell the manufacturer that extra money must be spent on safety, et cetera.

      I also love how you’re making this separation between “people doing innovation to make a better world” and the government that is “taking credit for what people did.”

      Are there no people in the government in your world? Is the government some sort of AI or other non-human entity? In my world the government is not only for the people and by the people, but also made up by a lot of different human beings.

      A lot of those wonderful safety innovations that you like were not made without the government’s help or influence. Sure, people made the innovations. But other people, people in the government, signed off on grant money to universities for research, ordered studies on things like water quality, road safety and the impact of building codes, and so on.

      Some innovations were made without any government money, of course, but not all. Far from all.

      So inclusion: the innovation of safety measures is necessary but not sufficient – the safety measures must also be used. And not all safety measures are invented without any government involvement, no matter how you claim that “people” do everything.

      1. Can you respond to me without strawmanning me?

        Some of the examples you’ve provided such as polluted rivers and unsafe cars happen BECAUSE government protects these industries to do whatever they want within the limits government allow them to. This happens because society at large gives its general consensus to government to do these things. The cognitive dissonance in society is strong, however, as they then start protesting such things, ignoring the fact that their ignorance in the first place is what allowed it to happen.

        Riddle me this, if government is made of people, what makes government able to look at things any differently than ‘ordinary’ people?

        I wonder what insane world you’re thinking of where companies would cut corners on the safety of buildings. Even if they did, I don’t know how you can think they’d get away with this. There are voluntary regulatory agencies that cover these kinds of things already. I am a vegetarian and I don’t know all the ins and outs of nutrition, far from it, but there are private agencies that compete with each other to regulate the industry. And would you ever believe it, many producers not only subject themselves to the regulation, but PAY to be regulated. Why would this be? Possibly because they want to make it known to consumers that they care about the quality of their products.

        I expect that you’ll come back with some kind of ‘safety can’t be compromised on the market’ or some kind of argument to that effect. It’s almost as if the government isn’t subject to being compromised.

        I just want to live in a voluntary world, I don’t get what you hate about this.

        1. Oh and I wanted to add, some of those safety innovations did happen in part due to grant money being given to them, but you ignore the fact that this money had to be taken from someone else, someone else who would’ve used it to improve something themselves. Government can’t possibly anticipate what things should and could be improved, only the market aptly responds to demand. Government distorts real demand and then paints itself as the good guy when it improves something, but nobody ever looks at what could’ve been done without government getting involved in the first place.

          1. Oh, I didn’t see this one before my last comment. Oh yey, now it’s time for “if the government didn’t take their money they could do even more good things!”

            Got any proof for that actually happening in real life? For something related, libertarians always tell me that if there just weren’t all these high taxes, people and companies would have money to take care of people. Everyone would be helped and things would be wonderful! Those gordanged government handouts aren’t neeeded, just lower the taxes and people will help each other instead!

            But go back before those “evil government handouts” and look at society back then. Was there more or less poverty? Was the man working in the factory more or less a slave to his master before government regulation? Were the poor houses and free health care more or less hellholes before socialization?

            I feel like it’s the same thing here. A lot of people envision a wonderful world where everyone will improve everything if only they could.. and the only thing stopping them is that they have to pay taxes. If it just wasn’t for those taxes, then things would be better…

        2. You talk about strawmanning and then act as if I’ve ever said that government is 100% perfect 😉 I might have misunderstood you, and you have clearly misunderstood me. Maybe that’s because we’re both unclear, but I certainly think that it’s unfair to assume that I’m deliberately creating a strawman.

          No, I do not think that government regulations are perfect or that the government is beyond being compromised. I do think that the government has a greater chance of seeing the bigger picture in many cases though.

          The government isn’t driven by direct profit motives and isn’t one company in economic competition with another company. If company A and company B are in direct competition for the same customers, company A can cut costs in some way and be able to sell their product cheaper than company B, taking many of their customers. The government, having another view of things, can put regulations on both companies, telling them were it is not ok to cut corners. That’s the difference.

          But I haven’t said that all companies will act purely for profit all the time. But that doesn’t matter for my argument. The bottom line is that SOME companies will cut corners when they shouldn’t.

          Yes, SOME companies will voluntarily regulate themselves. That’s great. I’ve never said that all humans are evil or idiots. But what about the company that sells children’s toys painted with toxic paint, because they can get them cheaply from China? Does the fact that other, more ethical companies self-regulate compensate for their lack of regulation? You know that this happens – it’s in the news every so often; there was even a story about lead paint on Shrek-glasses in one of the major fast food chains (I forget which one).

          Now tell me – in these cases where companies do NOT self-regulate, how is it that these things are finally found and stopped? Is it because other companies self-regulate and pay to have THEIR products tested, or is it because of government testing and regulation?

          Yes, in a perfect world people would just buy from the good companies that sell safe products. But not every family has the time or knowledge to do research and know if the drinking glasses they got from a major restaurant chain are safe for their children or not. Most people just don’t know enough to go with the best choice and will go with the cheapest.

          OK, so you’re telling me that the Cuyahoga river was polluted until it could catch on fire because of government regulation? I’d love it if you’d teach me more about how that works… Anyway, the point is still GOOD regulation, like for instance the Clean Water Act came to be partly because of that river. And it’s a lot better now, thanks to that regulation.

          So even if your premise of “government somehow caused the problem in the first place!” was correct, it can’t negate the fact that the modern regulations that came after helped alleviate the problem. Again: government isn’t perfect, but we can work together to change it and make it into something that works for us, instead of just saying “no, it isn’t perfect, down with all regulation.”

          I feel like I live in a voluntary world. But riddle me this, quizmaster: When you buy food at the store, do you feel reasonable sure that it is uncontaminated and safe to eat? When you get drugs at the pharmacy, do you feel reasonably sure that it is actual medicine and not some dangerous, pseudo-scientific snake oil hogwash?

          Do you think that things always worked like that? If you’re an American, do you think that food and medicine was more or less safe before the FDA?

          If you think that it was more safe, your world is different than mine.

          Anyway – maybe you’re right, maybe 90% of companies are goodie-goodie and wouldn’t do anything wrong. 10% are still a lot… If 90% of construction companies in Tokyo would build safe skyscrapers out of common sense and good will, and 10% build less safe but much safer skyscrapers, it doesn’t really help the 90% that they were so good when the 10% come toppling against their buildings. Big picture is the key. One company can only make their product safe, but they can make it unsafe enough to affect many others.

  5. OK, its awful what the people are going through.

    But if Japan is so well organised to deal with a disaster like this, why do they immeidately request assistance from England and other European countries?

    New Zealand handled it with their own resources.

    1. Dr. Watson..I’m just curious..did New Zealand experience the exact same damages? I think even if Japan is a rich country and well organized, they will need every help they can get from other countries..and it’s always been this way when a country is hit by a disaster, other countries help and give support…right?

    2. Well, Dr. Watson, the Japan quake was EIGHT THOUSAND TIMES more powerful than the New Zealand quake. The Japanese quake caused damage to the entire country, and the resulting tsunami wiped entire towns off the map. What happened in Christchurch was tragic, but you can’t compare it to the level of devastation in Japan.

  6. A quake that size would do much more damage in places like California. And the tsunami! Whatever saved them, be it a mix of regulation and low population density, thank goodness for it!

    As for the comment on private homes vs. the commercial buildings: of course the commercial buildings are more tightly regulated. They house more people and would do MUCH more damage falling in than a small private business or home.

    I agree with Zabin on most of his points. All it takes is a few bad apples to spoil the bunch, and regulation helps keep out bad apples. Not always no, but enough of the time, and we can help keep the over zealous from taking over. That’s our jobs as citizens of our countries anyway.

    A company’s job is to make as much money as it can. A government’s job is to make sure it’s citizens are safe. It’s our job to keep the balance between the two.

  7. How did they figure it was sound planning to build nuclear reactors on the northern east coast shoreline facing the seismically hot Japanese Trench subduction zone. It would probably have been more prudent to place them on the west coast, which is less prone to tsunamis, that is if they absolutely must use ocean water. I suppose there are economic reasons for building them where they now sit, ruined.

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