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    I’ll be the one to take you through the night

    Today’s sheesh-not-this-again story in Japan revolves around a business hotel chain and its enterprising approach to building codes:

    It was revealed on 27 January that major business hotel chain Toyoko Inn (headquartered in Tokyo) had committed legal infractions involving renovations. After its Idzumo City, Shimane Prefecture, facility opened, the company converted a guest room designed for disabled guests into a meeting room; at four Osaka hotels, the company converted parking spaces for disabled users into storage and lobby space, in violation of the Building Standards Law.

    There are now at least eight prefectures in which such cases of legal infractions by Toyoko Inn are suspected, and company president Norimasa Nishida [whose given name, 憲正, hilariously uses the characters for “codified law” (now referring to “constitution”) and “rectitude”–SRK] revealed tonight that he intends to have inspections carried out on all 120 hotels owned by the conglomerate throughout Japan and to make the results public next week. The renovations at the Idzumo City hotel are said to have been conducted at the instruction of the company.

    The Asahi English edition has a much lengthier article detailing the various conversions of facilities for the handicapped for other uses.

    Violations of the Building Standards Law aren’t exactly a novelty, now that the Aneha scandal has been going for several months; and in this case, of course, the stakes aren’t as high as they are when buildings don’t meet earthquake resistance codes. I’m not dismissing the need for handicapped people to have facilities that they can use, but the fraud involved in not providing them in order to have more space for smokers is not the same as the fraud involved in lying to people about how likely their house is to collapse on their heads in an earthquake.

    Speaking of earthquake resistance, the Asahi also had an interesting report about retrofitting:

    Many say that fixing up these old wooden homes remains the single most effective way to reduce the number of people dying in the next big earthquake.

    They point to the so-called Imiya memo, a kind of “survey of the dead” compiled by practicing doctor Masahiro Imiya after the Kobe quake.

    The document clearly reveals that most of the people who died in the quake were not killed by the temblor, or by fire.

    They were killed by their houses.

    And yet, comments Imiya, “If some minor measures had been taken, they wouldn’t have died.”

    Enacting those “minor measures,” however, is proving to be more difficult than it sounds.

    In fact, in the 10 years since the government passed legislation in December 1995 to promote quakeproofing upgrades, as few as 10,000 houses across the country have actually had those upgrades.

    Kimiro Meguro, a professor of urban safety engineering at the University of Tokyo, points to what he calls a “lack of disaster imagination”–the idea that people simply can’t conceive of what could happen when disaster strikes.

    Social psychologists also refer to the “normality bias,” the habit of people to assume that they alone will survive. This kind of mentality impedes disaster preparation.

    Both of those are probably part of it. Another part of it, for the old people who live in traditional wooden houses, is probably that they’re just used to the idea that they could be toast when the big one comes. There’s also–you hear this from a really shocking number of people–the conventional wisdom that says that the flexibility of old-fashioned wooden buildings makes them more likely to survive in an earthquake. That not only flies in the face of empirical evidence from Kobe and elsewhere, it flies in the face of common sense. Old houses have heavy clay roof tiles, flimsy walls, and inflammable materials all over the place. While there’s a nice life-lesson sort of feeling to imagining that the lack of rigidity in their framing makes them more likely to survive–you know, you gotta roll with the punches and be adaptable and stuff–in real life, shear is not a good learning opportunity.

    But I think another part of it is that unless you plan to barricade yourself into your house, you’re going to be spending a lot of time on subway platforms, driving on overpasses, working in office buildings with lots of shelves above eye-level, and drinking in little basement bars. An earthquake can strike at any time. While we all want to be prepared, a comprehensive earthquake kit in a properly braced bedroom is of no use if the ground decides to convulse while you’re in line at the video store. I still think it’s irresponsible not to be prepared–you don’t want to add post-disaster stress to fire and rescue services or to leave your family and coworkers in the lurch–but I can see how a lot of people figure a lot of fussing isn’t worth it.

    2 Responses to “I’ll be the one to take you through the night”

    1. Zak says:

      Errr…Don’t you mean “flammable,” not “inflammable”?

      I was just laughing today at the Starbucks sign above one of their garbage cans labeling it for “Incomburnable Waste”.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      No, actually, man. For once, your critical eye has led you astray. You may be just barely too young to remember when electric heating pads and things were marked “inflammable.” (Think “inflame”–the in- is an intensifier, not a negative.) Then, presumably, as the educational system got into the business of enstupidating people, they decided to remove any possibility of ambiguity and call things “flammable materials.”

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