2005年8月23日 (火)

Hoping for strong ceilings in future quakes


Hoping for strong ceilings in future quakes


While I am not pleased that Shinkansen bullet trains were out of service for hours in some areas, I am truly thankful that not a life was lost in Tuesday's earthquake off Miyagi Prefecture.

I imagine this good fortune was due to the preparedness and quick measures taken by people in the regions that have been repeatedly rocked by big temblors.



In contrast, there was no staying power in the ceiling of Spopark Matsumori, a sports facility in Sendai that opened in July. The jolt caused the ceiling panel to crack and fall in chunks on to an indoor swimming pool. A father who grabbed her little girl and jumped in the pool said she was hit on the head and shoulders. Many others there were also injured.


For people who felt exposed and defenseless for being clad only in swimwear, the broken ceiling panel pieces that showered on them relentlessly were just like flying weapons.

How could this have happened at this brand new facility? Obviously, the safety standards for installing the ceiling, the design and how the inspection of the facility was carried out must be closely re-examined.


A building of this style-a cavernous space with practically no pillar to support the vast ceiling-is not uncommon. But when I am in that kind of place, I do sometimes feel a bit nervous. I wonder if the ceiling is attached securely to the roof structure.


In a traditional Japanese house-raising ceremony, a card called munafuda is inscribed with the building's description and the names of its architect and carpenters, and nailed to the ridgepole above the ceiling. In the olden days, munafuda sometimes bore the owners' wishes or prayers, such as "harmony in the world," "transparency and purity always," "calm under the ground," "long life free of calamities" and "peace in the family."

According to "Tenjoura-no Bunkashi" (Cultural history of attic crawl space), a Kodansha book authored by Masahiko Sato, one old munafuda was inscribed with a short poem that read: "Cranes and tortoises do not live forever/ The only things that are permanent/ Are the mountains and the flowing waters."

 建物の棟上げなどで、工事の由緒や建築者、工匠などを記して天井裏の棟木に打ち付ける札を棟札という。古い時代の棟札にはこんな願いが書かれている。「天下和順」「日月清明」「地下安穏」「息災延命」「家族安寧」。歌を記した棟札もある。〈鶴亀は かぎりありけり いつまでも つきぬは 山と水と流れ〉(佐藤正彦『天井裏の文化史』講談社)。

People in charge of public safety must pay special attention to dark and hard-to-see places such as attic crawl spaces.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 18(IHT/Asahi: August 19,2005)

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2005年8月 6日 (土)

Airbus crash nothing short of a `miracle'


Airbus crash nothing short of a `miracle'


I was on a business trip and awoke around 6 a.m. Wednesday in my hotel room. Picking up the morning paper, I switched on the television and saw an image of a burning plane.

This was the Air France jetliner that had just landed at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. The aircraft's tail could be recognized near the ground, but the fuselage was apparently badly damaged and practically invisible behind billowing black smoke.



I automatically assumed a major disaster. Fortunately I was wrong.

The updates that kept coming in reported that all 309 passengers and crew members were evacuated without serious injuries. Given that the Airbus A340 had overrun the runway, crashed and burst into flames, the result must have been an incredible combination of good luck. It was nothing short of a miracle, as the Canadian transport minister put it.


How did this miracle happen? I suppose the flames did not spread until after everyone-or nearly everyone-had gotten out of the aircraft.


Speedy action and cool thinking decided the outcome. The crew members must have given the right instructions to passengers, and the latter must have fully cooperated in dealing with the situation calmly and swiftly.

I don't have all the details yet, but I should think that the miracle was made possible by a combination of factors: the behavior of everyone on board; the timing of the outbreak and intensity of the fire; and the aircraft's speed at the time it crashed.


I rode a Shinkansen bullet train on my way back to Tokyo and gazed at the scenery zipping past the window. I thought anew that the train's speed was close to that of a jumbo jet preparing to touch down on the runway.

If a Shinkansen had wings, it could almost fly. Yet, this mass transit system has remained accident-free for many years. The Shinkansen's safety record is actually a miracle of sorts in itself.


Many people work to keep the trains safe. Even though there is a possibility that natural disasters and situations that are beyond human control will occur, I pray that this miracle will continue forever.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 4(IHT/Asahi: August 5,2005)

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2005年7月27日 (水)

Get some exercise to prepare for the Big One


Get some exercise to prepare for the Big One


Under the lunar calendar, Saturday was taisho, supposedly the year's hottest day. The weather could have been sizzling. As it happened, it was not.

A big earthquake struck without the usual telltale sideways motion that precedes most jolts. The quake's epicenter was in Chiba Prefecture.



The walls were creaking in my house. I ascertained that nothing was on the gas range and speculated about the intensity of the temblor. Unable to recall a stronger quake in the Tokyo area over the past 10 years or so, I assumed this one had at least an intensity of 4 on the Japanese seismic scale of 7 in the capital.


Before long, there was a news flash on TV. Readings of lower 5 were registered in Chiba Prefecture and elsewhere in the Kanto district, but not in Tokyo. I was relieved to see that all reported figures stayed under the intensity 6 level as anything over that could have spelled disastrous damage.

Not seeing Tokyo on the list of worst-hit areas, I assumed the temblor had measured 4 or less in the capital. More than 20 minutes later, however, another news flash reported an intensity of upper 5 had been registered in Adachi Ward.


By way of explanation, officials said it had taken more time than expected to transfer data from the Tokyo metropolitan government to the Japan Meteorological Agency.

Under the present system, data yielded by seismographs installed in wards, cities, towns and villages are first sent to the Tokyo metropolitan government, which transmits the information to the meteorological agency.

The system, introduced after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, involved cutting-edge technology and was thought to be the fastest one for data transmission.

The Tokyo metropolitan government intends to take prompt steps to improve the situation since the limits of anti-quake programs now in place have been exposed.


Seismic information constitutes the core of data needed to forecast the extent of quake-caused damage and work out countermeasures. Still, the delivery of information was delayed at a crucial time. The upshot of this is that the infrastructure in place in Tokyo to prepare for a feared Big One, a shallow-focus earthquake, is highly unreliable.


Fortunately, the weekend temblor did not cause major damage. Yet, it exposed the vulnerability of transportation systems like railways and elevators.

We had better start exercising more to prepare for an emergency. An earthquake can hit anytime, whether we are cautious or not. If the Big One does not strike, surely no one will complain.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 26(IHT/Asahi: July 27,2005)

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