Select content to be distributed with Foreign Policy magazine
Select content to be distributed with Foreign Policy magazine
The Tokyo Skytree, Japan's tallest structure, uses steel-reinforced concrete nodes and a central pole inspired by traditional architecture to diffuse seismic vibrations. Photo: Shutterstock
INFRASTRUCTURE

Made in Japan disaster resilience

Japan’s exposure to natural disasters has prompted the country to develop technology and methods that mitigate mother nature’s human and economic damage. Now, with Japan’s drive to export its high-quality infrastructure and technology, made in Japan solutions are being delivered to a world facing increasing threats from climate change 

Japan’s geography may be beautiful, but it also makes for challenging terrain. One of the most tectonically active places on earth, Japan sits on the western edge of the ominously named Ring of Fire – a geographic area that includes the Pacific coasts of Asia, America and Oceania, and is the site of around 90 percent of the word’s earthquakes and 75 percent of the world’s volcanoes.

This means Japan is one of the most exposed countries to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, not to mention its annual experience with typhoons. Yet, Japan is by no means the most vulnerable, as the country’s ingenuity and culture of preparedness has made it a leader in disaster prevention and mitigation technology.

Stretching back to medieval times, the Japanese have innovated so as to be able to live in harmony with their country’s difficult nature. The “Goju-no-to” or “five-layered tower” architecture, which can be seen in traditional temples, is an early example of a technique that mitigates earthquake damage. And today, most experts agree that Japan, with strict building standards, advanced detection technology, flood prevention infrastructure and more than 7,600 buildings that use seismic isolation systems, is the most disaster resilient country on earth.

The massive main water tank in Tokyo's underground flood diversion facility. Photo: Dddeco | CC-BY-SA-3.0

For example, the world’s largest flood prevention infrastructure is underneath Tokyo. The huge underground reservoir involves a network of massive pipes that can release up to 200 cubic meters of water per second into a nearby river. Since its construction, it has resulted in four times fewer flooded zones in the city and a two-thirds reduction in the number of houses affected by floods.

Once a disaster strikes, technology that gathers information rapidly and accurately is also critical, and is another area where Japan is innovating. The country has developed robotic technology and drones that can collect information in dangerous areas such as radiation zones, underwater and from the air. This technology is useful, not only to save lives of those affected by disaster, but also those of first-responders.

“Information is not enough, of course, but it is the basis for governments and societies of the future to prepare a response,” said Hideo Ohno, President of Tohoku University, a leading Japanese university. Disaster Science has been named one of the research-based college’s four key areas of focus, and its researchers have recently developed an advanced tsunami simulator.

$329.8 billion

Estimated cost of natural disasters in 2017
SOURCE: SIGMA RE

And while Japan is certainly employing its disaster prevention technology on its own territory, the country’s innovations are becoming increasingly needed and exported abroad. Climate change is making weather-related disasters such as flooding and storms more common, and the expansion of the human population and economic development are making those events more dangerous and costly. Data from insurance company Swiss Re suggests that the economic toll of these events has been on the rise since the 1970s, with the 2017 global price tag from natural catastrophes coming in at $329.8 billion.

Now, a key part of Japan’s foreign policy involves providing the world with high-quality infrastructure that uses Japan’s expertise and technology to meet the specific needs of individual countries – including disaster resilience. Offering an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced $110 billion in funding for innovative infrastructure developments in Asia.

Beyond that, the government is urging private companies, such as Tobishima Corporation, which specializes in disaster prevention technology, to engage in more infrastructure development around the world. Takuma Hatano, president and CEO of Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation for Transport & Urban Development (JOIN), said that Japanese-led infrastructure projects are not only safe, resilient and high-quality, but also cost-competitive on the global marketplace.

 “When it comes to maintenance costs and life spans of the infrastructure, Japanese products are superior,” explained Hatano.

“When it comes to maintenance costs and life spans of the infrastructure, Japanese products are superior”

Takuma Hatano

President & CEO, Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation for Transport & Urban Development (JOIN)

Japanese disaster prevention technology and expertise can already be found in Indonesia’s emergency volcanic disaster prevention project, Bangladesh’s master plan for flood control and embankment projects in Nepal. Comprehensive technological cooperation is also being provided in Mexico and Peru, and Japanese seismographic equipment has been provided to Venezuela, Colombia and Fiji, along with many other developing and advanced countries around the world.

Japan’s ITC sector has also found innovative solutions to disaster risk reduction, focusing on making the responses to disasters seamless, stronger and smarter. From the Philippines to Colombia and Thailand, the Japanese government and Japanese ITC companies, such as Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), have been taking technology abroad to help countries gather real-time data and ensure that communications networks are functioning properly in the event of an emergency.

Like what you just read? Sign-up to our newsletter

Leave a Reply