Millions Saved in Japan By Good Engineering and Government Building Codes

tokyo skyline image

Tokyo skyline. Image credit Kimon Berlin

A recent tweet went: The headline you won't see: "Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes". But it's the truth. Well, you see that headline here.

3800 years ago, the the Code of Hammurabi was carved in stone, and included what is considered to be the first building code. That's way too long for Libertarians, who consider building codes evil. A year ago, in Comparing Haiti and Chile: Did Building Codes Save Lives? I noted that the libertarian position was that codes "are an intrusion into the private matters of citizens." The anti-Obama types on Ron Paul's forum about the subject note that "leftist Democrat/progressive/liberal/commie will never accept the idea that private citizens and free markets will provide safe goods. Government is God and all that Government regulates is good. Not regulated = evil."

How many earthquakes will it take for them to realize that sometimes, standards have to change and buildings have to be better? A Canadian visiting Japan claims the building codes saved his life.

"I feel I owe my life to Japanese building standards right now," Newman said Monday. "It was very strong shaking on that railway platform. We were three storeys up and I was thinking this thing was going to come down. And we had a train with us.

James Glanz and Norimitsu Onishi of the New York Times also said it:

After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, which killed about 6,000 people and injured 26,000, Japan also put enormous resources into new research on protecting structures, as well as retrofitting the country's older and more vulnerable structures. Japan has spent billions of dollars developing the most advanced technology against earthquakes and tsunamis.

Japan has gone much further than the United States in outfitting new buildings with advanced devices called base isolation pads and energy dissipation units to dampen the ground's shaking during an earthquake.

Now it is true, that safer buildings attract higher rents, as the Libertarians suggest. According to the Times:

New apartment and office developments in Japan flaunt their seismic resistance as a marketing technique, a fact that has accelerated the use of the latest technologies, said Ronald O. Hamburger, a structural engineer in the civil engineering society and Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, a San Francisco engineering firm.

"You can increase the rents by providing a sort of warranty -- 'If you locate here you'll be safe,' " Mr. Hamburger said.

So does that mean that regular people, who cannot afford that "warranty", don't get any protection?

Building codes are sometimes inflexible and can impede innovation in building. But they provide a minimum level of safety. We need stronger and better ones to ensure that when the next earthquake hits, our buildings do as well as they did in Tokyo.

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