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Japan's strict building code may have helped save lives

TOKYO — Earthquakes dwell deep in the Japanese imagination.

No country may be better prepared for a major earthquake than Japan. Seismic standards for construction are among the strictest in the world. From a young age, Japanese learn to dive under desks to protect themselves in a quake. The nation has a state-of-the-art tsunami warning system. That preparation undoubtedly saved many lives on Friday.

Every year, Japan marks "Disaster Prevention Day," marked to commemorate the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which killed more than 100,000 people in and around Tokyo. That disaster, along with the 1995 quake in Kobe, which killed more than 6,000, are drilled into memory.

"For every Japanese, there's the fear of the big one," said Ando Yasunori, 27, a magazine editor. "You live with a constant fear. Nobody knows if it will come tomorrow, in a year, 10 years or 100 years, but many Japanese know it will come."

The preparations have become part of the culture. Most schools and offices keep helmets and first aid kits handy. Disaster training begins early and can include sessions in earthquake simulators.

The foresight paid off. High-rise buildings could be seen Friday swaying like trees in a blustery wind, the intended result of engineering that allowed them to flex in a quake. Huge rubber shock absorbers, walls that slide and Teflon foundation pads that isolate buildings from the ground all help keep the buildings standing.

Communities along Japan's coastline, especially in areas that have been hit by tsunamis in the past, tend to be the best prepared. Local authorities can usually contact residents directly through warning systems set up in each home; footpaths and other escape routes leading to higher ground tend to be clearly marked.

The country that gave the world the word tsunami, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, built concrete seawalls in many communities, some as high as 40 feet, which amounted to its first line of defense against the water. In some coastal towns, in the event of an earthquake, networks of sensors are set up to set off alarms in individual residences and automatically shut down floodgates to prevent waves from surging upriver.

Waves from Friday's tsunami spilled over some seawalls in the affected areas.

But Japan's "massive public education program" could in the end have saved the most lives, said Rich Eisner, a retired tsunami preparedness expert who was attending a conference on the topic at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersberg, Md., on Friday.

Information from the New York Times and Washington Post was included in this report.

Japan's strict building code may have helped save lives 03/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 11, 2011 10:30pm]
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