active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Disposable flotsam

A few years ago, my wife and I decided to erect a flimsy wooden shack in a crowded, fire-hazard ghetto in the depths of the world’s most seismically and volcanically unstable region. In short, we built a house in Tokyo.


Your abiding image of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake may be of sea water smashing its way inland, choked in burning debris. Or of what was left when it withdrew: a moonscape scoured clear of all but tangled wreckage, out of which poked the occasional stone or concrete building.

Nobody, you may conclude, would be crazy enough to build a wooden house in Japan.

Of course, a tsunami is unlikely to devastate downtown Tokyo, even though it’s a seaside city, made up largely of reclaimed land nestled in a narrow bay. A large sign on the Junior High School just opposite our house informs us we’re 23.5 meters above sea level. That’s high enough to survive anything my limited fiction writer’s mind can contemplate.

But if you think back further, you’ll recall it wasn’t the Great Kanto earthquake itself that razed Tokyo in 1923. It was the fire that swept through its crowded wooden tenements. The earthquake had the misfortune to occur at midday on Saturday, when many people were home cooking lunch over the traditional Japanese open hearth.

The open hearths have largely gone — but it only takes one to destroy a neighborhood. And today there are gas mains and ranges and electricity cables and heaters to take up the slack.

What’s more, in areas like our own, where you step back from the main road into a warren of passages barely wide enough for a Japanese car to squeeze through, a single collapsed wall or building would block the path to the emergency services.

Not that you’d expect much in the way of emergency services when the next big one hits.

And by the way, there’s no ‘if’ in that sentence. The next big one will hit. People here will tell you it’s long overdue.

Just a couple of decades ago, experts were doomsaying that the next big earthquake in Tokyo will bring down the world economy. Those days are gone, but it’s no consolation to those who choose to live here, or whose parents made the decision for them.

As happened after Tohoku, the world economy will still be around when Japan reaches abroad for handouts.

The awkward thing about earthquakes is that we have no way of predicting them. With a volcano you at least get a warning. You may know for months that one of Japan’s many active peaks is about to blow its top. You may even be able to relieve the pressure.

An earthquake that levels Tokyo could strike the city at any moment — right now, perhaps, as I type this sentence. And of course, earthquakes are unstoppable.

Japan boasts an admirable network of seismometers, but their efficacy is limited. Earthquakes take a while to propagate through rock. An automatic alert, sent out through cellphones, travels ahead of the wave itself. This means that the further you are from the epicenter, the more prepared you can be. But of course, the further you are from the epicenter, the less damaging the effect.

Seasoned earthquake survivors like myself take a blasé view of the tremors we experience on a weekly, if not daily basis. We can instantly tell how far away the epicenter is, just by the feel of the quake. Close epicenters give out sharp, jolting, frantic waves. Further away, the feel is smoother, rolling, unhurried.

These days, I hardly break my stride for a rolling quake less than 3 on the Japanese scale.

In any coastal area, of course, you should scramble toward high ground the moment you feel the quake, or hear the alarm. There should be adequate time to evacuate between the physical quake and the arrival of a tsunami, since an epicenter close to shore won’t cause one.

The epicenter of the Tohoku earthquake was 67 kilometers offshore. People had about half an hour to evacuate the nearest coastal cities. Enough for fit young people, but not for Japan’s aging and infirm population. More than 12,000 people were swept away, battered to death by debris, or drowned.

Japan lives in eternal preparedness for the next big one. Every employee has an emergency kit under their desk (which is where you duck and cover when the room starts to shake), and every kid has a cloth helmet within easy reach at their school or kindergarten.

If my own family is typical, everyone keeps emergency provisions at home, including large quantities of bottled water. Tohoku showed that even a distant quake that hardly affected Tokyo can bring the city to its knees. It took weeks for there to be food and water in the shops. Imagine what will happen when the big one comes, and the city itself lies in splinters.

Japanese buildings are marvels of earthquake resistance. But those who put their faith in Japanese engineering must have had it sorely tested. Again, if my Japanese wife is typical, they no longer feel invincible.

They may not have lost trust in their engineering prowess after the collapse of the Hanshin Expressway in the 1995 Kobe earthquake, but they certainly must have lost it following the revelation in 2012 that Japanese infrastructure is elderly, poorly maintained, and often badly constructed in the first place.

The road tunnel that collapsed in Koshu that year, killing nine, demonstrated a shocking level of engineering incompetence, especially given that a similar tunnel design had failed in Boston six years earlier.

I have little hope for many Tokyo buildings, bridges and elevated roadways when the next big one comes. It’s easy to be wise after the event. It’s easier to be dead.

Like almost all low-rise construction in Japan, when we decided to buy a plot of land in the center of Tokyo and design and build our own house on it, we knew it would be built almost entirely out of wood.

In fact, what isn’t wood is plastic — cunningly disguised as stone cladding and (you guessed it) more wood!

Japan is, after all, a chain of volcanic magma spewed out of the ocean floor. There’s not much rock here to quarry. Woodland, meanwhile, covers 70% of the archipelago. It’s one of the few things this country has in abundance, along with the yearly hay fever we all suffer as a consequence.

Wood is cheap and resilient. A wooden construction won’t crack under an earthquake as a masonry wall will do, and you might survive if it falls on you. It’s also disposable — and this is key to Japanese building practices.

In England, where I grew up, people struggle to put their money into “bricks and mortar” — into houses that are supposed to outlast you. Houses are long term investments. They may be hundreds of years old.

In Japan, nothing lasts. That’s the heart of this floating world, where all things are flotsam carried on the tides of time. The Grand Shrine in Ise, for example, is said to be 1600 years old, but in fact the wooden buildings are torn down and rebuilt every 20 years.

Tokyo itself is a playground for apprentice architects, an eternal building site where shops and restaurants come and go as fast as flavors of soda in the convenience stores.

Houses have very little intrinsic value here. The value is in the land itself. Though this attitude is changing as the Japanese economy declines, the traditional mindset is to reject anything secondhand. If you buy land that already has a house on it, you’ll bulldoze the house and build your own. You’ll probably live long enough to see your own house rebuilt, perhaps twice over.

Our house is expected to last 25 years. This is, incidentally, far less time than it will take to pay off the loan used to build it.

Japan is a disposable commodity, and that’s not just because of the threat of earthquakes. In Japan, just about everything is available to buy, and just about everything can be customized to meet your needs.

Houses are much like cars: you choose all the accessories, and the thing comes delivered to your door. When you’re done with it, you have it carted away and buy another. There’s little actual artistry goes into constructing these shacks, because there doesn’t need to be.

It took about eight months for us to design our house, working with the architect to figure out how it would all slot together over four stories in our limited land space, and choosing every last fixture and fitting. It took less than half that time to actually build it.

It’s three years old now. It’s got some mileage on the clock. And already it’s starting to creak.

Slow Wilhlem Exit-S

Robert Maas’s latest thriller Slow Wilhelm Exit is available to buy at Amazon.


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