The enigma of Japanese infrastructure
There’s a reason, beyond the shock and sadness brought on by preventable deaths, why people in wealthy countries respond with such anger and disbelief when public infrastructure fails with devastating results.
Rightly or wrongly, safe and reliable roads, bridges, and tunnels have become de facto human rights, something taken for granted, ignored, even neglected. When what we expect to be invisible in function and flawless in operation fails, our faith is shaken and our anger roused. Collapsing bridges and crumbling tunnels have a way of raising uncomfortable and important questions about priorities and values.
These questions have a certain poignancy, and long historical context, in Japan. The collapse of the ceiling in the Sasago expressway tunnel, 80 kilometers west of Tokyo, is just one more example of the preventable crumbling into the incomprehensible.
Because there are few other countries in which faith in safe, well designed, and resilient public infrastructure should be so well placed. And so necessary. Since 2003 Japan has spent upwards of $200 billion on public construction projects every year, a staggering 40% of the national budget. And Japanese construction firms win international awards, and big dollar contracts, for projects around the world. This is a country that knows how to build.
That know-how and expertise make domestic failures such as the Sasago tunnel collapse all the more disheartening. If commuters can’t have faith in something as simple as the concrete ceiling in an expressway tunnel, how much of what they drive on, live in, pass under, and stand on can they have faith in?
In 2012, it shouldn’t be a matter of faith. Humans have been building stout tunnels for a very long time. The Terelek kaya tüneli under the Kızıl River in Turkey is estimated to have been constructed over 2,000 years ago. Roman Emperor Vespasian ordered the construction of a tunnel along the Via Flaminia road, parts of which remain in use today. And in England, the Sapperton Long Tunnel opened in 1789 between the Thames and Severn Canal, and was once the longest tunnel in the United Kingdom.
And there are plenty examples of Japanese infrastructure wonders, from bridges and tunnels to grand damns and artificial islands (95 in Osaka Bay alone). Yet even without Godzilla’s flailing tail, Japan has suffered more than its share of construction disasters. In the realm of cinema, many of these disasters would seem comedic, improbable, bizarre.
In reality, they are dark tragedies because most of them could have been prevented. When considered in light of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on needless construction projects — Japan’s infamous and countless roads, bridges, and tunnels to nowhere — a deeper national tragedy emerges. In this context Japan’s construction waste, successes, and innovations are like salt on an open wound.
But they shouldn’t be. That so few casualties occur in a country with so many natural disasters and such a high population density is testament to Japan’s civil engineering and construction expertise. Forty stories up, when the big one strikes and the walls begin to wobble, a Japanese-built skyscraper is quite probably the safest man-made structure to find yourself in. You’ll say your prayers, but you’ll live to laugh about it.
This makes perfect sense. From adjustable-height airports to skyscrapers with independent suspension, Japanese companies are at the forefront of earthquake resistant design and construction. It’s understandable that safety and innovation are taken for granted by many people in Japan. The ability to do so is a first world luxury.
What doesn’t make sense, what’s never made sense in Japan, is how smaller feats of public engineering, such as expressway tunnel ceilings, compare so poorly. Outside of the gleaming cities, the scene is very different. On a recent drive through the countryside, the state of public infrastructure reminded me more of rust belt counties of the United States than of prefectures just outside of Tokyo.
In one afternoon, I drove over and walked under rusty bridges that seemed derelict but for the high volume of industrial traffic driving over them. I parked on road shoulders that were crumbling into adjacent rice fields, their dangers unmarked. And in several areas, the stained and dingy concrete lining the walls and ceilings of secondary route tunnels looked as if its defiance of gravity could come to an end any second. Scary stuff.
Looks are often deceiving, and I’d like to think any civil engineer could cast out my fears with one glance. But the doubts inspired by the still settling dust of the Sasago tunnel remain, and seem very reasonable.
It’s true that Japan does a remarkable job maintaining a vast amount of public infrastructure. The Japanese climate is severe, the mountainous terrain challenging, the tectonic plates unrelenting. And the country is vast for its relatively diminutive size, with over 8,000 kilometers of mirror smooth expressways alone. What seems straightforward enough — inspecting and maintaining roads, bridges, and tunnels — daunting and expensive given the scale. Add in deep corruption and powerful lobbyist, and the reality darkens considerably.
But the enigma of Japanese infrastructure — that skyscrapers withstand the strongest of quakes, yet commuters die in expressway tunnels that collapse for no reason — is no longer excusable, not that it has ever been. The ability to pass through tunnels without having to look up and worry is a right that should have been bought and paid for by the billions of dollars Japanese taxpayers spend on public works each year. And it’s been paid for with far too many innocent lives.
It would be nice to think those lives did not end in vain, that changes to standards, inspections, maintenance schedules, and laws will be made to save lives in the future, not risk them. It would be nice to think that instead of more monumental bridges and highways to nowhere, a simple tunnel could have its ceiling inspected and repaired.
Because uncomfortable, important questions need to be asked. They are being asked, they have been asked. They just aren’t being answered. Until they are, it’s business as usual for public infrastructure projects in Japan. And the enigma of Japanese infrastructure remains.