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Japan earthquake: Tokyo loses skyscraper passion

Emiko Yamamoto looks out from the 30th floor

None of Japan's skyscrapers fell in the massive earthquake that hit the country in March, but they shook violently - and with experts saying a big quake under Tokyo is overdue, the city's love affair with the high-rise lifestyle may be coming to an end.

When Emiko Yamamoto opens her curtains in the morning, she is rewarded with a spectacular view, right across Tokyo.

From the 30th floor, she can see the high-rises and elevated expressways, the bullet train and even, on a clear day, the snow-capped cone of Mount Fuji, far in the distance.

It is the kind of outlook Tokyo dreams are made of, but Emiko cannot wait to leave.

Back in March, she was inside her apartment when the earthquake hit.

Image caption Tall buildings crowd Tokyo's skyline

The building swayed alarmingly, books came off shelves, furniture crashed around her and she thought she would die.

Then when she tried to get out, she found the lift was not working. It was a long, long walk down the stairs as the aftershocks rumbled through.

Now she and her husband are looking for a house. Another flat would do at a push, but nothing higher, they say, than the second floor.

People in Tokyo have always known their city is built on major fault lines. Periodically throughout history, it has been destroyed by earthquakes, only to be rebuilt.

So a big quake with its epicentre under the capital is a possibility at any moment. Seismologists say it is not a question of if, but when. The last was in 1923 so the next is, in fact, already well overdue.

Reality check

Until the big earthquake in March, it was something Tokyo residents seemed able to put largely to the back of their minds while they got on with their lives.

That is the only way to deal with an ever present threat about which little can be done.

The epicentre of that quake was well to the north, off Japan's coast, but it still gave Tokyo the most dramatic shake most people have ever experienced.

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Media captionEngineer Jun Tagami from Kajima Corporation shows Roland Buerk the company's earthquake testing facility

Scientific opinion is that shifting strains in the Earth's crust make a big one under the capital more likely, not less.

So it has forced Tokyo residents to confront the uncomfortable reality.

These days, a great view is not the selling point it once was. Adverts and brochures for new apartment blocks now lay far more emphasis on earthquake-proofing - the elaborate foundations, the stocks of emergency meals, water and generators.

And the quality of the ground underneath. Reclaimed land - and there is a lot of it in Tokyo - is judged less safe, vulnerable to liquefaction.

Sales of high-rise apartments plummeted after the earthquake in March. Some renters, who were able to, have moved.

It has all got one of Japan's most successful property developers thinking.

Akira Mori has become a billionaire, the country's third richest man, by building some of its biggest towers.

Image caption The proportion of low-rise housing in Tokyo is set to increase in line with demand

Now, he says, the era of skyscrapers reaching ever higher is over. He is calling for a new vision of Tokyo with lower, wider buildings, designed to be refuges in times of crisis.

They would be equipped to be self-sufficient for a week or more, so their residents could stay put, while normality returns outside.

Mr Mori told me he never liked skyscrapers personally - he once tried living on the 20th floor but found it inconvenient getting down to street level, and anyway the sun blazed through the plate windows.

Now he sees a change in the psychology of the Japanese. For decades his fellow countrymen have wanted to live and work up high.

Not by chance, he says, were so many Japanese firms on the upper floors of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.

Not any more.

Fear factor

The irony is, of course, that during the earthquake back in March, not a single tower fell in Japan, even up in Sendai, the city nearest to the epicentre.

Yes, some walls were cracked and pavements were crumpled, but the buildings themselves remained standing throughout.

They swayed, though, even long after the tremors had stopped, as the forces of the Earth lurching about were distributed through the structure.

Being inside made people feel seasick, and then there was the fear too.

The lesson Japanese engineers have taken is that making buildings resilient is not enough.

The other day I went to a development centre run by one of Japan's biggest construction companies. Inside a massive concrete building, the size of a large church, a big table was mounted on machinery which could throw it in any direction, for testing structures.

They ran it through an exact simulation, taken from seismograph readings, of the quake back in March. It was quite an eye-opener.

During the real thing, everything around was moving together, there was nothing still to give context. Now I could see just how much the ground moved.

Japanese engineers have already developed foundations mounted on rubber to insulate entire buildings, and bracing to reinforce structures.

They are designed to sway, bending and flexing rather than snapping.

But the challenge now, they say, is to make towers that do not just withstand earthquakes, but to make the people inside believe they will too.

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