Reconstruction Disaster Planning in Japan Research Paper

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Japan has been prone to natural disasters, especially as it lies in the Pacific volcano zone, but among the most destructive have been frequent earthquakes. Moreover, its traditional urban dwellings, typically wooden buildings made with thatched roofs, are easily inflammable, making cities liable to major conflagrations. But it was not until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the subsequent era of rapid industrialization and urban growth that serious thought was given to constructing urban structures to survive such disasters. Since then, the development of reconstruction and disaster planning has been interrelated closely with that of modern urban planning, which in turn has been influenced by changes in the political, economic, and social environment.

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1. Reconstruction Disaster Planning In The Meiji Period

One of the earliest examples of reconstruction and disaster planning after the Meiji Restoration was the Ginza district project following the large 1872 fire in Tokyo that burnt out some 3,000 dwellings. A radical proposal was put forward to rebuild the entire district with Western-style buildings made of bricks. It was an attempt to set a precedent in tranforming the traditional urban structure of the capital into a modern one, reflecting the Meiji government’s strenuous efforts to swiftly Westernize the country in order to facilitate the revision of the unequal treaties with the Western powers. Individual buildings were designed by expert foreign advisers employed by the government, and the project was completed in 1877. Although the financial difficulties allowed just half the planned area to be rebuilt with bricks, the newly reborn Ginza district quickly became popular as the most fashionable shopping center in the country.

However, there was a gradual realization that a more comprehensive and yet realistic approach than this kind of extravagant but essentially superficial Westernization of the capital was necessary. While this recognition led to the urban improvement projects for Tokyo, mainly consisting of road, water supply, and drainage works, that started in 1888 and lasted for 30 years, there were important prior developments in the form of reconstruction and disaster planning. In the wake of four big fires within a few months during the winter of 1880–81, the governor of Tokyo proclaimed regulations mandating fire-prevention measures in the central wards of Tokyo. Twenty-two streets and canals were designated as areas along which buildings had to be constructed of either bricks or stone, or as godowns made of clay, with roofs of incombustible materials. Extensive slum clearance was also carried out in the Kandahashimotocho district following one of the four big fires in 1880–81, though it meant the merciless uprooting of inhabitants from their old community, admittedly one of the major slums in Tokyo at that time. Meanwhile, the demand for national planning legislation intensified, and the Urban Planning Act was enacted in 1919. In practical terms, its prime concern was to check indiscriminate urban expansion by controlling future development through such measures as land readjustment projects, a principal feature of Japanese urban planning based on street widening and realignments. But an opportunity for its application to built-up areas soon came about in a tragic way.

2. Reconstruction After The Great Kanto Earthquake

On September 1, 1923, a severe earthquake of magnitude 7.9 hit the southern Kanto region including Tokyo and Yokohama. As it occured just before noon, when people were cooking meals, the Great Kanto Earthquake caused massive fires that claimed more than 100,000 lives and destroyed 460,000 dwellings. The total damage amounted to approximately six billion yen, four times the amount of the national budget. The government set to reconstruction planning immediately, with Shinpei Goto, the Home Minister, as the man in charge. He tackled the task enthusiastically, not least because he saw an opportunity to restore his reputation. The renovation plan for Tokyo made public five months earlier when he was the mayor of Tokyo had been criticized heavily as too extravagant, and he had been derided as a braggart. Within a week, he established basic principles for reconstruction, which included proposals for a powerful Ministry for Reconstruction and public purchase by the state of all land affected at an estimated cost of 3 billion yen, reflecting his determination to rebuild in a bold and comprehensive way. However, neither of these proposals was put into practice: opposition from other ministers and ministries to a mighty reconstruction ministry led to the abandonment of the idea. Public purchase of land was out of the question not only on financial grounds but also on political ones, for the landed interests had a strong say within the government as well as in the Diet. Moreover, the budget was reduced to 468 million yen at the 47th extraordinary Diet session in December, three months after the disaster.

Nonetheless, reconstruction projects with actual working expenses of 847 million yen over seven years between 1924 and 1930 meant grand engineering on an unprecedented scale. This becomes clear when they are compared with the earlier urban improvement projects for Tokyo which took 30 years but cost only 42 million yen. Approximately 80 percent of the afflicted area in Tokyo, 3,600 hectares, were covered by reconstruction land readjustment projects under the Ad Hoc Special Urban Planning Act, which made possible large-scale land readjustment in built-up areas. As a result, Tokyo’s urban structure, of which the core had been Edo-era construction modified by the Meiji-era urban improvement projects, was transformed. This change laid the foundation for the infrastructure of the capital’s central area until the 1960s. The reconstruction land readjustment projects gave rise to 52 principal roads (114 kilometers in total length), 122 subsidiary principal roads (139 kilometers), 55 parks (42 hectares), and a number of structures built of reinforced concrete to render them earthquake and fire-proof. The latter included 121 schools and 424 bridges. Of particular interest were the activities of Dojunkai, an extra-departmental body to the Home Ministry set up in 1924. It provided, among other things, 2,501 apartments of reinforced concrete with the most up-to-date communal facilities, built on 15 estates between 1926 and 1933. These became the forerunner of the public apartments built to alleviate major urban housing shortages in the postwar years.

It should be also noted that reconstruction planning after the Kanto earthquake brought important advances in planning techniques and the training of technocrats and other planning personnel. This contributed to the substantial progress made in the development of Japanese urban planning in the 1930s and 1940s. However, the main cause of this progress, the intensification of military preparations, was soon to lead to a war that would bring massive destruction to the country.

3. Air Defense Planning And Postwar Urban Reconstruction

During the 1930s, air defense became the prime concern of Japanese urban planning, as was duly shown in the re ised Urban Planning Act of 1940, which made air defense an integral part of urban planning. Emphasis was placed upon the provision of open spaces and wider streets for fire-preventive purposes. Admittedly, urban planning benefited from this. For instance, the state purchase of an area of 13,730 hectares was decided in 1939 to provide a number of parks as air defense measures. Out of these, six large parks in Tokyo with a total of 640 hectares were established as part of the ceremony commemorating the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese Empire. Evacuation of buildings to make room for air defense roads also led to the building of wide thoroughfares in cities such as Nagoya, Hiroshima, and Kyoto.

However, the sheer intensity of air raids during the closing months of WWII was far more devastating than these measures could handle, and Japan found its urban areas in ruins when it surrendered in August 1945. One hundred and fifteen cities and towns throughout the four main islands in Japan were officially designated in November 1945 by the government as war-damaged cities. Approximately 2,300,000 houses or 20 percent of the stock in those cities had been destroyed or seriously damaged, and 63,000 hectares of land burnt out. The damage was particularly extensive in the two largest cities, Tokyo and Osaka, and these accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total of land (26.8 percent for Tokyo and 12.1 percent for Osaka) and more than 45 percent of houses (32.9 percent for Tokyo and 13.8 percent for Osaka) affected. The area affected in Tokyo was more than four times as great as that afflicted in the Great Earthquake in 1923.

Despite the extent of damage and the fact that Japan was under American occupation, official policies and plans for postwar reconstruction were formulated speedily and implemented with determination. Evidently, such destruction was regarded as having provided an opportunity for drastic urban renovation. In November 1945, the War damage Rehabilitation Board (WRB; Sensaifukkoin) was set up as a responsible central body. Ichizo Kobayashi, a well-known businessman, was appointed as its first president and given ministerial status. The intention underlying his appointment was to introduce the spirit of private enterprise and thus to get rid of the bureaucracy that had dominated Japanese urban planning before the war. This reflected the wave of democratization of Japan’s political, economic, and social systems. The following month, the cabinet adopted the Basic Policy Principles for the Planned Reconstruction of War damaged Areas (Sensaichifukkokeikaku Kihonhoshin). It featured nine principles in planning, according to which the local authorities drew up plans very quickly. It was recommended that the damaged areas should be covered by land readjustment projects, and that principal roads should be quite wide, even as much as 100 meters for large cities.

However, the planning process continued to be dominated by civil servants. For one thing, the WRB officials simply ignored Kobayashi, their superior, when he argued for compact rather than grandiose reconstruction. The officials insisted that plans had to be bold and comprehensive. This was perhaps in line with what cities like Tokyo wished, but many other cities thought quite differently, only to be forced to accept the officials’ arguments. Osaka, for instance, had no choice but to add a couple of 100-meter-wide thoroughfares to its original plan when it was told by the WRB officials that any approval of their plan would otherwise be out of the question. Osaka officials believed that such proposals were too extravagant given the country’s economic situation. In fact, the plans were subject to constant cutbacks due to the economic difficulties, culminating in the Revision (Saikento) in 1949 of the basic principles for reconstruction drafted in 1945. The revision was made following the Dodge Line, a draconian anti-inflation program implemented by the occupation authorities in 1949. The Dodge Line forced the government to cut spending drastically. As a result, the area covered by land readjustment projects was reduced by approximately 30,000 hectares, or 50 percent over the country as a whole, and many ambitious road and park projects were eliminated. The cuts were especially severe for big cities. In the Tokyo plan, all seven of the proposed 100-meter-wide roads were simply abandoned, and the area for land readjustment projects was reduced by three-fourths. In the Osaka plan, proposals for 100-meter-wide roads were also dropped and the extent of land readjustment projects reduced by nearly 45 percent. Moreover, there was widespread public disapproval of reconstruction planning: in large cities, the open space proposals were often simply ignored by those who erected illegal houses on the designated sites, which thus became prejudicial to planned development in the future. In many provincial cities, there emerged organized opposition by citizens to the official plans, usually reflecting discontent that their opinions were not heard in the planning process.

4. Conclusions

Nevertheless, planning for disaster-proof urban structures made some progress from the 1950s onwards, thanks to a series of legislative measures aimed at enhancing public safety, such as the Fireproof Building Promotion Act of 1952 (covering the total area of 64 hectares in some 80 cities), and the Disasterproof Building Blocks Construction Act of 1961 (covering 253 hectares in 101 cities). Further, the Urban Renewal Act of 1969 led to the redevelopment of six disaster-prevention districts covering 526 hectares in Koto Ward, a heavily populated downtown area in Tokyo. But the country is still vulnerable to disasters, as shown in the Hanshin Awaji Earthquake in 1995. Regrettably, there was considerable anger among local residents in Kobe, the worst-hit city, about the lack of consultation in the reconstruction planning and the manner in which plans were imposed from above. As Japan cannot be immune from earthquakes, there is still an enormous need to plan for disaster-proof urban structures throughout the country, and to promote greater public participation in the process.


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