Thinking About Tokyo as an International City in 2020 from the Perspective of Disaster Preparedness

Will Tokyo be able to unveil a disaster-prepared, barrier-free Tokyo at the Olympics where the elderly, disabled, and foreign visitors can live in safety? Opinion article by Prof. Yuji Hasemi of Waseda University.

Yuji Hasemi
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Recently, Tokyo was chosen as the host city for the 2020 Olympics, the Toranomon-Shimbashi road (popularly known as the MacArthur Road) opened, and the city has suddenly taken on a foreign appearance—Tokyo appears to be dramatically changing into an international city. The annual number of foreign visitors to Japan has remained around 8 million for a long time, but this figure exceeded 10 million in 2013. The goal was 15 million visitors, but figures on the order of 25 and 30 million are now being openly discussed.


Meanwhile, several major earthquakes are expected to hit Japan in the near future, including one directly under Tokyo. There are also frequent meteorological disasters like torrential rain and heavy snowfall. Japan has always been a country prone to natural disasters, where a variety of destructive geophysical phenomena occur in an area with a high population density. It has experienced major disasters including building fires. “Nation toughening” has been advocated as a policy since the 3.11 earthquake, but the toughening of Japan’s vast infrastructure and urban areas would take time. Regional disaster response and reconstruction assistance from unaffected areas are also essential. However, the Tokyo metropolitan area is huge. If it were extensively affected by a disaster, the efficacy of support from other areas would naturally be limited. Disaster response and reconstruction would require the ability to set up basic organizations in the Tokyo area. In the 3.11 earthquake, there were large high-rise buildings in Tokyo and other cities far from the epicenter that were not directly damaged but stopped functioning due to the upset of furniture and equipment. As a result of efforts to make more effective use of square footage in the layout of the buildings, some of them were built with a relatively small area for stairs in comparison to the number of people in the building and were not completely evacuated until late at night. People are clamoring about the importance of business continuity planning (BCP) for disasters, but there are quite a few blind spots being overlooked. The Tokyo Bay Area, which has suddenly attracted a lot of attention in the context of the Olympics and internationalization, also has elements—such as low traffic redundancy relative to area and crowded districts and industrial zones that would be difficult to protect from damage in the event of a disaster—where the effects of breakdowns in disaster response are uncertain.


Human casualties in any disaster are concentrated among the elderly and the very young. By 2020, the baby-boom generation will have passed their 70th birthday, and Japan’s elderly population (age 65 and over) will have reached a fairly static state at around 35 million. It appears that the 75 and over population will stabilize five years after that at around 20 million. It wasn’t that long ago that Japan became the world’s most rapidly aging country, and during the six years leading up to the Olympics, Japan will gain an even bigger international lead.

Barrier-free design has been rapidly adopted during the last decade or so as population aging has progressed in Japan’s major cities. After conducting a survey in downtown department stores in Tokyo in 2012, I was surprised to find that the number of customers who had difficulty using the stairs, such as the elderly and disabled, accounted for nearly 10 percent of all customers, depending on the section of the store—a figure not that different from those seen in the outpatient departments of general hospitals. In the early 1990s, when barrier-free design was first being considered as a policy in Japan, the percentage of department store customers who had difficulty using the stairs was less than 0.2 percent. We’ve passed the stage when it was enough to rely on the quick thinking of the staff to help these customers evacuate. Elevators are the standard solution underlying barrier-free design in these facilities, but elevators are dangerous places during a disaster. If they could not be used, many people who had difficulty using the stairs would not be able to evacuate on their own to ground level in the event of a fire or earthquake. Although advances have been made in barrier-free design, it still has a long way to go in terms of disaster preparedness. Last year, the Fire Prevention Council, an advisory body to the governor of Tokyo in which I chair a subcommittee, submitted a report on designing fire-proof spaces on each floor of high-rise and other buildings and introducing other techniques that would enable at-risk people like the elderly to escape a fire without using the stairs and evacuate to the ground level, as needed, through the use of emergency elevators, etc. The first technique was implemented recently in a general hospital in Tokyo. Taking one step further, I wish to develop at least elevators that can be safely used during earthquakes and fires and put them to practical use.


The reason the elderly and the very young are more vulnerable to disasters is that they have a hard time recognizing the seriousness of the situation and taking sensible action to remove themselves from harm’s way. This vulnerability also applies to foreigners who cannot understand broadcasts during a disaster and have no experience with earthquakes or typhoons. It’s not uncommon to see foreign visitors to Japan freeze in terror during an earthquake that is only about a 2 on the Japanese intensity scale—a reaction which is totally understandable. Even if the number of foreign visitors to Japan reaches 30 million per year, that will still be less than half the figures for France and the U.S. Japan may not qualify as a major tourist destination, but it is, inevitably, a country prone to natural disasters. A steady increase in foreign visitors to Japan naturally means that the numbers of first-time visitors and visitors from regions that have traditionally not brought a lot of tourism to Japan will increase, adding to the population of at-risk people. If the annual number of foreign visitors rises to the level of the aging population, we will have to design disaster-prevention measures for foreigners from the bottom up.

Japan’s aging population is expected to start stabilizing around the time of the Olympics, while countries like Korea, Singapore, China and Thailand that send many visitors to Japan will undergo the same kind of aging about 10 to 20 years behind us. They are all competing with each other to build taller and taller buildings with less attention to disaster preparedness than Japan. Once they become aware of their aging populations, the aging rate will be faster than Japan’s. Will we, at the very least, be able to unveil a disaster-prepared, barrier-free Tokyo at the Olympics where the elderly, disabled, and foreign visitors can live in safety?


Yuji Hasemi
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Professor Hasemi graduated from the Department of Architecture, School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University in 1973. He received his Master’s degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University in 1975. He joined the Ministry of Construction and became a researcher at the Building Research Institute in 1975. He earned his PhD in Engineering from Waseda University in 1982. Served as a visiting researcher at the National Bureau of Standards, United States Department of Commerce in 1983 (for one year) and the head of the Fire Division, 5th Department, Building Research Institute under the Ministry of Construction in 1987.
Stepped down from his position at the Building Research Institute, Ministry of Construction in 1997 and assumed his current position as a professor in the Department of Architecture, School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University.

Published: 20 Jul 2014


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Disaster Strikes When You Least Expect It: Notes on Safety Theory—How to Interpret Accidents and Disasters [Saigai ha Wasureta Tokoro ni Yatte Kuru: Anzen-ron Nōto--Jiko/Saigai no Yomikata] (Kogaku Tosho, 2002) The Science of Fire Accidents: Are Wooden Structures Really Vulnerable to Fire? [Kajiba no Saiensu: Mokuzō ha Hontō ni Kaji ni Yowai ka] (Inoueshoin, 1988) The Architectural History of Homo Faber: Stories about American Architecture [Homo Fāberu no Kenchiku-shi: Amerika Kenchiku Monogatari] (Toshi Bunka Sha, 1985)