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Building Scandal Jolts Japan's Quake-Proof Dreams

ready to shake the house down
by Harumi Ozawa
Kawasaki, Japan (AFP) Dec 05, 2005
When young couples bought luxurious condominiums in this southern suburb of Tokyo last year, they never thought the value of the biggest purchase in their lives would evaporate within months.

"I'm 35 years old now and bought the house with a 35-year loan," said a resident of Grand Stage Kawasaki Daishi, one of a growing number of buildings whose data on quake resistance were falsified by a cost-cutting architect.

"My son will start going to school next year, and my wife and I are expecting another baby. This is more of a financial problem."

Japan -- which endures 20 percent of the world's major tremblors -- has long prided itself on building a quake-proof infrastructure that the rest of the world would envy.

But since architect Hidetsugu Aneha confessed in November to having cooked the data on condominium and hotel buildings around Tokyo, more residents are facing up to fears more pressing than an earthquake itself.

The scandal, spreading nationwide, is each day revealing more buildings that would be at risk during an earthquake, increasing the number of poeple who may have to move out their homes to the scale of thousands.

At least 43 buildings were listed as of last week as possibly vulnerable due to the falsified data.

For the residents of 23-unit Grand Stage Kawasaki Daishi, the fear of possibly losing their houses while still carrying the loan is spine-chilling.

The Kawasaki city office has told residents to move out the dangerous building by mid-December, the first such order issued since the scandal surfaced.

"The government, as well as media, seem to think we'll all be fine as long as we're out of the building," said the 35-year-old, who like other residents declined to be named as he was not a chosen community representative.

"Any of us could go crazy thinking about double loans for the next 30 years, a more serious problem than the risk of a major quake itself."

The prices of the condominium units in this upscale commuter town range from 36.8 million yen to 61.8 million yen (307,000 to 516,000 dollars) each.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said the government will make about 2,200 residences available for the unlikely suburban refugees when they are forced to move out in mid-December, and the government decided on a tax reduction measure for them.

But if they move, the residents would have to pay for moving and new rent or a housing loan on top of the loan for the condo.

"No one, even the government, understands we have no compensation, although they say residents' lives must be protected more than anything else," said another resident, a four-month pregnant housewife, 27.

The Japanese Bankers Association asked its 184 member banks for "sincere" measures to help borrowers who had purchased units in the condominium buildings, but it does not mention specific bailout plans.

Kimura Construction, one of the central players allegedly responsible for the scandal, has filed for bankruptcy protection.

It is not only residents and companies who suffer anxiety. People living next to the building also are worried.

"My neighbor friends and I were amazed to see how quickly the condo was built" last year, said a 55-year-old housewife, a tenant of a two-story apartment adjacent to the nine-story Grand Stage Kawasaki Daishi. "If a quake hits, we'll be crushed at once."

The Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transport said the condo could collapse from a moderate earthquake in an intensity at which heavy furniture could topple over but some people can still stand up.

Beyond the architect, the scandal has touched developers, contractors and building design inspection companies all cutting corners in one of the world's most expensive countries to build in.

"I felt pressure to cut costs," Aneha told reporters after he admitted the allegations.

He has named to the ministry some developers who allegedly pressured him to reduce the amount of reinforcing steel bars in designing buildings. He also said he purposely chose an architectural inspection company thought to be sloppy.

Parliament last week summoned seven central figures of the scandal, including developer Huser's president Susumu Ojima, Kimura Construction president Moriyoshi Kimura and eHomes inspection company president Togo Fujita.

Aneha was also summoned but did not comply, saying he was scared of being seen in public after a manager of an architect's office involved in the scandal was found dead on the sea shore near Tokyo, apparently after killing himself.

Japan's sense that technological marvels could triumph over nature was crushed on January 17, 1995 when an earthquake of 7.3 on the Richter scale killed 6,433 people in the western city of Kobe.

Japan has since worked to step up its disaster preparedness. Tokyo in particular is constantly bracing for the dreaded "Big One" as the area is hit by a major earthquake about every 60 years.

The last major quake in the capital occurred in 1923, leaving 142,807 dead or unaccounted for.

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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Popocatepetl, a volcano one hour southeast of Mexico's capital, kept up its pattern of erupting every December for ten years, when it spit a plume of ash into the sky on Thursday.

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