The Tokyo metropolitan government will launch in April a 10-year project to rebuild areas crammed with wooden buildings to mitigate possible catastrophic fires, government officials said.
The government decided to tackle the longstanding problem in response to an increasing awareness of the need for disaster prevention following the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake.
In Tokyo, "wooden building concentration areas" total 16,000 hectares. Fire-resistant buildings plus vacant lots account for less than 60 percent of these areas.
Of these, 28 areas considered at high risk of fire and building collapse, are designated as "rebuilding areas." Drilling even further down, 11 of these, making up 2,400 hectares, are considered "focus areas."
One of the 11 areas is the Kyojima 2- and 3-chome district in Tokyo's Sumida Ward. With an area of 25.5 hectares, the district is dotted with old shopping streets and pubs.
A narrow alley barely wide enough for a single bicycle to squeeze through leads to a section with decades-old wooden buildings.
The district, however atmospheric, is a fire trap. With only 40.7 percent of the area made up of fire-resistant buildings and empty lots, the vast majority of the district could be burned to the ground if a catastrophic earthquake were to strike.
Takashi Tominaga, who operates a barber shop in a shopping street in 3-chome, saw his residence-shop razed nine years ago. He was awakened by a bright light coming though his second-floor bedroom window shortly after 2 a.m. The neighboring wooden "nagaya" terrace-style house was on fire.
The street was too narrow for fire engines. In about 10 to 15 minutes, the blaze had enveloped eight buildings, including Tominaga's.
Tominaga rebuilt and now lives and works in a steel-frame building. But before the fire, he says, he never considered spending the money needed to replace his wooden house.
"With the roof of my house connected to my neighbor's, it was difficult to rebuild my residence alone," Tominaga, 54, said. "Many houses around here are like mine. I guess that's one reason eliminating the concentration of wooden houses hasn't made much progress."
The aging population in the district is another factor.
"Living on a fixed pension income, I barely manage to make ends meet each month," said Fumiko Koyama, a 78-year-old resident of Kyojima 3-chome who lives by herself. "I cannot afford to rebuild my house. If I cannot escape a fire, the only thing I can do is to give up."
Another obstacle to the fire defense effort is that it takes a long time to purchase the land.
In the Higashi-Ikebukuro 5-chome district in Toshima Ward, it took 10 years to finish widening a 153-meter-long section of the road from about 2 meters to 6 meters. Another project to widen the road has been planned, but there is no completion date in sight.
Natsuko Kawai, 74, said: "Even though the plot to sell is small, I would have to rebuild my house. I am very old. I want to be left alone."
A city official in charge of the district acknowledged it takes time to secure the land. "There are cases where landowners and tenants fight over the compensation money and where landowners have inheritance problems."
There has been progress. In 1997, there were 24,000 hectares crowded with wooden buildings, a number that has fallen to 16,000 now.
But the reduction was mostly in areas that already had wide roads, facilitating reconstruction, a government official said.
"The districts difficult to eliminate a high concentration are still there," the official said. "It is unrealistic to expect to achieve our goal at the same pace."
The Tokyo government will inject an additional 170 million yen ($2.18 million) in the project.
The government will first collect basic information such as the number and age of wooden houses in each district, based on land registrations, to identify the most dangerous areas. These will be designated as model districts and given priority for subsidies or tax breaks.
Another project under way is the construction of fire-break roads in the city.
The government is considering holding meetings to notify residents of the danger of overcrowded houses. It also plans to consider appointing experienced officials to take part in the nettlesome land purchase negotiations.
Takehiko Yamamura, director of the Disaster Prevention System Institute, emphasized the importance of cooperation between the government and residents.
"The government needs to raise the awareness of residents by providing them with accurate information," he said. "A system in which residents can positively commit to the defense effort needs to be established."
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