Tokyo Lacks Housing for Stranded If Large-Scale Earthquake Were to Strike

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Tokyo metropolitan government buildings, foreground, are seen in April 2020.

TOKYO (Jiji Press) — Tokyo still lacks places to accommodate many people who would be left stranded if a huge earthquake hits the capital.

At the time of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed about 105,000 people in and around Tokyo, many victims died in fires at places where they had relocated underlining the importance of ensuring safe evacuation in densely populated areas.

“About 38,000 people died in less than an hour,” Nagoya University visiting professor Masayuki Takemura said, referring to the deadly fire in the former site of an army clothing depot in the current Sumida Ward, to which about 40,000 people had escaped just after the temblor.

Police initially tried to guide evacuees across the Sumida River to the Ueno area but gave up the idea because fires prevented them from crossing bridges, Takemura said, adding that the police had to lead evacuees to the former depot site, which was vacant.

Then, evacuees in the site were surrounded by fire, and a large number of household goods they carried caught fire.

Fire whirlwinds also occurred, boosting casualties further.

In the 1923 disaster, 90% of victims were burned to death.

Tokyo was crowded with wooden houses, and many people were using fire when the temblor struck just before noon.

In present-day Tokyo, buildings are far more resistant to fires and quakes.

A major concern is that many residents would be unable to return home if a huge quake occurs, because railroads and other transportation networks would be disrupted.

At the time of the March 2011 temblor, which rocked not only the Tohoku region but also Tokyo, 3.5 million people were stranded in the capital. Train stations and streets were flooded with people.

The Tokyo metropolitan government forecasts that 4.53 million people would be unable to return home in the event of a big quake directly beneath the metropolitan area, that is said to have a 70% chance of occurring within 30 years.

If there are so many stranded people, the risk of secondary disasters such as crowd crush is likely to increase.

At the time of the March 2011 disaster, many Tokyo municipalities, including Adachi Ward, opened up public facilities such as schools to stranded victims and provided them with food and water.

Adachi Ward Mayor Yayoi Kondo, however, is concerned. “If our ward sustains serious damage, it would be difficult to provide generous support,” she said.

Hoping to prevent secondary disasters, the metropolitan government obliges companies in the capital to make efforts to stockpile at least three days’ worth of food and other supplies to stop employees from trying to go home soon in the event of a big quake.

Supposing many companies in Tokyo make such preparations, the metropolitan government estimates the number of residents who still would have no place to go at 660,000.