Earthquake-resistant Architecture

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Atsushi Ueda

    Main guest

    Architect Atsushi Ueda has worked on the designs of various buildings, as well as collaborated on the creation of a plaza used at the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka (Expo 70). In a storied career, Ueda has received numerous awards, and he has served as an honorary professor at Kyoto Seika University since 2001. He conducts research on the earthquake-resistant features of traditional Japanese architecture and evaluates them from folkloric, geographic, and cultural anthropologic viewpoints. A key example of Ueda’s research is his book on why Japan’s five-story pagodas can withstand earthquakes.

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October 9, 2018

Earthquake-resistant Architecture

*You will leave the NHK website.

Japan is known worldwide for its earthquakes. From tiny tremors to giant jolts that have changed the course of history, Japan has done a whole lot of shaking over the millennia. That shaking has prompted the invention of many unique earthquake-resistant architectural methods, old and new, that serve as the theme of this edition of Japanology Plus.

Though there are many techniques that have only been invented in the last few decades, others have a surprisingly long history. On the program, Peter Barakan visits Kyoto's Toji Temple, Japan's tallest wooden structure, to learn about its ancient earthquake-resistant features. As expert guest Atsushi Ueda explains, the five-story pagoda's pièce de résistance is the central pillar around which it is built.

As seen in the photo above, Ueda explains the function of the pillar—called a shinbashira in Japanese—using a chopstick and some bowls. Then Ueda simulates an earthquake. With the chopstick placed through them, the bowls may wobble—but do not topple. It's thought that the shinbashira, by bumping into the other parts of the pagoda, helps the movements cancel each other out. As we learn, this ancient concept works so well it's even been used in the ultra-modern Tokyo Skytree.

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Tokyo Skytree standing strong with help from ancient quake-resistant architecture.

But the shinbashira is not the only thing that helps keep the Toji pagoda standing during earthquakes. Another interesting feature is the support pillars' arrangement—namely, the fact they aren't connected to each other. In short, the first-floor pillars are only for the first floor; they don't connect to those on the second. The same pattern repeats throughout the structure. In fact, it's not just the pillars: the five floors are barely connected to each other at all. Aside from a few loose brackets, they are basically independent structures. Just like in Ueda's bowl model, the structural independence of the pagoda's floors  gives them more wiggle room. Finally, the eaves of each story are stacked with heavy tiles. The extra weight on the edges causes slow, steady swaying and helps maintain balance—think of a tightrope walker carrying a pole with weights on both ends.

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Impress your friends with your newfound knowledge next time you're in Kyoto.

Over the course of the program, we learn a lot about one invaluable building material: wood. Unlike bricks and stones, wood has a flexibility that helps it bend, not break, during quakes. Though Japanese in ancient times knew this lesson well, it seems to have been temporarily forgotten during the late 1800s, when Japan was modernizing. In the 1870s, a large-scale construction project took place in Tokyo's Ginza district in which traditional wooden buildings were replaced with Western-style brick ones. The new Ginza, dubbed Bricktown, was a failure. For one, the brick buildings didn't have sufficient ventilation for Japan's humid climate and became damp and unlivable. Secondly, and more relevant to this program, they were not equipped to withstand earthquakes. Bricktown was almost completely destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

These days, materials like reinforced concrete are used to create safe, earthquake-resistant buildings and mean that not every structure in Japan must be made of wood. Still, in an earthquake-prone country, wood is good, and Japan seems to be rediscovering its love for lumber. The main stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma, is modeled on pagodas like the one at Toji and is being built with thousands of cubic meters of Japanese larch (karamatsu) and cedar (sugi). In other wood news, in 2018 a major lumber company announced plans to build a 350-meter, 70-floor wooden skyscraper near Tokyo Station. The building, expected to be completed in 2041, is shown in concept images covered in greenery, which is billed as good for urban biodiversity. Its construction will, of course, take earthquake resistance into account, employing what is described as a diagonal brace tube structure.

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Reinforced concrete is much more Japan-friendly than brick.

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On Plus One, Matt Alt gets a look at a century-old house whose architecture has kept it standing strong.

There's a good reason this edition is called Earthquake-resistant Architecture: as Japan has seen many times over the years, no structure can be entirely earthquake proof. Still, there's little doubt that advances in resistance (aided by the lessons of the past, as found in structures like the Toji pagoda) have saved many lives and contributed to peace of mind in a country known for its share of tossing and turning.

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Residents of Japan sleep tight knowing technologies like this are underfoot.

*You will leave the NHK website.