Large earthquakes and tsunamis are common in Japan, which sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a belt of seismic activity.
Because of that frequency, Japan over the past century has made its buildings among the most earthquake-resilient in the world, capable of withstanding major quakes and remaining functional even in their immediate aftermath.
Through investment, government mandates and an engineering culture finely attuned to seismic risk, Japan has managed to save lives during some of its most devastating earthquakes — and has often implemented new protections after each one.
An earthquake in the Mino and Owari provinces at the end of the 19th century, and the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that killed more than 140,000 people, prompted research into sturdier buildings and the introduction of new construction standards. Over the following decades, every major earthquake in Japan prompted moves to further improve practices and regulations.
The Japanese authorities were still assessing the extent of the damage from Monday’s earthquake in western Ishikawa Prefecture. Local fire officials had received many reports of collapsed houses and people trapped underneath, the NHK public broadcaster reported.
After an earthquake in the city of Kobe in 1995 killed about 6,000 people and injured tens of thousands more, Japan invested billions in technological research into safer structures, and in making the country’s older structures sturdier.
By 2011, when a devastating 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit the northeast coast of Japan, triggering an enormous tsunami and causing a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant, many buildings were already outfitted with safety measures such as extra steel bracing, rubber pads and hydraulic shock absorbers.
After that quake, which killed more than 19,000 people, Japan responded by constructing or rebuilding tall sea walls to protect coastal communities. It also built sensors to automatically alert residents and close floodgates, and earthquake and tsunami drills are routine for Japanese citizens.
Experts say that Japan’s building codes are more rigid than those in the United States, where authorities have adopted a less protective minimum standard and left it up to individuals to decide how earthquake-resistant to make their buildings.