By Will Galloway, Assistant Professor, Toronto Metropolitan University Department of Architectural Science; Director, Frontoffice Tokyo

On March 11, 2011, northern Japan was struck by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake. Large enough to move the centre of gravity of our planet. The event is often written about as a triple disaster. The earthquake itself was enormous. It created a tsunami that swept the coast, destroying more than a hundred and twenty thousand homes, damaging a million more, and taking thousands of lives. The next day we heard the news of a meltdown at Fukushima nuclear power plant.

My own experience of the disaster was felt miles away in Tokyo, but the duration and sheer physicality of the event was still shocking. The ground was not to be trusted. Trees swayed as if caught in an invisible storm, while cars bounced up and down as though alive. The effect was terrifying and surreal. Trains across the region were stopped. Phones could not be used reliably as bandwidth was reserved for emergency communication. Thousands of commuters were stranded in the city and began a long walk home or settled in for the night where they could. The tenuous nature of our technological existence was made abundantly clear.

Over the next few days, we watched food supplies dwindle in grocery stores and saw endless lines form at gasoline stations. News of nuclear contamination in our tap water was frightening enough that we sent our children to the countryside while we waited to hear if Tokyo was going to be evacuated. Much later Prime Minister Naoto Kan spoke about how close we came to evacuating 50 million people from the region, and how it was down to luck that it ultimately was avoided. Some nations, like Germany, chose to evacuate their expat population anyway, while many residents left on their own, heading south or finding refuge outside Japan.

Over the next few weeks, we experienced rolling blackouts as the energy companies struggled to manage the shut down of nuclear power plants across the nation. Always bright Tokyo became dark for awhile, and everyone learned to be frugal with electricity. It felt like our country was changing in profound ways. Optimists began to speculate that the scale of the disaster was so large we would finally begin to take serious action on other massive problems facing Japan as we invested in recovery, from the aging population to our plans for dealing with climate change. Some things did change permanently, but as whole we quickly returned to the way things were before the disaster. That is a kind of resilience.

In Tohoku, the area hit hardest by the disaster, recovery was more difficult and took more time. Clean up was remarkably quick and organized. Emergency shelters were planned for in advance of disaster and ready to deploy. Whole communities were assembled in school yards and open spaces set aside for just that purpose. Media coverage by the foreign press marveled at the extent of the planning and the communal spirit on display as everyone pitched in and worked first for survival, and then for recovery. As a model of resilience planning in action, it is hard to imagine a better response. It was not perfect, and Japan has almost certainly made changes to its plans for when the next disaster strikes as it learns from its mistakes. Keeping communities together is perhaps a new key ambition, for instance. A lesson learned multiple times as the elderly found themselves isolated in shelters, alone without family and friends. Strong social connections are a clear resource for recovery, as important as all the physical planning we can imagine. A lack of community can undo a lot of good. The lesson is simply that resilience planning should be an investment in community as much as physical infrastructure.

Today the Tohoku earthquake is receding in the rearview mirror, as even larger events like the Covid-19 pandemic demand our attention and tax our systems. Climate change is similarly making itself felt in daily life. As the scale of problems becomes larger is resilience about bouncing back in the face of disturbance, or is it the ability to adapt and make wholesale change when needed?

I would like to argue that Japan is a useful example because it can do both. Its strength comes in part from an ability to make large plans that are open-ended when it comes to execution. The example I like to point to is not in fact a plan for resilience at all. It is a part of the way Japan manages its urban planning.

It may come as a surprise to some that there are only 13 official land-use zones in the Japanese planning system, and they apply from suburbs to city centre, embedded as a national standard in the building code. The power of this arrangement is amplified because the zones are not siloed, except for large factories which rationally stand alone. For the rest, zoning is organized in a kind of stepped pyramid with exclusive low-rise housing at the top and commercial towers and buildings at the bottom. Each step down permits (most of) the functions above, meaning zoning is more like a gradation of potential than a strict prescription within prescribed boundaries. As for the term exclusive, that too is fuzzy as the most exclusive residential zone legally includes clinics, restaurants, apartments and businesses. The outcome is that mixed land-use is common from the suburbs to city centre. Not incidentally, social and economic groups mix naturally as a result, an important way to ensure access to a well-resourced community.

The power of the system becomes more obvious when it combines with the pace of renewal of buildings in Japan. Famously, homes last only a generation, and large buildings not much more than that, the result of cultural and institutional norms that have a very long history. While there are arguments to be made about the wastefulness of that reality, it is not all one-sided. Cities are as a result radically experimental without the need for any new laws or regulations. More importantly, any given neighbourhood will, over a period of about 30 years replace about a third of its buildings. In that time land use does not necessarily remain constant either. A house can change from a parking lot to an apartment, to a clinic. The issues of neighbors are handled directly through discussion, but there is no legal right to oppose construction. This means NIMBY does not happen (as much). If a city as large as Tokyo with its 38 million inhabitants, wanted to change its very nature, for example by making most buildings carbon neutral, or increasing access to clinics for the elderly, it could theoretically be done in a generation only with simple incentives.

If the central problem of resilience is that we need to scale solutions across entire communities and even cities, then the Japanese approach to planning is an interesting example. I would go a step further and argue that Japan’s successful response to disaster come not only because of good planning and hard-won experience but also because the systems that create and maintain its built environment are open-ended, if clearly controlled. Emergent by design, there is room to adapt at the local scale, setting up a kind of flexibility that leaves room to react quickly to un-planned for events.

If our age is defined by the polycrisis, the Japanese approach to resilience is worth a deeper look.

For more information see:
HABITAT: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Climate, edited by Sandra Piesik and published by Thames & Hudson, USA, May 2024