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The Fourth Pig

SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA — Santa Monica, California. -- Piles of brick and broken wood around here show that none of the three little pigs was so smart. Brick houses and good wood ones may stand up to the huffing and puffing of big, bad wolves, but many tumbled down in this small city next to Los Angeles during the Northridge earthquake a year ago.

If there were a fourth pig, a very smart one, he would have used modern steel in building his house and bolted that steel to the foundation. Modern building codes require steel frames in earthquake-prone Southern California, but Santa Monica, it turned out, did not enforce codes as vigorously as Los Angeles did -- and its residents paid a heavy price in damage that has still not been repaired.

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But no California city was as foolish (or deliberately lax) as Japanese cities were -- and hundreds upon hundreds of people in the city of Kobe paid the price with their lives last month, exactly a year after the Northridge quake. Those deaths will be recorded as accidental or as the result of an act of God, but it is becoming evident that the death and destruction were predictable. Probably a majority of the more than 5,100 Japanese fatalities died because of the decisions of men, specifically the men who run Japan Inc.

The thing that strikes visitors to Japan who venture outside Tokyo's most glittering districts is how bad the roads are, how small and frail the housing, how few the cars -- how low the general standard of living of a people whose per-capita income is at least as high as that of Americans. (For me, seeing that had the same impact as the first time I saw the Soviet Union and realized within minutes that it was no match for the United States, and that much of the Cold War was based on fiction created by hard-liners on both sides of the old Iron Curtain.)

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DTC Now the aftermath of the Kobe quake is beginning to reveal a good deal about what Japan is really like and how much was sacrificed in the economic race to match the productivity and production of the United States.

Motohiku Hakuno, the dean of engineering at Tokyo University, in an interview on National Public Radio, explained why modern structural knowledge was ignored in Kobe and other Japanese cities: "Japan was busy catching up with the United States. . . . They were just busy building new buildings, and they did not pay attention to the anti-seismic standard. A lot of people insisted that the old standard should be maintained. This could be a very sensitive issue because the old buildings are very vulnerable, and that would create fear and anxiety on the part of the Japanese public."

So, Mr. Hakuno said, it was left to private companies to decide whether they would meet modern standards. And they did not, he said, because "they would have had to spend more money in constructing such buildings -- and that would mean less profit."

A foreign observer of those years, Eamonn Fingleton, author of "Blindside: Why Japan Is Still On Track to Overtake the United States by the Year 2000," offers an even harsher analysis: "Tight controls on land development [means that] countless Japanese citizens still live in traditional wooden houses that are egregiously vulnerable to earthquakes."

Mr. Fingleton details the specifics of policies limiting the amount of living space available to ordinary Japanese, which means higher housing costs and less money and space available to buy or use foreign goods. "In economic terms," he continued, "low consumption is another way of saying high savings, and high savings in turn go a long way to explain Japan's persistent balance-of-payments surpluses."

In other words, the Japanese system, moving in the direction of economic totalitarianism, is designed to force the individual and family savings that are the investment fuel of Japan Inc. How far the people who run the country were willing to go to prevail economically was demonstrated in the rubble and fires of Kobe.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.


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