Tunnel disaster puts spotlight on Japan's aging infrastructure

By Elaine Kurtenbach

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Yes, it is a good idea to start reflecting about what is called "infrastructure" in Japan. The train service is excellent, but that is about all of it. The roads are an insults to everyony who has ssen what they look like in the rst of the world. The result is an average speed of japanese road vehicles of 10 kmh, while in Europe it is 30 kmh. Do the math, it is easy to figure out the economic loss for such a country.

Once you start thinking about the infrastrauctur, sooner or later you will run in the one question that most urgently needs answering in Japan: This country has the highest debt on the planet. Given the lack of infrastructure, WHERE DID THAT MONEY GO? In whose pockets is it now?

And what are you going to do about it? In the next election? Vote LDP again?

14 ( +16 / -2 )

I frequently use the toll system every week. 900¥ each way. The question I have is these tolls are set up in many routes collecting from thousands of vehicles everyday, where is that money going ???

If you had 14,000 cars go one way through a toll in one day which is not inconceivable that's roughly 13,000,000 yen raked in, some of those vehicles are trucks add a extra 300¥ for them. Do the math over a year that's just one toll area , some of which have a much higher number of vehicles going through per hour (example Kawasaki on the Tomei)....I have a hard time seeing a shortage of funding available at hand for simple road maitenance and required inspections. Where is this money going ??

14 ( +15 / -1 )

but the country might simply not have the money.

Since when has that stopped any fiat currency economy with free range over the printing presses?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It's ultimately going to old men who spend it on wining and dining hostess girls.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

Japan appears to be the same as most other countries: After the horse has bolted we lock the stable door, or something like that. The investigating team in charge of finding out what happened in the Sasago Tunnel accident is likely to find that an ageing tunnel was in need of some serious maintenance. One always wonders why no one ever thinks of the risks posed by some old buildings before a catastrophe like this strikes. I suppose one 'good' thing to come out of this tragedy is that it is a bit less likely for the same accident to occur elsewhere with all the checks that are taking place at present in Japan. Sadly, the safety measures that are being taken at the moment come too late for the poor victims of this horrendous accident. My thoughts and prayers are for the families of all the casualties.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

but the country might simply not have the money

Going to be a common refrain for Japan for possibly decades to come. Kick the can down the road for a couple of generations by simply borrowing more and more to spend on useless public works projects to give the illusion of prosperity. Now with an aging and shrinking population, and a 235% debt-to-GDP ratio, and the country has no money for lots of things, not just fixing all the tunnels and roads. The decline is going to be lots longer than the relatively few years of boom, and lots more painful.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Okay, so let me get this straight -- a private company owns and makes money off this tunnel, but WE are supposed to pay for reconstruction??

12 ( +13 / -1 )

Has no-one else ever noticed that every year, at the end of the year, road "repairs" are going on all over the place on roads that do NOT need repairing ? When I asked someone why, I was told that to be able to receive enough money for "next year's budget", they must finish spending everything "THIS year"...

12 ( +12 / -1 )

"The infrastructure ministry, which is in charge of land and roads, joined with three government highway operators last month in forming a panel on how to handle problems of deteriorating expressways and tunnels."

"last month" There you go, very timely indeed.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

strange lots of useless building projects but no money for maintenance? i find that hard to believe, and Crazedinjapan already brought up, the toll system which is supposedly ment for maintenance

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Oh I thought lots of maintenance work has been done on the tunnels and the bridges for years and hasn't really spotted a major problem with them. Now the experts, esp. the Transport Ministry, are saying that they may be dangerously old.

Besides, there are older tunnels and bridges in good condition in the world. Is it possible that those we have in Japan were constructed improperly???

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Explaining that this is the only tunnel which didn't undergo hammering tests due to the tall height of the ceiling.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

It demonstrates once again that over the past 50 years of LDP rule in government Japan's infrastructures deteriorated .................................................and any serious supervision was smoothed over by the AMAKUDARI -system that is detroying Japan. ................................................... Of course the ineptitude of the Democratic Party's entire mismangement these past couple of years also did nothing to help things.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, VIVE LE POLITIQUE A LA JAPAN -style......................

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Aging infrastructure? It's not aging at all! The problem is, most of the infrastructure has been built in the last 30-50 years and has not been touched since. It is just 'set and forget'. Has anybody been into a public school lately? They are a bloody disgrace! They haven't been painted since they were built and you will not find any computers running anything past Windows XP and if you do, they were donated by a parent or bought through the PTA. I worked in a school that had one BOE supplied computer in the teacher's room and it was running Windows 98. I shoot you not! - It is easy to become a world leading economy when you don't spend any money on maintaining your infrastructure. And now, here we are 30 years later and the wheels are falling off everything. Well done Japan! おつかれさま!

9 ( +10 / -1 )


It's called acoustic testing and as you stated, the other three that NEXCO Central Japan operates did actually conduct them which is very unfortunate.

This article mentions about the meeting held by operators addressing the deterioration issue but it fails to mention that due to the constraints in the budget imposed by the Current cabinet, they really never progressed.

Then, you have Maehara boasting the fact that DPJ was able to reduce public works cost by 32% just this past November.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

People in every country, not just Japan, needs to ask where their money is going. This tunnel, and all others, should of been well maintained due to tolls. That's what tolls are their for. It is quite obvious that much of the money is being stolen for other uses, such as for greedy politicians and corporations, phony wars and like.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I thought this would be right up the governments alley. instead of bridges to nowhere and concrete rivers they could "stimulate the economy" (for which read spend billions of yen inefficiently) renewing al, the stuff they have already built. sounds perfect for Japan.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I have seen this decline in Europe and the remedy is to spend vast sums on repair and overhaul of the network. To date it seems the money from toll roads has funded a cushy retirement for many quango managers to date. The greed and corruption that has seen accidents becoming commonplace will lead to a marked change in society here in the coming years. Already emigrating Japanese show a large increase- the coming years will show that to be even higher...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Q. How many maintenance engineers does it take to check a tunnel?

A. None, their hammer handles are too short.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

So many good comments here. Yes, bridges to nowhere. How about spending money on maintenance! And I agree with above. I am sure the money is going into the pockets of greedy old men.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

DP chief Shinzo Abe has made boosting public spending a key platform of his campaign in the Dec 16 election. He accuses current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of not doing enough to stimulate the economy after two decades of stagnation.

With 17 of those being with his party, do people really buy this line?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Okay, so let me get this straight -- a private company owns and makes money off this tunnel, but WE are supposed to pay for reconstruction??

I know. I don't get it either. I also don't know why there are highways being built in the middle of rice fields that no one seems to no where they go or what the purpose of them is. No money? They way are they being built? Why isn't this company paying for all of this - or did they take a page from TEPCO's book and figure out how to screw up over while collecting all the cash?

Japan is seems, will never learn to be proactive, not reactive. How many disasters, how many people need to die for they come to gripes with their lax safety attitudes? All is fine until someone dies and THEN, and only then, do people start to think perhaps, tunnels needs to be updated, stairwells and exits shouldn't be blocked, kids shouldn't be left alone in cars on hot days, nuclear power plants shouldn't be built on fault lines or with pathetic safety standards...

0 ( +2 / -2 )

zichi, do you think they would consider keeping one side of the expressway open and making it two-way traffic, using the other of the two tunnels?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Zichi, old or not, it hasn't been maintained properly.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

People in every country, not just Japan, needs to ask where their money is going

Not my country. All the major highways there are free. In Japan, yes, you're right: collecting lots and lots of toll revenue on all the highways but then diverting it away from its intended purpose is indeed a scandal, a much bigger scandal that the tunnel accident itself.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

I find this sort of surprising. How can Japan´s infrastructure be "aging" when government after government has poured billions of taxpayer money into construction pork projects? Come again?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The problem is not the age, but the maintenance. The Clifton suspension bridge (completed 1864) I used to drive across regularly is still fine, but you have to keep up the maintenance.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

zichi, no I haven't driven that thruway for about 10 years, but if they want to keep taking tolls and if drivers find that to be the shortest route, one would hope that there might be a compromise system set in place.

It would be interesting to see whether, after so much effort towards curbing of engine emissions, and the increasing number of hybrids for example, there is less exhaust smoke to be sucked out of those tunnels and whether a system of large fans as elsewhere might not work as well.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Has no-one else ever noticed that every year, at the end of the year, road "repairs" are going on all over the place on roads that do NOT need repairing ?

In the flat park next to my apartment they spent more than a year ripping up the paths and putting in sidewalk heating. After two winters, it stopped working, so they spent another year reinstalling it. This was just in time for the city to announce a policy of only operating road heating systems on road slopes.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

It's not focused anything on the actual concern: Hoarding and greeding the money that SHOULD have been spent on upgrades, upkeep and safety. An absolute disgrace, 9 lives that should not have been lost to this company's GREED>. JUST like TEPCO! PANASONIC! It Is ENDEMIC!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japan has built a lot of infrastructure in the past 30-40 years. The quantity Such infrastructure built by the Government and the Private Operators now must amount to immense figures. The recent tunnel disaster reveals that the operator has not maintained the flat slabs and the anchoring systems for 35 years after commissioning. This is only the tip of an iceberg. Does the Japanese Government implement a system for the so-called "Infrastructure asset management (IAM)" (ref. Wikipedia on

From a seminar I attended 4 to 5 years ago organized by the Instution of Civil Engineers in Hong Kong, the speaker introduced the IAM already implemented in UK. IAM is the integrated, multi-disciplinary set of strategies in sustaining public infrastructure assets such as water treatment facilities, sewer lines, roads, utility grids, bridges, and railways. With this system in place, the government officers can easily manage the infrastructure built and the degree of maintenance needed. This is just like the inventory control in a company or warehouse or banks. If a private company does not know what inventory it posseses, how can it order new goods and make money with little wastage.?

A simple working definition of asset management would be: first, assess what you have; then, assess what condition it is in; and lastly, assess the financial burden to maintain it at a targeted condition. It is understood that Japan has built a lot of valuable infrastructure but what are the conditions at the moment, how safe they are and what is the priority of maintenance to achieve a reliable degree of safety for the public to use within the contraints of finance, technology and human resources needed??

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Seems like everything in Japan is aging.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Japan infrastructure construction industry is massive. As FightingViking points out, at the end of the financial year government department's are spending budgets they didn't even need digging up roads that don't need digging up, just the spend this years budget so they get the same amount of money next year. So if the money is there and tunnels are falling down because of age, then it isn't for the lack of money!!!!!! So where did the money from the Tunnel go?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Japan is no different from European countries or America where the infrastructure is in danger of collapse.

Zichi: for once I challenge you. Can you back up this statement for Europe. Countries with expressway tolls like Japan have super well maintain highways, e.g. France, other countries with gas tax to maintain the network, e.g. Switzerland or Germany, are at the top as well. I have got more examples if needed.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Too much weight on such a skinny bolt.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Age shouldn't be a problem - London is still using the Thames Tunnel, the first tunnel in the world dig under a body of water build 170 years ago. It's all about proper maintenance and inspection.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Think leaving to private companies is a mistake.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

London is still using the Thames Tunnel 170 years ago. It's all about proper maintenance and inspection.

I would agree and add that the London sewerage system: fully functional today since it was built 150 years ago, with occasional improvements over the decades.

The Japanese tunnel also seems blighted by a bad design. As a civil engineer here point out, hanging massive concrete panels overhead held by bolts for ventilation is potentially dangerous. Why not use lighter, safer aluminum for the panels?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Readers, other countries are not relevant to this discussion.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There are over 9400 tunnels in Japan. Let's try to inject sone perspective for a change.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

30 years is not old and decrepit. It's a lack of proper maintenance. Watching the news and seeing bolts missing and rusted supports, it doesn't take expensive equipment to notice a problem. It shows that no one has been inspecting for 30 years. A simple 500 yen bolt and/or 2000 yen support could have saved lives. A lot of New York's infrastructure is over 100 years old with the Brooklyn Bridge being built in 1883 however, i don't hear of things like this happening. It's sad that people must die for some bureaucrat to wake up and smell the coffee. Once again another sad time in Japan.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I think its more of a design defect than anything else and there are 48 other tunnels using the same design.

And what is the company doing about it? Nothing. Not until 9 folks had to die. This is what drives me crazy about Japan. They ignore things like safety until it is too late. You can go on about how safety standards here are better than most countries but they aren't better than my country. A developed nation that continuously puts the public in harms way for the sake of lining their pockets. It is disgusting. This company runs these roads, THEY should be the one footing the bill to update and change these tunnels. Not me, not you. Just like TEPCO. It is disgusting and the public just rolls over and takes it.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The problem is the construction mafia corruption within the country, which has never been challenged by the Japanese public because people don't really care enough about their own country to challenge and stand up to corruption. Where is your TRUE patriotism?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Thomas, they're too busy fighting with China rather than looking at the issues IN their country.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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