Quake-absorbing rubber scandal in Japan shows no signs of abating

Monday will mark one month since it was revealed that Toyo Tire & Rubber Co. of Osaka falsified data on seismic isolation rubber.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has declared that the 55 buildings in which the quake-absorbing rubber was installed are safe and "will not fall down if subjected to seismic intensity around upper 6 to 7." The buildings stand in 18 prefectures.

However, anxious users are still demanding replacements, though it is unclear when Toyo Tire will comply with these requests.

The company is expected to submit a report soon to the ministry on safety and other details regarding about 200 structures that were built using products that have since come under scrutiny.

If anything, the effects of the scandal appear likely to widen.

Disaster 'control tower'

"The building was just completed in March last year. But we were told the performance of the quake-absorbing rubber has already degraded to past its 60-year life expectancy," said Seiichi Tanaka, chief of Kochi Prefecture's construction department, about a government office building in Aki.

A major Nankai Trough earthquake could cause tremors as strong as 7 on the seismic intensity scale in the prefecture, which could kill about 42,000 people and completely destroy about 153,000 structures.

The prefectural government has designated four buildings - including the building in Aki and the main prefectural office building - to serve as "control towers" to direct life-saving and rescue operations in the event of a disaster.

The prefecture's construction department envisioned buildings in which bookshelves would not fall over and computers would not fall off desks even during large tremors, and work could be resumed quickly after the shaking stops.

Toyo Tire's quake-resistant rubber was selected to help create such structures.

But the ministry's statement that it "will not fall down if subjected to seismic intensity around upper 6 to 7" only meets the building's minimum standard of "able to survive." It does not cover staffers' ability to carry out their duties or other matters.

Kochi Gov. Masanao Ozaki said, "We thought it would provide safety for 20 or 30 years. It's extremely disappointing."

Construction halted

The impact has been particularly serious on municipalities that have had to halt construction.

Five of the 17 structures that the ministry has identified as having the problematic equipment are unfinished.

Among them is a new, two-story firefighting headquarters for Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture. The building was expected to be completed in September, but work was stopped after a concrete floor had been poured over the quake-resistant rubber.

An official from the city's anti-disaster department said work was stopped because "quake-resistant rubber that doesn't meet the national government's standards can't pass inspections for use in buildings."

The city has asked Toyo Tire to replace the substandard parts with products made by another manufacturer, and is seeking compensation for costs related to the construction delay. The city does not know when the building will be completed.

Toyo Tire has said it will replace its products in all 55 buildings, but it expects to need about two years to complete all the replacements and has not said which buildings will be addressed when.

More substandard products

Toyo Tire initially said data was falsified on products shipped since 2004, and that such products had been used in 55 structures in 18 prefectures. However, a former acting section chief who was in charge of product development and performance testing later admitted that performance data was falsified on additional products used in other structurers.

The company then launched an investigation into whether national standards were met in other types of quake-resistant rubber that were shipped since 1996 and used in about 200 buildings.

Toyo Tire has so far checked the performance of about 1,600 products used in about 130 buildings, and found that about 10 per cent of them do not meet national standards.

The scope of this problem appears set to expand significantly.

The company plans to soon release the results of its investigation into all its products used in about 200 buildings, and submit a report to the ministry. It also plans to release a report on how and why the data falsification occurred, and present plans to prevent it from recurring, possibly within the month.

In addition, the ministry is considering how to prevent similar incidents from happening again, including reexamining its performance evaluation system, which is currently based on the belief that manufacturers are inherently moral and would not act dishonestly.

The ministry has formed an expert panel to study this matter. It is expected to submit proposals around the summer.