While the Middle East thrives to construct the World‘s tallest building and New York builds it “Super-tall, Super-skinny, Super-expensive” residential tower for “super-rich” and Snohetta unveils Europe’s first underwater restaurant located at the southernmost point of the Norwegian coastline, countries like Japan fear natural disasters which results in million-dollar in losses each year while hundreds and thousands lose their lives. Although Japan only accounts for 0.25% of the world’s land area and just 1.9% of the population, it is a land of 18% earthquakes with a magnitude of 6 or higher and 7.0% of active volcanoes. Being in the “Ring of Fire” Japan faces not just earthquakes and volcanoes but Tsunami, Floods, Typhoons and Cyclones. A study shows that, among the largest natural disasters that have occurred worldwide since 1900, Japan was the site of 9% from typhoons, flooding, and other causes while 16% of earthquakes and tsunamis. But what makes this country so vulnerable to natural disasters?

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Pacific Ring of Fire c Wikipedia

Japan lies on the “Pacific Ring of Fire” and geographically possesses rugged topography and extreme climate conditions, also how can the issue of “Climate Change” not be addressed when it comes to such powerful natural forces and human-inflicted devastation? Japan sits astride a very complex union of tectonic plates so the outcome is a number of volcanoes and onshore/offshore earthquake faults that result in massive earthquakes. The frequent accidents thus lead to one of the strictest building codes and a massive approach to the concept of “resilience”.

Ever since the 1600s-1800s (Edo Period), the Japanese have been working on rethinking resilience and their building patterns. Back in 1874, their dictionary seemed to add the word “hanekaeri“- to rebound/ spring back. The term “fukugen-ryoku” is more commonly used- the capacity to return to the origin. The skyline at this time majorly ruled by public edifices, were structurally the most resilient building types ever erected dominated by Wooden Pagodas and Castle Keeps. The more we research our past structures, the more we realize the importance of vernacular architecture. The forms of these structures were inspired by Hindu myths and the beliefs of Buddha. The pagodas define resilience due to its combination of a central free-standing log that would absorb the lateral thrust of loose and flexible components. Similarly, Castle Keeps comprised of trabeated timber skeletons with full height central pillars. The frames would be covered in fireproof clay daub and plaster on the exterior resting on a concrete foundation. This era involved some ignorant decisions about construction and designing. Thus, new fireproof construction materials like brick, stone, and steel were discovered which later did not prove to be as resilient and sustainable as timber. By this time, some degree of destruction was accepted along with more resilient techniques to reconstruct or rebuild.

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Wooden Pagodas
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Castle Keeps c Web Japan
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Tange Kenzo house(1953) c Pinterest

Nearing the 1960’s Japan was shattered after the destruction caused by World War 2 with a humongous growing density of its cities. The Japanese architect Tange Kenzo (1913-2005) heroically came into limelight on working for his country. He designed a series of institutional buildings composed of exposed reinforced concrete. The structures express rigidity and resistance in contrast with Japan’s lightness, openness, and spaciousness. At this time, the focus involved planning the resilient buildings as well as resilient cities. In his vision, future Tokyo was to be built using mega structure principles, which would be raised on monumental concrete piles over land and water, which would be followed by a raised transportation system and a futuristic telecommunication network. The building materials and techniques used in this era were proved inefficient by the Great East Japan Earthquake that struck the Tohoku region on March 11′ 2011, one of the worst in Japan’s history killing 22,000 people. Now the approach was more hi-tech and use of modern techniques. A major focus was on ‘safety’ and ‘security’ while implementing sophisticated civil engineering techniques rather than people’s long-beloved memories with their land. A much-publicized residential project was a 30 square meter building in Rikuzentakata. The builders brought 19 cedar logs from a nearby forest that withstood the great tsunami. This log structure supports platforms and tree-like houses. Another construction method implemented by a few volunteers involved building an open shed with rotated lumber sticks. The rigidity is ensured by a concrete foundation and lumber’s weight. The tensile-resistant joint system uses cylindrical wooden split-wedges, concealed within the thickness of each beam. This is an exquisite example of architectural resilience in its capacity to contribute to community recovery.

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Home For All Community Center c Jun Sato,2013
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Kozumihama Ojizo sama Project Ishinomaki c Hiroyuki Hirai
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Kozumihama Ojizo sama Project Construction Ishinomaki c Hiroyuki Hirai

This dedication to structural stability has made Japan a prime example of an earthquake-ready country. Here are a few modernist examples that prove how the world should learn from Japanese.


The Japanese Response Towards Resilient Architecture -8Television-House c HomeDSGN

A private home designed to be earthquake-resistant. It is integrated with seismic isolation system and load-bearing arrangement that keeps building stable. It sits on a podium with elevated structural beams with a concrete base. These isolators enable the building to be in direct contact with ground tremors.


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FaBo c SpoonandTamago

A three-story office and laboratory building with 1,031 braided carbon fiber rods which fastens on the floor in various angles elongated through the roof. The rods are tough and flexible which are capable of protecting the building in case of an earthquake. These rods tend to stretch back and sideways and pull thus adding further stability to the building.


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Ark Hills Sengokuyama c Wikimedia Commons

A Mixed-use building tower in Tokyo that uses damping technology where steel plates are installed in the cavities between each floor. It connects the upper wall and oil dampers with lower. During an earthquake, the plate moves through oil dampers which create resisting seismic activity.


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Tokyo Skytree c Wikimedia Commons

The observation tower that stands 2080 feet has a tripod base with a central pillar (similar to the Edo period) that connects the flexible oil dampers to the first 125 meters. Four clusters of walled piles and steel-reinforced concrete nodes protect the building against any seismic reaction.

I remember an interesting conversation from GreenBuild Conference in Atlanta about resilience and luxury. What is the difference between a $2 million penthouse in Los Angeles and a $2 million penthouse in Kyoto? Penthouse in Los Angeles is sold for its view that outlooks Hollywood Hills and utter luxury living whereas Kyoto sells for resilience, sustainability, and wellness. Thus, the definition differs.


Nishtha is a 23 years old Architecture Graduate from India currently working with an award-winning Architecture company based in Florida, USA. She is involved in various departments including Design, Management and Writing for their projects. Her participation in International Conferences and Summer Abroad Programs while exploring around the world, let her inner thoughts flow in having a Vision of helping others through architecture and that is how she wants to leave a mark wherever she goes.