THE FURUBIRA TUNNEL DISASTER OF 1996

AN ENCORE OF JAPAN'S BUREAUCRATIC INEPTITUDE?


(originally sent to ISSHO, Fukuzawa, and Friends Feb 15, 1996)

Probably everyone on this list in Japan has been following the Furubira tunnel collapse news item--it's been the top story (especially up here in Sapporo), with 24-hour coverage for the past five days. But the real news is that an accident is turning into bad press because of the ineffectiveness of rescue efforts.


TUNNEL-VISION AND BUREAUCRATIC PARALYSIS

On the early morning of Saturday, February 10, 1996, due not to an earthquake but a fault in a mountain range's shaley rock, a section of tunnel collapsed a few dozen meters from the entranceway on a tunnel connecting towns Furubira (Õ) and Yoichi (]s), on the Shakotan Peninsula of Hokkaido.

A bus was unlucky enough to be there at the time, and got trapped under thousands of tons of rock. Rescue teams and the Japanese press were soon on the scene.

To excavate the vehicle, it was deemed necessary to blast away a huge spear of it which jutted out from above. Soon how big the rock was and how much it weighed became part of the Japanese collective conscious.

As did the plight of the victims. The media began offering closeups and tearful comments from the aggrieved families, who came out on vigil and were put up in busses themselves. Live coverage up here on Hokkaido TV kept people like Jiichan and me abreast whenever we needed it, and we watched the tragedy unfold before our eyes.

Even though rescuers had a good weather window (a thaw, unusual for February, happened on the tail end of the Snow Festival), it was of little help. After deciding who was in charge of the rescue efforts (which in itself took some time), It had taken several hours for work crews from the Hokkaido Development Agency, which runs the tunnel, to decide whether or not to even blast the rock.

Then after careful placing of the dynamite and one explosion on Day One, the rock spear was well chipped but not dislodged. Soon full-scale models of the mountain range (with snap-on, snap-off sections of the rock spear) proliferated in the TV studios, and it was only a matter of time before people started speculating when the next explosion would be.

Here things soured. Explosion Two happened on Day Two, but only another big bit came off. Explosion Three (which was scheduled at 7pm of Evening Two) was cancelled for uncertain reasons. The tearful comments from families began turning into anger: "Even if they are dead, hurry up and pull them out of there, already."

Explosion Three on Day Three still did not do the trick, but now the sharpened spear looked like it was ready to topple. Although bleary-eyed bureaucrats from the Kaihatsu Chou kept up their "ganbarimasu" slogans (yet stressed the need for a delay), people were obviously growing impatient. There were comments about incompetence, some wondered that even if there were survivors, weren't they dead already from exposure?

Day Four unfolded and finally, after much care taken, Explosion Four finally dislodged the rock and digging crews got to work above. Governor Hori came out to survey the damage, and he was asked why he hadn't come out earler. His embarassing reply: "This was an accident, not a natural disaster" (so it wasn't quite as urgent).

As of 2 pm today, Day Six, almost one week after the initial rockfall, they say that there are about three big slabs atop the bus and it may take another four days to shift them.


Which raises several questions in my head:

1) Why so much delay? Did the Hokkaido Development Agency really know what it was doing? And anyway, wasn't this a relatively new tunnel? Something feels decidedly half-assed about all of this.

2) If HDA didn't know what it were doing, why didn't it call some more experts in from Tokyo or even overseas? (I heard a joke that Hollywood would probably be better at blowing things up) A matter of mentsu overriding the need to save lives, like in Kobe?

3) Am I the only one who feels this is another case of bureaucratic incompetence slowing up rescue efforts? Hey, as long as it's not Tokyo, slow is shiyou ga nai?


This is the view of one American looking at the situation with one eye on my work and the other on NHK and STV. Would anyone out there, especially native speakers, like to comment?

Dave Aldwinckle

Sapporo


EPILOGUE

What feedback was there? Unfortunately, pretty sparse, except for support from the die-hard "we hate the bumbling-yet-supercilious Japanese bureaucracy types" like I.

What eventually happened was, if I remember correctly, on Day Seven or Eight, digging revealed the bus roof. The bus had been squashed down to but a meter height. Everyone, they said, had died instantly, not from exposure. Probably true.

The reason for the delay? The official word was that HDA people had to ask the families--each and every kin of each and every person on the crushed bus--at every step (before blasting, before digging, etc.) for their permission to proceed. Much like the JSDF had to wait for Kobe's official city-hall request--despite city-wide communications being severed--before coming in and rescuing people from the earthquake.

At Kobe, four days were wasted, which could have used to save lives. At Furubira, well, as you can see, it took even longer than that to reach the victims.

Even if there was no other way to dislodge the rock, I say the bureaucrats were more concerned with saving their own jobs than perhaps saving lives. This procedure of "permission at every stage", IMHO a form of nemawashi consensus-building (so nobody takes the fall for mistakes or for stepping on other bureaus' turf), does not lend itself to an emergency situation.

With the establishment of special commando-ish "emergency rescue teams" in recent months, I think even the precedent-oriented and obtuse Japanese bureaucracy is waking up to that.

The Furubira tunnel reopened for use just a few days ago, December 1996, about ten months to the day after the disaster. This is typical, given the slow recoveries of Hokkaido's Okushiri Island (after their July, 1994 tidal wave) and of course poor Kobe.

I wonder what tidings the next inevitable earthquake will bring.


back to essay page comments
back to home page links page