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Editorial: Girl's death in Osaka quake reveals concrete wall safety blind spot

One of the dead from the June 18 earthquake that hit northern Osaka Prefecture in western Japan was a 9-year-old girl, crushed by a collapsing concrete block wall as she walked to school -- a wall built around the pool at the very school she was going to. After the girl's death, the education ministry called on school boards across Japan to perform emergency safety checks on their facilities.

The wall around the pool at Takatsuki Municipal Juei Elementary School in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, was about 3.5 meters tall, well above the height allowable under the Building Standards Act. No efforts were made to bring the wall up to code.

The wall was likely intended at least in part to stop people outside being able to see into the pool area. It is highly likely that many schools around the country have similar "privacy walls."

Authorities across Japan must now examine walls in their jurisdictions to see if they violate the building act or other regulations, any structures that fall short must be listed up, and policies to remedy the problem must be implemented quickly. It would also be advisable to build barriers out of lighter materials, such as safety netting or chain link fencing.

What must be pointed out once more following the little girl's death is that the block walls surrounding schools are a significant safety blind spot, as not even the education ministry had any notion of the risks they pose.

Past policies to proof schools against earthquakes have prioritized reinforcing main buildings and gymnasiums, as these are the places where the children spend the vast majority of their time. According to an education ministry survey, as of April last year 98.8 percent of about 117,000 public primary and junior high schools in Japan had done work to proof their buildings against earthquakes, while 97.1 percent had implemented measures to prevent suspended ceilings in their auditoriums from falling in during a temblor.

In February last year, the education ministry also sent notices to boards of education asking them to do regular safety checks of concrete block walls at their schools. However, the inspection criteria focused on problems such as cracks or whether the walls were leaning to one side. It appears that corrective measures were put off until later.

The danger posed by concrete block walls was made plain in 1978, when a large quake struck off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture. Eighteen people were killed by collapsing walls in that disaster. This tragedy led to strengthened regulations for such walls under the Building Standards Act, including slashing their maximum height.

However, 40 years later it appears that awareness of this danger has faded. The financial conditions of local governments likely play a part in lack of enforcement, but safety should never be given short shrift at schools.

The June 18 earthquake also claimed the life of an 80-year-old on his way to help keep watch on children heading to school. He, too, was killed by a collapsing block wall. There is now a need for inspections of all walls along school commuting routes, in cooperation with private citizens and local communities.

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