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Architect Jolts Trust in Japan Quake Safety

Times Staff Writer

Until the scandal broke, Hidetsugu Aneha was just an anonymous architect, running a small, Tokyo-area firm that carried out the mundane but crucial calculations to determine how much reinforced steel should be used to keep buildings from collapsing in an earthquake.

Now he is Japan’s most notorious cheat.

Claiming he was under pressure from condominium and hotel builders to cut costs, Aneha has admitted to fiddling with safety figures on at least 21 buildings, prescribing steel bars that were too thin and too few in number to absorb the shock of a major quake. If a big tremor shook those buildings, he confessed last month to the Japanese media mob that staked out his office, “there is a possibility they could fall down.”

“Pillars might bend or crash,” he admitted. “I think there might be human damage.”

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The aftershocks of that confession have rumbled across Japan. At least seven hotels have closed. Angry condominium owners have fled their homes, demanding their money back, and construction has stopped on other Aneha-related projects. Of the first 14 buildings reexamined by engineers, all but one were ordered demolished.

Investigators who went looking for signs of trouble in the rest of the 206 condominiums, apartment blocks and hotels that Aneha had a hand in designing have so far found he fudged the numbers on at least 43 of them.

The danger may be even graver than most believe. Aneha’s fall has exposed the often-clubby ties in Japan between architects, developers and those paid to inspect their work, raising the possibility that some construction companies have sought falsified data to flout the country’s strict earthquake safety code.

Suspicions deepened last weekend when police said they had found the body of Nobuhide Morita, an architect whose firm used Aneha’s calculations to build condos. Morita was discovered at the base of a cliff outside Tokyo, an apparent suicide.

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The unsettling question now is whether Aneha was a rogue architect who was caught cutting corners or the tip of a much deeper problem: systematic cheating on safety by the construction industry. The government announced Wednesday that it would conduct strength tests on every condominium complex in Japan.

It was Aneha’s initial public apology in mid-November that raised the alarm. His expression of remorse was widely seen as perfunctory rather than heartfelt, suggesting the architect believed he was being singled out for something that was conventional behavior in the business.

“It’s not entirely my fault,” he told reporters. “I didn’t feel I was doing anything wrong.”

More ominously, Aneha said others should bear the financial burden of compensating the owners of homes and hotels whose buildings may have to be razed or repaired. “I am not the only one responsible,” he said.

In late November, Aneha told a closed-door hearing of government officials that three construction companies had ordered him to reduce the amount of reinforced steel in his designs or they would take their business elsewhere. The head of one of those companies later admitted to lawmakers that he asked Aneha to reduce the number of reinforcement bars but said he only “meant within the boundary of the law.”

Aneha’s cooked figures were uncovered after eHomes Inc., an inspection company that was paid to check his work, conducted an internal audit of its approvals. The review showed that the company had repeatedly OKd Aneha designs based on forged or flawed numbers.

“The concept of inspection in Japan is rather unclear,” said Toshio Ookoshi, president of the Japan Construction Consultants Assn., who added that inspectors customarily give the architect’s submission a cursory glance. “Nobody ever thought engineers would fake the figures, so inspectors just approve the documents if they look OK.”

Executives with eHomes deny knowing that the data were false at the time. But the ease with which numbers from Aneha and other inspection firms were certified has raised eyebrows.

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Since the inspection process was deregulated six years ago, private firms have taken over about half of all inspections, with local governments still handling the rest. But architects are allowed to choose which company will certify their plans, and critics contend that developers frequently direct work to the most accommodating inspectors.

“Developers are the client, and clients tend to appreciate speed and cost and personal relationships,” said Shinichi Tanaka, a structural engineer. “Inspectors get more offers if they handle the documents to the client’s advantage.”

It’s the kind of relationship Aneha has admitted was at the core of his business.

“I started it because I wanted to get more work, and once I did, I received more orders,” Aneha told a newspaper before withdrawing from public view, claiming to be in an “unstable mental state” since Morita’s suicide.

The Japanese have traditionally been comforted by official assurances that their buildings are designed to withstand violent tremors. The country’s already strict requirements were further tightened after some buildings that were believed to be safe pancaked during the Kobe earthquake of 1995, which killed about 6,400 people.

But health and safety scandals have gnawed at public confidence in recent years. Companies have been discovered selling contaminated milk, mislabeling beef to circumvent mad-cow disease restrictions, covering up defects in truck brakes and falsifying inspection records at nuclear power plants.

Now many people are wondering whether the same cavalier approach to safety may have made their homes death traps.

“I’ve heard from experts that even big apartment buildings built by major construction companies are dangerous once an earthquake hits,” said Shuzo Taniai, a lawyer with a civic group that handles complaints about defective buildings.

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“Construction companies are not concerned about safety for the buyers,” he said. “And nobody is checking whether buildings are properly built or not.”

Times special correspondent Hisako Ueno contributed to this report.


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