School Safety at Scale: Lessons from Japan

November 2, 2016


School children in Japan practicing an earthquake drill. Children learn to duck under a table or desk to avoid falling objects in the event of an earthquake.

Photo Credit: AFP=JIJI

  • Nearly 100% of schools in Japan are now earthquake-safe, up from 42.5% in 2002. Strong political will, technical guidance, engineering solutions, financing options and availability of data have made this progress possible.
  • Japan is now sharing its experience with other countries and financing activities to improve the safety of school infrastructure in Peru, El Salvador, Turkey, and the Philippines.

Tokyo, Japan, November 2, 2016 – The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 caused widespread loss of life and destruction in and around the city of Kobe. Almost 4,000 schools were destroyed. It was a wakeup call for the Government of Japan, and created the political will to accelerate a national program that over time would make almost every school resilient to the impact of earthquakes.

A new report developed by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR)'s Global Program for Safer Schools, in partnership with the Japan-World Bank Program for Mainstreaming DRM in Developing Countries, examines the program implemented by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) to improve the structural safety of thousands of schools across the country.

What Insights Can Be Drawn from the Japanese Experience?

  1. Disasters can create momentum for increased action: While the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake triggered a comprehensive assessment of the safety of existing schools and an increase in subsidies to local governments for retrofitting, the national school retrofitting program finally gained significant momentum in 2002. Other earthquakes, such as the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake in China, convinced decision-makers to make more financial resources available and to strengthen the capacity of local governments to accelerate implementation.
  2. Financial and technical support from the national government to local governments can accelerate implementation and ensure quality: As the financial resources required for implementation of the program exceeded the budget of most local governments, the national government offered subsidies to cover 2/3 of the costs for retrofitting and 1/2 for reconstruction. At the same time, MEXT provided optional financing schemes, including the option for local governments to issue bonds and raise taxes to raise additional financial resources. As a result, the financial burden on local governments was limited to 6.7-10% of the total costs. In addition to financial support, MEXT, in partnership with other entities such as the Japan Building Disaster Prevention Association (JBDPA), also developed detailed technical guidelines and offered training to local governments.
  3. Reporting on progress is key: MEXT ranked prefectures and municipalities by percentage of earthquake-resistant school buildings and issued press releases and made other information on progress available to inform citizens which prefectures and municipalities were lagging behind. Once this information was made public, local authorities often took immediate action to avoid criticism from the community.
  4. Combining retrofitting with general modernization of schools is cost-effective: To achieve retrofitting targets each year, MEXT sometimes postponed general improvement of existing schools. As a result, some schools – mostly older buildings – will have to go through further rehabilitation about 10 years after the seismic retrofitting has been carried out. This approach is expensive and burdensome to schools.

These are just some of the findings of the report. The report also highlights remaining challenges such as improving the functionality of schools as emergency shelters in the event of a disaster and paying attention to non-structural elements of school buildings. Finally, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake demonstrated the need to make schools also resistant to other disasters such as tsunamis.

" As children spend a significant part of their day at school, MEXT considers providing a safe and secure educational environment an important priority. Through trial and error, MEXT and other key stakeholders in Japan managed to make most of the country's school resistant to earthquakes. MEXT looks forward sharing its experience and lessons learned with other countries. "

Tetsuji Kimura

Deputy Director, Office for Disaster Prevention, Department of Facilities Planning and Administration, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Japan

Through the Japan-World Bank Program, the Government of Japan enables World Bank teams to support other countries to undertake a similar journey.

In Peru, the World Bank is supporting to the Ministry of Education (MINEDU) with the design and implementation of the country’s first national plan for school infrastructure and seismic risk reduction program for school infrastructure. To date, the government has started the implementation of a first phase of Plan Lima, which includes making 373 of the most vulnerable schools resilient – a step that will benefit 278,000 students in the short-term. At least 12,000 schools will be made resilient in the medium- to long-term. In total, an estimated 2.5 million children will have access to safe schools.

The World Bank also supports the Department of Education (DepEd) in the Philippines to develop a seismic risk reduction program for public schools in Metro Manila. Building on an earlier Bank supported prioritization exercise which revealed that 80 percent of all fatalities are projected to occur in less than 40 percent of Metro Manila public school buildings, the technical assistance of the Bank now focuses primarily on the development of retrofitting solutions as well as cost estimates for the most vulnerable school buildings.

Other countries that benefit from similar technical support through the Japan-World Bank Program include Turkey and El Salvador.

The report on the experience of Japan, "Making Schools Resilient at Scale: the Case of Japan", was presented at a seminar in Tokyo on November 2nd, 2016. The full report can be downloaded here. At the end of January, MEXT will present its experience at a technical workshop on school safety which brings together decision-makers and technical staff from Ministries of Education around the world.


Japan-World Bank Program for Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Management in Developing Countries

Making Schools Resilient at Scale: The Case of Japan

A Road Map for Safer Schools