Lessons from Japan's surviving buildings

China tofu schoolMany schools in Japan withstood the earthquake, but they crumbled three years ago when the earth shook in China. Above, the site of the Xinjian primary school in China, which collapsed in 2008. By Bill Powell, editor-at-large

FORTUNE -- As you drive west to east, close to the shoreline in what was the little beach town of Arahama, south of Sendai, Japan, you pass acre after acre of houses and stores and trees flattened by the otherworldly power of the tsunami that struck on March 11. These days, the massive clean-up job continues apace. Roads have been cleared and the cars and trucks and boats that were tossed like Tonka toys are finally being readied for the junkyards.

Arahama means, cruelly enough, "rough beach," and as you get close to what was once a popular surfing spot, there comes an odd sight. There is a building -- a multi-story institutional type structure -- with a distinctive feature: the outdoor railings on each of its floors are painted pink.

This is the Arahama elementary school. Beyond the pink railings, there is one other notable feature: while virtually everything else around it has been completely destroyed, it's still standing.

So too, about 15 miles to the south and further inland, is the seven-year old Yamashita Junior High School. Like so many schools now throughout the region and beyond, this one is being used as an evacuation center. At the beginning of this month there were 618 people from the devastated town living there. Now, says school principal Shuji Watanabe, there are 380, as people begin to move on with their lives, sheltering with relatives or finding an apartment to rent on their own.

The school stands just a few kilometers beyond where the wall of water reached on the 11th; the sad fact is that was also graduation day. From 10 that morning until noon, Watanabe says, the school handed out diplomas to its graduating class of 111 (a total of 287 kids are enrolled at Yamashita). Then they were dismissed for the year. And because they left school early that day, four died in the tsunami.

Had it been a regular school day, Watanabe agrees, none of the four would have died -- they'd have still been in school. Watanabe was in a final meeting with his teachers at 2:46 that afternoon when the quake hit. The building shook and swayed, he says, but stood. There was a little damage to the gymnasium -- a bit of a crack in the ceiling, Watanabe says -- and that's it. No walls fell, and not a single window broke.

Tofu schools in China

Three years ago next month, the kids were still at school in Dujiangyan, a small city in Sichuan province in southwestern China, when the massive Wenchuan earthquake struck at 2:28 in the afternoon. Nearly 68,000 people were killed. A few hundred of them -- no final number was ever made public -- were students at the Xinjian primary school in Dujiangyan.

This was one of the infamous "tofu" schools throughout the region -- buildings that collapsed in heaps even as those around them remained standing, as if they were made from a gelatinous material like tofu instead of iron and steel. A few days after the quake, I stood with a handful of other reporters and watched as parents of students killed at Xinjian held quiet vigils in a lot next to where the school had stood just a few days earlier. Bulldozers were working to clear the rubble next door. There was a hotel and a couple of other commercial buildings right next to where the school had once stood. While damaged, they had not collapsed. Not even close.

And already, just a few days after the quake, parents were deeply suspicious of the grim physical facts they now faced. Why had some buildings withstood the quake, while Xinjian, like so many schools in the region, had been reduced to rubble? Were the building standards lower? Was there corruption involved? Did contractors pay off local officials in order to build more cheaply?

That's what many of the parents were thinking as they stood silently, holding framed photographs of their late children. After the vigil I began interviewing one of the mothers, who started giving voice to these thoughts, and after a few minutes a couple of plain clothes security types got right up in our faces and stared snapping photos with a small digital camera. They took my photo and then they started taking her photo -- an act that was supposed to be intimidating. I'll never forget the look that poor mother gave the security thug photographing her. She just stared at him, and kept staring at him, with some primal combination of contempt and fury. She said nothing. Her daughter had died, and now there was nothing that anyone from the government could do to instill fear in her.

A few days later, the authorities had had enough. They had allowed the national outpouring of grief, focused on the schools, to continue for a couple of weeks, but when that grief began to turn to anger -- as it plainly was -- that was it. They shut down the site next to the school in Dujiangyan, as well as several others like it in the quake zone. The government offered payments to parents of the children who died, with the understanding that if accepted, they would no longer pursue the matter of the tofu schools.

Later, several activists, like Chengdu-based Huang Qi, who was trying to help parents of the dead children get answers from the government about things like building standards, were arrested. In Huang's case, the government said in June of 2008 that he had two "illegal government" documents in his possession and threw him in jail. He is there to this day.

Skewed economic realities

Last year, China surpassed Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world. Beijing's cheerleaders abroad -- including the pom-pom girls in some corners of the Western pundit class and academia, the kind of people who get weak in the knees at stories about China's high speed rail network -- did cartwheels and penned odes to the wondrous "China Model." "Brush up on your Chinese," began a story in the New York Daily News.

Spare me. Yes, China has managed to keep growing as much of the rest of the world suffered economically over the last three years. And Japan, of course, has been written off since the end of the 90s. It's dead, stagnant, yesterday's news. (Never mind that the company that assembles Apple's (AAPL, Fortune 500) products in China -- Foxconn -- feared production delays because it apparently had trouble getting some of the parts it puts together after the Tohoku quake in March. Why? Because some of those parts are made in poor, pathetic, downtrodden Japan. Ditto for the global auto industry.)

There is an economic reality that is not captured by GDP statistics, but is best captured by the phrase "the depth of wealth." It's when a country becomes rich enough that the wealth seeps into every corner of it, both in ways that can be measured using national accounts data, but also in ways that cannot be.

In Arahama, the only significant building besides the elementary school left standing after the tsunami was a nursing home. In Japan, buildings like schools and nursing homes are -- by regulations that are actually enforced -- built to higher standards than other commercial buildings. In China, the parents of the kids killed in Dujiangyan and so many other places never got good answers as to why their schools collapsed. And Huang Qi, along with others, sits in jail still, just for trying to help them ask the right questions. (He is to be released this June.)

China's GDP, true enough, is growing all the time. But make no mistake, China is still a very poor country -- and Japan a very rich one. This is true in obvious ways (like GDP per capita) but in not so obvious ways, too. The new school year at Yamashita Junior High starts on April 25 -- the remaining evacuees have been moved next door into the gym and kendo hall. In October of 2008, the Chinese government said that 2,000 engineers had fanned out across the Sichuan quake zone to study what had happened at the "tofu schools." It conceded the engineers had found instances of "bad urban planning and unenforced building codes." We still don't know how many children, precisely, were killed in those schools.

With Hideko Takayama in Arahama, Japan To top of page