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Quake prompts wall checks

Japan's government has ordered an emergency inspection of cinder-block walls at schools nationwide, a day after an earthquake in Osaka killed five people, two of whom were crushed by falling walls.

The magnitude 6.1 earthquake that struck Osaka during Monday's morning rush hour injured more than 370 people in the region, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. The quake also damaged many buildings and disrupted traffic.

Authorities confirmed a fifth victim Tuesday — a 66-year-old man found dead, covered with books and other objects at a home in Takatsuki.

The death of 9-year-old Rina Miyake just outside her school in Takatsuki city has sparked concerns about cinder-block walls and prompted authorities to call for safety checks. An 80-year-old man, who was on his way to volunteer in a neighbourhood watch while schoolchildren walked to school, also was killed by a collapsing wall.

Education Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters Tuesday he was ordering all public elementary and junior high schools to "urgently" inspect their walls. Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Keiichi Ishii said he planned to raise awareness of the potential risks of cinder-block walls among private property owners as well.

Concrete walls made of stacked cinder-blocks are a known risk in earthquakes but the danger has been largely ignored even though the current building codes call for walls built before 1981 to be upgraded. Japan introduced stricter quake-resistant standards in 1981 after cinderblock walls caused 11 of the 16 deaths in Sendai city and its vicinity in a 1978 quake in northern Japan, according to municipal records. That quake killed 28 altogether.

Japanese schools have largely upgraded the safety of classrooms and other buildings to meet current anti-quake standards, but many of the old cinder-block walls have been left untouched. Past local government surveys in school neighbourhoods have found most walls lack additional safety reinforcement.

Some quake-prone cities in central and eastern Japan, including Tokyo, Aichi and Shizuoka, have started offering subsidies for dismantling or reinforcing cinder-block walls as a way to motivate private owners.

Officials in Takatsuki city have acknowledged that the wall at the municipal-run school that broke and killed the girl exceeded the legal height limit of 2.2 metres. On Tuesday, police investigated the site and city officials on suspicion of professional negligence.

Authorities have warned residents of possible strong aftershocks.



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