Since its establishment in 1946, Chuo Kaihatsu has performed geotechnical surveys, measuring, analysis and design of the ground that supports structures such as roads, bridges, dams, ports and buildings across Japan. Having spent over 75 years studying Japan’s disaster-prone topography and geology, the company has gained immense expertise in disaster prevention technologies. With the increase in landslides and slope-related disasters due to climate change, president Makoto Tanaka says that Chuo Kaihatsu now aims to bring its state-of-the-art disaster mitigation technology to Southeast Asia, South America and beyond.
Since its establishment in 1946, Chuo Kaihatsu has performed geotechnical surveys, measuring, analysis and design of the ground that supports structures such as roads, bridges, dams, ports and buildings across Japan. Having spent over 75 years studying Japan’s disaster-prone topography and geology, the company has gained immense expertise in disaster prevention technologies. With the increase in landslides and slope-related disasters due to climate change, president Makoto Tanaka says that Chuo Kaihatsu now aims to bring its state-of-the-art disaster mitigation technology to Southeast Asia, South America and beyond
The Japanese construction sector had a boom in the sixties, around the time of the 1964 Olympic games. Nowadays, there’s a need for more maintenance, repair and upkeep. At the same time, we see a policy in place called “Scrap and Build.” Cities such as Osaka and Tokyo continue to grow, but experts see this leveling out by 2040 as the population decline really starts to hit home. What is your assessment of the current needs of the Japanese infrastructure construction market?
Regarding buildings themselves, there is an apparent issue with durability. I see a priority in the renovation and renewal of these buildings to make them new again. However, on the other side, if we’re talking about roads, bridges, public infrastructure, transportation, or ocean infrastructure, it’s really not about renewing them. It’s more about establishing a longevity type of infrastructure and supporting or enhancing the durability of existing infrastructure. There is a different approach between buildings and public infrastructure.
If we look at the next decade or so, I see big business for the maintenance field. Yet recent decades have had a polarizing situation with the creation of so-called smart cities and mega compact cities. This is something completely new, and something that we must come up with in new terms.
In addition, we have to consider that many kinds of disasters have occurred every year due to natural and social characteristics in Japan. After the Tohoku earthquake, various projects have been implemented to rebuild the Tohoku region. In recent years, many preventive conservation projects are needed such as flood improvement in watersheds, prevention of landslides and other measures due to frequent occurrence of torrential rain due to climate change.
Another trend that is directly affecting the construction sector is the aging workforce of Japan. Nowadays, one in three construction workers are over the age of 65. This creates two big problems, the first being labor shortages, and second being the decline in demand for new construction projects. How is your company facing the challenges of Japan’s demographic situation, and what opportunities do you see it creating for you?
Of course, as you mentioned, Japan is facing a rapidly aging society. I see one way of tackling this issue to be the introduction of more automation, and to utilize more robots. Currently we are trying to enhance productivity in our geotechnical investigation systems through automation. As an even greater challenge, I believe that we must utilize the skills we have developed.
It's always been a difficult thing to pass on technology and skills from one generation to the next. We at Chuo Kaihatsu believe it is of utmost importance to put these technologies and skills into words and successfully pass them on to future generations.
There is a possibility that aging internally would become a problem, but I don’t feel it is much of an issue that our employees' average age is becoming older. There is one thing I feel trepidation about, especially when you look at Chuo Kaihatsu’s wide range of employee ages and tenures. We have young employees that started yesterday, all the way to employees in their 70s. I think that the age structure of the company is influenced by economic trends. If the economy is booming, great, we can employ new people, whereas vice versa we are not. This results in a skewed age structure. So, the transfer of skills is quite important, and employees can have very different values depending on the environment in which they grew up and the education they have received.
Therefore, of course the aging population is an issue, but for us here at Chuo Kaihatsu, it is rather important for us to work on equalizing the age structure and standardizing technology in order to ensure that employees of all ages can continue to be active. We have been actively putting things into place to have a lot of newcomers join the company. One key aspect is the incorporation of information technology, strengthening our technology so that we can be an appealing company for newcomers.
For example, in our geotechnical surveys, automation of boring machines, Construction Information Modeling, CIM, based ground representation technology, use of big data on ground, further promotion of IOT technology in slope disaster prevention, and use of artificial intelligence (AI) are required.
Obviously it's not just our company that is aging, Japan as a whole is too, and rapidly. In the past decade, we have seen a lot of natural disasters hit the shores of Japan. I think that institutions for the elderly and the disabled were hit particularly badly. They tend to be located in disaster prone areas. It tends to be the case so that families have easy access to them. When we think about it, more protections need to be in place for these kinds of institutions. Definitely something us consultants must consider moving forward.
The main island of Japan is located at the intersection of three tectonic plates, and thus the subject to frequent earthquakes, and a host of other natural disasters. Your company has developed the Kentaro, K-Ta and Kansokuo (K3) system, which measures and issues warnings for changes in ground levels. In our research we found that K3 could be installed very fast. Why was it important to make installation so fast?
There are two things about the fast installation. Firstly, once a disaster occurs, response needs to be quick. In this case, speed is of the utmost importance. The other aspect is that we want our EWS to boast easy installation, so the general population can install it. We want it to spread, so that we can maximize its potential, and it’s affordable too.
Therefore, you might say speedy installation, but we prefer the term easy installation. Right now, we have Chuo Kaihatsu employees going to install the devices, but ultimately, we would like the general population to set them up instead.
I would like to emphasize here that other competitors also have this kind of technology, however our technology has the unique ability to also issue warnings should a disaster strike using control threshold. We have a certain threshold that has been obtained with many types of measurement, and once the reading goes above that threshold, warnings are issued automatically. Moreover, we received research and development sponsorship from the cabinet office, in order to look further into this area. These days, we currently hold the patent for this technology, meaning we are the only ones that possess this right now.
I would like to say that there is almost a kind of technology competition going on between us and our rival competitors. However, perhaps an element of sharing would be much more beneficial for the general public. Nowadays, we are trying to work with other competitors on the consortium, in order to get the penetration of this technology that is required.
I have a question regarding your comments on having done 300 projects overseas. How do you adapt your technology to different geological conditions found in other countries?
We have such projects in Australia and China. Clearly the geological conditions vary greatly. It’s important to team up with local researchers in order to deliver technology that fits their conditions.
Regarding overseas disaster prevention projects, we started working on those around 20 years ago. Our EWS, early warning systems, for slope disaster prevention have applied in many countries, such as China, Australia, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Brazil.
In 2007 was the first symposium between Japan and China. A joint research project was launched quickly after that, due in nature to huge earthquakes hitting China. The joint venture was between the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. This huge joint venture received subsidies from both the Japanese and Chinese government. We noticed that the geological conditions varied between Japan and China, thus requiring joint research. Time flies, but this has now reached over 10 years. It’s interesting that on the Chinese side, they are also researching Japanese geological conditions.
Additionally, in collaboration with the Public Works Research Institute (PWRI) we are conducting research into inclinometers. Due to our results and achievements, we have received an IP research subsidy from the cabinet office. Using the subsidy, we conducted multi-point tilt change research in Yamanashi for three years.
There is another research project that we applied for last year between ourselves, the Ministry of Science and Technology of China and JAICA. This research in particular is on utilization of sensors in warning issuing. During our research we traveled to Australia as part of the SIP Research and then on to Bhutan from there. After that we moved onto Taiwan and India. In addition, we are conducting SIP research in Sri-Lanka and Pakistan. Finally we are scheduled to conduct research in Brazil as well.
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Click here to watch the video about our EWS, Kantaro.
We would like to place the sensor in various conditions and make measurements first. By doing that we can prevent disasters as much as possible. In general, the greatest amount of change is at the ground surface. In order to determine the measures to be taken and their priorities, it is necessary to understand the characteristics of the ground and geology. We at Chuo Kaihatsu can help with the technology and research monitoring to do this. The current methodology is mainly to identify areas with seismic potential and take data from there.
Let me add on some information about a recent trial that we conducted. By utilizing point cloud data, we have the technology to read minute by minute information on landforms. Using that we can accurately detect risk, in combination with our EWS.
Kantaro right now is used for monitoring, but ultimately we are aiming for interactive diagrams of map forms. Almost a detailed simulation. The need for such details lies in the events that occur during a disaster. Evacuation is the most important, and time is the smallest commodity. As you know, evacuation isn’t a simple task, and a clear and safe route to evacuation needs to be planned out. Therefore I want to combine the land data and the measurement data, so that evacuation plans can be produced in a timely manner, with a real time feed. Obviously for a myriad of reasons, this is incredibly difficult to do, but it is my hope as president of Chuo Kaihatsu Corporation.
You can see here an example of a micro-topographical map made by utilizing point cloud data. Using something such as this helps in detecting risk early. This form of monitoring is colloquially known as Geological DX.
So before even installation, you can detect and identify areas of risk using point cloud data and satellite imagery?
It is actually laser data from our drones. This works out better because Japan has a lot of trees and it makes it difficult to see using satellites. Using the laser technology, we can penetrate through the trees and see the land surface, and we began monitoring it in Atami last week.
Out of all of these various research projects, is there one that is your favorite, or one that has had a particular impact that you would like to highlight?
If we talk about our projects in Latin America, counties we visited included Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Interestingly, there are Japanese descendants living in these Latin American countries. This project was pushed by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Together with them we are conducting an exchange program with personnel, as a form of technical instruction. Thus we have young Japanese descendants coming to Japan for training. It has been running for many years now. I couldn’t say it's my favorite but, it has left a huge impression on me, because I was able to create and feel such a connection. Japan and Latin America are such different regions, yet there are Japanese descendants there that we have a chance to collaborate with through our business.
As you know, we currently have a local subsidiary of Chuo Kaihatsu in Sao Paulo Brazil. Before the current agriculture project was launched, we conducted infrastructure business in Brazil. Recently, we are trying to expand our EWS business for slope disaster prevention in Brazil.
Could you tell us about your main motivation to continue and expand your overseas operations?
I became the president of this company last year and I entered this company in 1982, but even at that time our operations overseas had already started. Having overseas operations during that time was a highly rare thing, especially for Japanese corporations. I do remember feeling very proud, and I still have the desire to expand our company overseas.
Building infrastructure in Japan was done at a truly mighty speed. During that phase, we as a company contributed a lot, but nowadays, we are facing the issue of aging infrastructure. Plus in Japan, there is a large amount of yearly rainfall and frequent earthquakes. Moreover, when we look at the whole of Japan, a lot of important infrastructures are located on flat land which is limited. To sum up, it is true that Japan is a very disaster-prone country. Especially in the past decade, there have been many natural disasters that have resulted in the loss of precious lives and valuable property.
Situations like this make us reflect, and I want to utilize the technology we have accumulated here at Chuo Kaihatsu and deliver that abroad internationally. Of course, the United Nations Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG) and our contributions to that are a key responsibility for us. We know that the Japanese government has a strong policy right now to export Japanese infrastructure overseas. However, the big portion is creating things; monozukuri. On the other hand, Chuo Kaihatsu has technology before that monozukuri. This will be the design, surveys and maintenance technologies. Also, we have various maintenance and management technologies that we have accumulated within the past 76 years. Our wish is for us to be able to contribute overseas, by putting together a set, consisting of our infrastructure and our technology. As you mentioned, we do have our local corporations in China and in Brazil. So I hope that this can be a starting point for us to contribute overseas and activate the local regions.
In a previous interview with the Chairman, Mr. Ichiro Seko mentioned that the prioritizing of public and private partnerships was a big goal for the next four to five years. How has that gone since our last interview with Mr. Seko?
You mentioned Public and Private Partnerships (PPP), but I would say right now, we are doing a lot of trials in Brazil in order to directly approach the private sector. I think our focus is mainly on the expansion of our disaster prevention monitoring technology. Brazil, as with Japan, is another disaster-prone country. In 2019, the tailing dam of a mining company collapsed suddenly. It was a huge disaster in Brazil. Thus, we want to directly approach the private sector in order to secure their safety. With our EWS, we would like to monitor such dangerous tailing dams.
When we spoke last time, the international market only made up 5% of your sales. I’m curious to know how much has progressed since then, and what countries are you targeting now as part of your Latin America strategy?
Unfortunately, our sales have not progressed so much. With such strong international competition going on, it is quite difficult. From our perspective we would like to establish sites in Southeast Asia. There are ongoing issues with soil and underground water contamination in Japan. It's due to the wastewater coming out from plants and factories. Chuo Kaihatsu has the technology to tackle these issues, and we foresee this as an upcoming problem in Southeast Asia as well.
Another thing is that we are supporting activities so that unique goods from Shizuoka and Ibaraki prefecture can be sold in Brazil. By doing this I can activate the dwindling Japanese agriculture. I’m really thankful for the opportunity to do this and I’m sure that Shizuoka tea will be a best seller in Rio de Janeiro.
Could you tell us more about the Tokyo Bay Aqua Line project that your company was involved with?
When we did the geological survey for constructing the road to go across Tokyo Bay, we proposed our unique and original technology of the "KEIDO-JIZAI" Marine Drilling Method, but it was not adopted. The reason was that there were so many navigating vessels going through Tokyo Bay. The anchors got in the way. Therefore, we gave a proposal, but the conditions weren’t right. In the end we created a 40m tower to do the survey. In those days we couldn’t do such a large depth boring, as a result, other competitors had to build such towers as well. What surprised me the most about that project was that it was an underwater tunnel with very soft seabed ground. It became essential to anchor the tunnel in the buoyant seabed. In fact, that project came about right after I joined the company, so it feels very nostalgic. These large-depth drilling methods are still being applied today in areas where the depth is 40-50 meters.
Finally, imagine that we come back here for an interview four years from now, what objectives would you like to have achieved by then?
In four years time, I do believe that we will have much bigger numbers of employees in the company creating a much more active and lively company for us all. Simple I know, but I think that sums it up nicely.