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2010 Structures Congress © 2010 ASCE


Comparison of US and Japanese Codes and Practices for Seismically Isolated Buildings

T. C. Becker 1 , S. Furukawa 2 , S. A. Mahin 1 and M. Nakashima 2

1 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California Berkeley, 750 Davis Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720 2 Disaster Prevention Research Institute, Kyoto University, Gokasho, Uji, Kyoto, 611- 0011, Japan


The number of base isolated building in Asian countries, especially Japan, far outstrips the number in the United States. Base isolated buildings in Japan number in the thousands while the number in the U.S. remains around one hundred. Unlike its use in Japan, isolation technology in the U.S. has remained within mainly essential, public buildings such as hospitals, city halls or 911 centers. The technology has not spread to use in typical office or residential buildings, which may also see increased safety and performance benefits. This paper compares the codes and practices for designing seismically isolated buildings in the U.S. and Japan. The design spectra are developed for buildings of the same occupancy rating located in comparable seismic regions in both countries. The design process is discussed from determining the ground motion demands through peer review and isolation device testing. Special attention is made to the code design methods for isolated building in the two countries with focus on the displacement demands for isolation devices. A comparison of the displacement demands for a three-story office building is made.


Use of isolation in the United States has been seriously limited for a number of reasons. One of the main limiting factors is extra complexity in the design code for isolated buildings resulting in both time and cost spent on a project. Thus, the majority of isolation use is in hospitals, historical retrofits, or high tech facilities (Higashino and Okamoto, 2006). Contrastingly, Japan has a streamlined process, which facilitates the design of isolated buildings. For this reason seismic isolation has flourished in Japan. In fact, over half of isolated buildings today are apartment or office buildings (Pan et. al. 2005). Ease of design should be encouraged in the U.S., as the benefits of seismic isolation as a protective system are well known and the proliferation of isolation has the potential to greatly improve the safety of the public in an earthquake. As a method of evaluating the U.S. design process, we can compare it to that of Japan. The main aspects of the design process evaluated are: demand requirements,

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analysis procedure, peer review and isolation device approval. For both Japan and the U.S. the superstructure forces are based on an approximately 500-year earthquake. However, the isolator displacement is designed for a 500-year event in Japan and a 2500-year event in the U.S. Both countries require nonlinear time history analysis. However, the countries differ in their method for selecting design earthquake records and their method of modeling in the building for analysis. A government mandated committee in Japan oversees the peer review process whereas, in the U.S. the process and review members changes for each project. Lastly, Japan isolation device manufactures provide designers with pre-approved device catalogues. In the U.S. the owner must pay for testing of the devices to be used in the project, and the designer must specify the device testing. By adopting some of the practices used in Japan, the use of isolation in the U.S. could be increased.


The U.S. codes limits are based on what are called the maximum considered earthquake (MCE) and the design basis earthquake (DBE). The MCE is defined as an earthquake of 2% probability in 50 years. This is a 2500-year return period. The DBE is defined as 2/3 of the MCE (ACSE, 2006). In earthquake prone regions such as the west coast, the DBE has approximately 10% probability of occurring in 50 years. This is a 475-year return period. In the U.S., the superstructure must remain elastic for the DBE while the isolators must accommodate the MCE displacement. In Japan designs are based off of Level 1 and Level 2 earthquakes. A Level 1 earthquake has a peak ground velocity (PGV) of 25 cm/s. A Level 2 earthquake has a PGV of 50 cm/s. The Level 1 earthquake is a service level event, for which the superstructure must remain elastic. The Level 2 earthquake has a return period of approximately 500 years and is comparable to the U.S. DBE. At this level, a small level of yielding in the superstructure is acepted. There is no official MCE level event in Japanese codes. A Level 3 event is used to check for collapse safety at the discretion of the owners and designers. In this case, a 50% increase in Level 2 motion is often used (Pan et. al., 2005). The isolator displacement capacity is based off of the Level 2 displacement.

Response Spectrum. The design spectra for the U.S and Japan differ in how they change with location. In constructing a U.S. design spectrum the spectral acceleration at periods of 0.2s and 1s are found for and earthquake with a probability of 2% in 50 years based on the latitude and longitude of the location. These values are known as S S and S 1 and can be used to describe the bedrock spectra for the MCE. These are found on the USGS earthquake hazards website (USGS 2009). Thus, locations within the same city may have different design spectra, altering in both amplitude and corner period, the period at which the design acceleration begins to decrease inversely with period.

Although latitude and longitude specific data is available for Japan (NIED, 2006), the design spectrum for Japan has a constant backbone for the entire country. Additionally, the design spectrum is created directly for a Level 2 earthquake. Minor amplification change is due to the seismic hazard zone factor (Z), which can decrease

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the amplitude of the spectrum. Z is taken as 1.0 for the majority of the country. The lowest value of Z is 0.7 for the island of Okinawa. (Higashino and Okamoto, 2006). For the bedrock spectrum, there is no change in corner period for the country. The adjustment for site classification has a similar result in both U.S. and Japanese design spectra. Softer soils result in an increase in both amplitude and corner period in the acceleration spectra. Where the U.S. has site classes A-F, Japan has site classes 1-4. Site classes 1 through 3 correspond to rock, stiff soil and soft soil respectively. Japanese site class 4, similar to U.S. site class F, requires site-specific investigation. To alter the Japanese design spectrum for the site class the acceleration spectrum values are multiplied by Gs, a function of the period. Gs is constant for all soil types at small periods and larger for softer soils and larger periods (Higashino and Okamoto, 2006). Adjustment for site classification in the U.S. code is done using the F a and F v values. These values are based on S S and S 1 respectively as well as the site class. F a and F v are multiplied to S S and S 1 to find get S MS and S DS , the surface spectral accelerations at periods of 0.2 s and 1.0 s for the maximum considered earthquake (ASCE, 2006). Damping is considered similarly in both codes. The Japanese code multiplies the spectrum by a value F h a function based on the effective viscous and hysteretic damping (Higashino and Okamoto, 2006). The U.S. code divides by a damping coefficient B D , which is based on total effective damping. There is a larger decrease in the Japanese spectra. An increase in hysteretic damping from 5% to 20% decreases the Japanese spectrum by 42% as opposed to 33% in the U.S. spectrum. The damping value is caped by 30% critical in the U.S. code (ASCE, 2006). A comparison of the U.S. and Japanese design spectra is shown in Figure 1. The U.S. site selected for comparison is the site selected for the NEES Tools in Isolation and Protective Systems (TIPS) theme building (Morgan, 2008). The building is located in Los Angeles, CA. The parameters used for in constructing the design spectra are given in Table1.

Table 1. Parameters for the code design spectra for Los Angeles, CA DBE and Japan Level 2 earthquake.



Los Angeles, CA




Importance factor Site class



Seismic hazard zone factor (Z)



2% in 50 yrs SA at T=0.2s (S s )






2% in 50 yrs SA at T=1s (S 1 ) Site coefficient F a



Site coefficient F v



The spectra show that the design acceleration is higher for the Los Angeles, CA spectra than the Japanese spectra for the short period and vice versa for the long period. The larger amplification of design acceleration in the Japanese spectra may be a response from the Kobe earthquake in which building at the same epicentral distance experienced very different acceleration. The Kobe earthquake was the impetus to including site classifications in the design code (Pan et. al. 2005).

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Since building isolation systems have large periods, the design displacement for isolation systems for the 475 year (or 500 year in Japan) return period is greater in Japan. However, after the reduction due to higher damping is included, the difference between long period portions of the spectra is decreased. Thus, the isolated building demands are similar.

1.6 Japan 5% damping 1.4 Los Angeles, CA 5% dmaping Japan 20% dmaping Los Angeles, CA
Japan 5% damping
Los Angeles, CA 5% dmaping
Japan 20% dmaping
Los Angeles, CA 20% dmaping
Period (s)

Figure 1. Los Angeles, CA DBE and Japan Level 2 code design spectra for 5% and 20% damped systems.

Design ground motions.

In both the U.S. and Japan, nonlinear analysis is still

used for the majority of isolated building design. The nonlinear design guidelines for isolated buildings from Japan were adapted from guidelines originally implemented in the 1970’s for buildings greater than 60 meters in height. All isolated buildings and tall buildings in Japan are always subjected to the same three earthquakes or the “golden set.” These earthquakes are El Centro NS 1940, Taft EW 1952 and Hachinohe EW 1968. The Hachinohe record is well known for its long period peak response. The records used have been scaled to a PGV of 0.5 m/s. The acceleration response spectra are shown in Figure 2. As seen in Figure 2, the standard ground motions used in Japan fall below the design spectra. In addition to the standard ground motions, a suite of three regionally specific motions is developed (Pan et. al., 2005). These earthquakes must match the site design spectrum. This set generally includes the JMA Kobe record. The maximum response values from all input earthquakes are used as design values for the project. In the U.S., a geotechnical engineer is hired for each project to develop a suite of site-specific ground motions for use in the analysis. The ground motions must reflect the fault characteristics for the maximum considered earthquake at that location (ASCE, 2006). The geotechnical peer review must then review and approve the ground motions. The U.S. uses the average response from seven ground motions or the maximum response from three ground motions for design values. Many projects use greater than seven ground motions. The average of the square root of the

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sum of the squares of the components of each of the ground motions selected for a project in the U.S. must not fall below 1.3 times the design spectrum by more than 10% (ASCE, 2006).

2010 Structures Congress © 2010 ASCE 2334 sum of the squares of the components of each

Figure 2. Japan Level 2 design spectra and acceleration response spectra for El Centro, Taft and Hachinohe for 5% and 20% damped systems.

Design Displacement.

The U.S. code requires the isolator displacement

capacity to be designed for the MCE. Conversely, the Japan code leaves the Level 3

criteria up to the owner and designer, thus the isolator displacement can be designed for the Level 2 displacement with a safety factor. Using the NEES TIPS theme building isolation characteristics (Morgan, 2008), we can compare the necessary isolation capacity corresponding to the Japanese and U.S. design spectra. The theme building is a three-story office-building intended for normal use; information is shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Design displacement for Los Angeles, CA and Japan using NEES TIPS theme building isolation properties.


Isolation Properties

DBE / Level 2

MCE / Level 3

Effective period

2.77 s

3.07 s

Effective damping






24.3 in

Los Angles, CA code disp Japan code disp




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The Japanese code requires a higher displacement for the DBE/Level 2 displacement. However, as the required isolator capacity is based on the MCE earthquake in the U.S., the capacity required for U.S. isolators is a little under twice that of the Japanese isolators for the same building.


Nonlinear, dynamic analysis is still the predominant form of analysis used in designing isolated buildings. However, the Japanese and U.S. procedures for nonlinear analysis vary greatly. In Japan, buildings are modeled in one dimension for non-linear analysis. Masses are lumped at the floor levels. The design shear force for each story is determined, and a push-over analysis is conducted using external lateral forces given by design shear force to get the backbone curves. These backbone curves are used in the non-linear analysis to represent the story stiffnesses (Higashino and Okamoto, 2004). In the U.S, dynamic analysis requires a full three-dimensional model. Each floor must include a minimum of three degrees of freedom: two horizontal and one torsional about the vertical axis. Superstructure elements may be modeled linear elastically provided that the superstructure lateral force resisting system remains elastic for the DBE. Nonlinear modeling of the isolators is necessary. Both components of a ground motion must be applied simultaneously to the model, and accidental torsion is accounted for the mass offsets at each floor diaphragm (ASCE,



In the U.S. and Japan mostly all isolated building are peer reviewed. One of the main reasons structural isolation has flourished in Japan is that there was already a streamlined peer review process for isolated buildings before the Kobe earthquake catalyst occurred (Clark et. al., 1999). The same review guidelines that have existed since the 1970’s for tall buildings. Unlike in the U.S. where the peer review process varies from project to project and can take anywhere from 3 months to over a year, the Japan process is standardized and typically takes on the order of one or two months.

In 2000, with Notification No. 2009 from the Ministry of Construction, Japan enforced a design code for isolated building in which an equivalent linear method (based on the capacity spectra design methodology) was adopted. Linear design was made applicable for isolated buildings that are not greater than 60 m and are constructed on firm soil with no possibility of liquefaction (Otani and Kani,

2004). At the time of this enforcement, no peer-review was required if the code was


However, a serious 2005 scandal occurred involving serious deception of

seismic design, and a new peer check system was introduced, intending to avoid such deception. This peer check differs from the long-standing peer review process for isolated buildings designed with nonlinear analysis. The reviewers tend not to be familiar with design of isolated buildings and thus the process becomes burdensome

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and prolonged.

For these reasons, Japanese designers opt for the nonlinear analysis

route where the peer review is well defined and run by field experts (Nakashima,


Peer reviewers.

The Building Center of Japan organizes the review committee

for isolated buildings. The designers give a presentation to the committee and respond to initial questions. Afterwards two members of the review board are assigned to thoroughly review the project. The reviewers will meet with the designers one to three times over the course of the review. The reviewers report back to the committee, which ultimately approves the design (Pan et. al. 2005). In the U.S. the peer review teams are different for each building. The owner or jurisdiction chooses the teams, often from a list provided by the designer, the building authority or a local engineers association (Larsen, 2008). Typically there are three members of the peer review team: a structural engineer, an expert on ground motions and an expert in seismic isolation (Naeim and Kelly, 1999).

Scope. In the U.S. there are disagreements about the scope of the peer review and what authority the reviewers have. The code requires review of earthquake ground motions, design and maximum displacements, final design of the entire structural system and prototype and qualification testing for the isolation devices. However, the code specifically says that the review is not limited to these topics (ASCE, 2006). As the same committee reviews all isolated buildings in Japan, the scope of the review remains constant. Adopting a process similar the Japanese peer review would greatly cut down on time and money in the design and review process.


A large difference between Japanese and America isolation design is in the technology used. Japan relies, almost entirely, on rubber bearings, sometimes with the additional use of flat sliders. Rubber bearings include natural rubber bearings, high damping rubber bearings and lead core rubber bearings. Japanese engineers often opt for natural rubber bearings in order to have the ability to select the isolation period and damping ratio independently. In the U.S. both rubber and friction pendulum bearings are used, and both systems competitively bid on projects. Japanese designers appear to be interested in the use of friction pendulum bearings; however, this technology has not been used in any peer-reviewed building.

Device Approval.

In Japan each bearing manufacturing company has a catalogue

of pre-approved devices. The devices go through an accreditation process run by the same committee that reviews the design process. Manufactures submit the data required for accreditation. A minimum of three specimens of a device type must be tested. Full-scale results are required for design level properties. Reduced-scale results are accepted for limit state properties. The dependence of isolator properties on age, compressive force, temperature, velocity, and number of cycles must be provided (Pan et. al. 2005).

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In the U.S. isolation devices are approved for use on a case-by-case basis. The designer specifies testing procedures for the isolation bearings per the design code and the owner pays for these tests. Testing includes prototype testing and quality control testing. The peer review team reviews the testing procedures. They are also responsible for observing the prototype testing. Prototype testing, which is similar to the Japanese accreditation process, is required of two of each bearing type. The code specifies a loading history based on the DBE and MCE displacements of the isolated building. Additionally, static vertical load tests are done with bearing at the maximum displacement. If the behavior of the isolation device is dependent on the loading rate then tests must be run at the DBE effective frequency. Reduced-scale results are accepted for loading rate dependence. The availability of catalogues of pre-approved devices would cut down on prototype testing costs as well as peer review cost. The quality control testing program applies to all isolation devices going into the building. In general, the designer specifies the number of cycles and the displacement for the devices to be tested. The axial load under which the tests are preformed is also specified. The designer may stipulate acceptable ranges for the devices properties. These ranges may apply to either individual devices or the average of the entire set of devices for the project.


There are many topics on which U.S. and Japan isolation design differ. As shown, the same building may require the isolators to have twice the capacity is it is located in the U.S. compared to being located in Japan. Japanese design for isolated buildings is faster and less expensive then U.S. design for many reasons including but not limited to: standardized ground motions, 1D nonlinear analysis, streamlined peer- review and pre-approved isolation devices. Furthermore, culture has a large affect on both the design philosophies and client requests in each country. However, by understanding how design practices vary and the pros and cons of each side, we can improve overall practice and increase the use of isolation as a protective system in buildings in the United States.


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Structures, Reston: American Society of Civil Engineers. Clark, P.W., Aiken, I.D., Nakashima, M., Miyazaki, M. and Midorikawa, M. (1999). “The 1995 Kobe (Hyogo-ken Nanbu) earthquake as a trigger for


new seismic design technologies in Japan.” Lessons Learned

Over Time, Learning From Earthquakes, Volume III, EERI. Higashino, M. and Okamoto, S. (eds) (2006). Response control and seismic isolation of buildings, Taylor & Francis, New York. Larsen, D. (2008). “A study on the design review process for seismic isolated structures.” Masters Thesis, Department of Civil Engineering, Utah State University, Logan, UT.

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Morgan, T.A. (2008). “Summary of design basis for 3-story NEES-TIPS model buildings.” NEES Tips, <> (Jan. 18, 2010). Naeim, F. and Kelly J. M. (1999). Design of seismic isolated structures, Wiley, New York. Nakashima, M. (2009). Personal communication. Professor at the Disaster Prevention Research Institute, Kyoto University. National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention. (2005). Japan seismic hazard information station. < shis/index_en.html> (Jan. 18, 2010). Otani, S. and Kani, N. (2002). “Japanese state of practice in design of seismically isolated buildings.” 4 th US-Japan workshop on performance-based earthquake engineering methodology for reinforced concrete building structures, Toba, Japan. Pan, P., Zamfirescu, D., Nakashima, M., Nakayasu, N. and Kashiwa, H. (2005). “Base-isolation design practice in Japan: Introduction to the post-Kobe approach,” Journal of Earthquake Engineering, 9(1), 147:171. United States Geological Survey. (2009). “Seismic design for engineers.” Hazards, <> (Jan. 18,