Photo/IllutrationThe site of a motorway bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy, in mid-August (Naoki Tsuzaka)

Concrete has a surprisingly old history. The Roman Empire erected aqueducts, roads, temples and other structures, employing its own concrete-making technology.

The Roman Pantheon, with its domed rotunda, which still stands today, was built in the early second century when Japan was still in the Yayoi Period.

Infrastructure construction went on for about 200 years in the Roman Empire, but it gradually became a burden as the structures became decrepit with age. According to "Konkurito no Bunmeishi" (Cultural history of concrete) by Kazusuke Kobayashi (1929-2009), even the famed Roman aqueducts began to leak badly.

Is the degeneration of infrastructure a problem in all ages?

A motorway bridge collapsed suddenly on Aug. 14 in Genoa, Italy, killing more than 40 people. Built in 1967, the bridge was said to have been developing visible cracks for some time, accompanied by chunks of concrete becoming loose and dislodged.

"I felt myself falling together with the bridge, like in an apocalyptic movie," said a driver who miraculously survived.

Was this terrible tragedy caused by inadequate repairs, or was the bridge's design itself to blame? The disaster has attracted global attention because it could happen in any country.

Japan's economy was booming in the 1960s, and the nation was aggressively building up its infrastructure. Is Japan today able to check its aging roads, bridges and buildings, and appropriate the budgets needed for repairs?

The nation now needs to make a major change of course, from "creating" to "correcting."

Some historians point out that the degeneration of infrastructure over time was one of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire, its strength sapped by bloating repair costs.

Our concrete-clad society of today is also being challenged in the same way.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 21

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.