Preparing for Disaster a Part of Japanese Life

Richard Medhurst [Profile]

[2015.11.14] Read in: 简体字 | 繁體字 | ESPAÑOL | العربية | Русский |

The Japanese word bōsai is broad in meaning, covering how to prepare for disasters and how to react when they take place. Children start learning about the topic from an early age in Japan. This education is bolstered by regular public awareness campaigns and drills, particularly around September 1, the anniversary of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, which devastated Tokyo and killed more than 100,000. As part of efforts to increase disaster preparedness, the Tokyo government has released a new bōsai handbook for residents and workers in the metropolis.

Products for Emergencies

Specialized bōsai goods for mitigating the effects of disasters are commonly available in stores, some of which have whole sections devoted to these products. Many of these goods are emergency supplies, including long-life bottled water and various kinds of food, such as hardtack kanpan biscuits, canned bread, and self-heating meals. There are also roll-up and inflatable bedding, heat-reflective “space blankets” for keeping warm, and toiletries for coping when there is no running water.

A store display encouraging customers to buy bōsai goods.

Falling furniture is a major cause of death or injury during earthquakes, and there are bōsai items to keep it in place. Double-sided sticky pads keep televisions attached to their stands, while brackets and straps prevent cabinets and other larger furniture from toppling over. Helmets or hoods can also protect against smaller falling debris from buildings, such as roof tiles and broken glass, as people evacuate to the nearest shelter.

A crank-generator radio/flashlight.

Among the more innovative items on sale are radios incorporating flashlights that have built-in crank generators to charge the batteries. Some of the latest models can also be used to charge smartphones, although it takes several minutes of winding to get just a few percent of battery life. Another ingenious product when power sources are limited is the LED lantern that runs on saltwater and stays lit for eight hours before the water needs to be replaced.

Practical Tips

In September 2015, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government began distributing a new disaster preparation handbook called Tokyo Bōsai. Its stylish design drew media attention for presenting a contrast to the earnest but functional approach typical of bōsai information sharing by local authorities. It features first-hand accounts by disaster survivors, a vivid manga depiction of an imaginary earthquake in Tokyo, and a mascot rhino—sai in Japanese, punning on the second character in bōsai.

The practicality of the new handbook may be its most significant aspect. For example, rather than buying the special varieties of food sold as bōsai goods, it suggests residents should buy more everyday products to ensure they have an ongoing stockpile. By encouraging citizens to simply keep their cupboards full, the government hopes to avoid the impression that preparing for disaster is particularly difficult and help people integrate it more easily into daily life.

Tokyo Bōsai handbook

In a similar vein, the handbook has a number of tips on using common items to substitute for goods that are unavailable. Newspapers can be wrapped around or under clothes as an insulating layer in cold weather, plastic wrap can help keep a splint in place, and plastic bottles can be transformed into cups or plates. The guide also suggests wrapping shoes in plastic bags and tying them to boards with string to protect feet from injury when walking through rubble or broken glass.

The bōsai park initiative described in the handbook demonstrates how preparing for disaster is built into the city’s infrastructure. In these special parks, there are manholes located directly above sewers; following a disaster the covers can be replaced with simple toilets and tents for privacy. Benches can also be converted into cooking stoves by removing seating, and the parks are outfitted with solar-powered lights and manual water pumps in case basic services are cut off.

Preparation Increases Survival Odds

Tokyo Bōsai begins with the statement that there is a 70% possibility of an earthquake hitting Tokyo directly within the next 30 years. While it is difficult to make precise predictions about natural disasters, deadly earthquakes in 1995 in Kobe and 2011 in Tōhoku have spurred efforts to increase general bōsai knowledge.

Although luck plays a part, being prepared can increase someone’s chances of survival or decrease hardship in the wake of a disaster. The Tokyo handbook lists the following as items that disaster survivors found valuable:

  • Water
  • Portable gas cooking stove and canisters
  • Nonprescription medications
  • Emergency toilet
  • Flashlight
  • Batteries
  • Radio (rechargeable or otherwise)
  • Plastic bags
  • Plastic wrap

The English translation provides useful information, the majority of which is also applicable outside Tokyo. If you’re in Japan—or any place where natural disasters post a threat—it’s worth checking out at the link below.

English translation of the Tokyo Bōsai handbook. (PDF)

  • [2015.11.14]

Translator and editor, Received a master’s degree in modern and contemporary poetry from the University of Bristol in 2002. First came to Japan in the same year and taught English for three years in Chiba Prefecture. He has also lived in China and Korea. Worked in Imizu City Hall in Toyama Prefecture for five years until 2013, when he moved to Tokyo and started full-time translation. Joined in 2014.

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