The Fear Factor: Advice from an Earthquake

Politics Disaster

Japan was hit by one disaster after another in 2018, a year notable for its typhoons, flooding, and major earthquakes in northern Osaka Prefecture and Hokkaido’s eastern Iburi region. In the Kansai area, flooding and landslides caused by torrential rains resulted in significant numbers of casualties. In Seiyo, Ehime Prefecture, five people died when a dam’s floodgates were opened to release rising waters due to rain—a decision decried as a manmade calamity because local residents were only given a five-minute warning, hardly enough time to evacuate.

 The typhoons that roared through the Japanese islands this past year brought with them strong winds and high waves. Videos show cars turning over and roofs being ripped off and sent spinning through the air. Natural disasters in Japan are intensifying in scale and scope of destruction, striking fear into everyone here.

Massive Shaking and Stuck Doors

For me, earthquakes are still the most terrifying of any natural disaster. I was in Nada Ward, Kobe, in the early morning of January 17, 1995, when the Great Hanshin earthquake struck. I honestly thought I would die.

I was sleeping in my sixth-floor condominium home when a light tremor caused me to sit up. It was 5:46 am. I have never liked earthquakes and the shaking woke me up immediately. Just when I thought the side-to-side swaying was going to stop, a sudden, incredibly massive jolt pinned me to my bed. Loud crashing noises engulfed the room as furniture toppled and dishes broke. All I could do was yell.

Getting out was total confusion. I rushed with my wife, who was carrying our daughter on her back, to our apartment entrance but couldn’t get the door open. It wouldn’t budge even when I slammed against it with all my might. The quake had warped the whole building and the door was stuck in its frame. I remember thinking, “If a fire breaks out, we’ll burn to death.”

Balconies in Japanese condominiums have emergency escape hatches and ladders. The shaking was still going on, though, and I did not have the courage to try escaping this way down six floors with my wife and daughter in tow. It would only take one big shake to throw us out into the void. I stood frozen at our apartment entrance, not knowing what to do.

Then I remembered that the window above the kitchen sink opened out onto the outside passageway. I kicked out the steel grill covering the window and we managed to crawl out, only to gasp in amazement at what we saw below us. It was like something straight out of a war movie. Nearly all of the wooden houses in the neighborhood were flattened. Plumes of black smoke rose from the wreckage, highlighted by flying sparks. The sight of what had been a thriving town totally destroyed in a matter of minutes left us in a daze. With a maximum intensity of 7 on the JMA Seismic Intensity Scale, the quake was an incredible release of energy.

Tales of the Great Kantō Earthquake

It’s my grandmother’s fault that I have such a deep fear of earthquakes. She was born in 1903 and lived with us when I was a child. She told me repeatedly about her experiences in the Fukagawa district (now part of Kōtō) of downtown Tokyo when the Great Kantō Earthquake struck on September 1, 1923.

Most of her stories were about the fires that broke out right after the earthquake. It struck around noon, when people were cooking in their homes. The kitchen fires spread quickly through the downtown shitamachi area leaving devastation behind. My grandmother remembered seeing roof tiles and sheets of galvanized roofing thrown up into the air by the whirlwinds generated by the hot flames. She told me—over and over again—about the fire that broke out at the Army Ministry’s factory where military food rations and horse feed were made, and how she heard cans of beef exploding with the heat.

Only 20 years old at the time, my grandmother saw much tragedy on that day. I think she may have embellished her stories somewhat as she saw my horrified reaction, but regardless, she certainly imprinted my child’s mind with the fact that earthquakes are terrible, and fires are frightening.

Because of this, I habitually avoid having any furniture in my bedroom. Thanks to that no one was hurt when the Hanshin earthquake toppled the heavy, 180-centimeter-tall wardrobe in the room next to our bedroom. It is also thanks to my grandmother that I was on the lookout for fires when we rushed to escape our condo.

Earthquakes Are a Part of Life in Japan

Before the Hanshin earthquake, my wife used to laugh at my quake phobia, and friends taunted me for my baseless fear. Earthquakes, they assured me, don’t happen in the Kansai region. As it turned out, I had the great misfortune to relive my grandmother’s experience.

For those of us born in Japan, earthquakes are a normal part of life. I am resigned to the likelihood that I will experience at least one more major earthquake in my lifetime. As a bona fide seismophobe, I would like to take this opportunity to advise my readers on the precautions they should take for the next big one.

First, before an earthquake occurs, make sure to check that your home is quakeproof and secure any furniture that may topple over. Of the roughly 105,000 people who were killed or missing and presumed dead after the Great Kantō Earthquake, 80% died in the fires that followed the quake. In contrast, 90% of the 6,434 people who died in the Hanshin earthquake were crushed in collapsed structures. The significant decrease in deaths from fire can be attributed to the improved fire-resistant building standards implemented over the 72 years between the two disasters.

Today, protecting yourself from the first jolt is more of a life-and-death matter than the fires sparked by an earthquake. My current home in the Tokyo metropolitan area was built after the Hanshin earthquake and conforms to the earthquake-proofing building codes implemented after that disaster. All our furniture is fixed in place. If you are going to live in a rental, you will feel more secure if you choose a place that was built after 1981, when a major revision to the Building Standards Act strengthened seismic readiness requirements.

I recommend keeping enough water on hand for two to three days after an earthquake. My grandmother didn’t mention problems with water in her stories, but the Sumida River in the old Fukagawa area was probably still clean enough that you could drink the river water if you boiled it first. In today’s Japanese cities, once the water mains shut down you won’t have any water to drink or even to wash your hands. And you won’t be able to flush the toilet. Water was the biggest problem for me after the Hanshin earthquake.

Even after an earthquake you are going to get hungry, so you need to have food on hand too. The canned emergency biscuits known as kanpan, however, are not very appetizing. A disaster such as an earthquake strikes suddenly, sundering our normal daily lives. Whatever you have been eating up to that moment, you are not going to be able to suddenly switch to unfamiliar canned biscuits. I think it is much better to stock up on the kinds of foods that you would normally eat.

In this regard, I remember my own experience at the Kobe Chinese School which had been converted into a shelter after the Hanshin earthquake. A large wok was set on an open fire in the school yard and Chinese cooks from Nankin-machi, Kobe’s Chinatown, prepared stir-fried food and hot soup for the people who had evacuated to the school. The ingredients were provided by local Chinese restaurants. If you’ve got the ingredients, all you need to prepare Chinese food is heat, oil, and a wok. I was full of admiration for their resourcefulness. I learned later that people at other shelters lived for the most part on packaged sweet breads.

Obsolete Equipment Can Be a Lifesaver

One more thing you should have ready in case of a disaster is money. I suggest having ¥50,000 to ¥100,000 in cash on hand at all times. Even after an earthquake, in the cities there will be convenience stores and shops stocked with merchandise. If the electricity is cut off, you can’t use credit cards, but with cash you can still buy what you need. Japan, like China, may be moving towards a cashless society, but physical money should not be made obsolete.

Another thing that society should not let go of is the public telephone. I know this from my own experience. Most of the public phones in Kobe were still working even after the Hanshin earthquake. More recently, when there was a major blackout across Japan’s northernmost main island following the Hokkaidō Eastern Iburi earthquake last year, the public phones still worked. Smartphones have to be charged, but to use a public phone all you need is a ¥10 coin. Public phones are fast disappearing in Japan’s urban centers, but a certain number at least should be retained.

At the time of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, I was in Tokyo. Just about all public transportation had been paralyzed by the disaster and people were unable to go home. Yet in the middle of all that, I remember seeing the Toden Arakawa Line, the one and only tram line left in the city, still operating. Seemingly obsolete, old-fashioned equipment and devices can be real lifesavers in the middle of a disaster. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say so, but major earthquakes do force us to rethink the state-of-the art technology that we value so highly.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: In an event to commemorate the installation of a new public phone, a local resident demonstrates how to make an emergency call. Taken on January 8, 2016, in Tahara, Aichi Prefecture. © Jiji.)

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