Japan's Earthquake Preparedness - Commentary

by Paul Abramson, May 1997

Basic $5/500 yen earthquake prep kit

A couple of months after Kobe's big earthquake in January of 1995 I interviewed one of Tokyo's regional Disaster Planning Managers. His intent was reassurance, but after much discussion and a tour of area facilities I left the meeting feeling much more frightened about Tokyo's safety in the event of a major quake.

[Most articles on this web page <http://www.paulzilla.org/japanese/> were written from 1991-95. But I'm writing this one in reflection, from the US, in May of 1997.] I enjoy documentaries and highly respect the PBS NOVA series, but I strongly disagree with the recently televised NOVA special, "The Day the Earth Shook" (and similar soothing reassurances regarding Japan's earthquake preparedness). My knowledge of the situation there leads me to distrust the nifty little models and detailed maps. Japanese government bureaucrats have done less to prepare than they have to calm fears - and there is a big difference!

While living in Tokyo during the early 1990's I edited a few books related to education, wrote a wide variety of magazine articles, and also participated for two years as a volunteer writer for a community newsletter put out by the local government where I lived. It was published monthly and sometimes allowed me additional access to some (otherwise invisible to foreigners) government institutions and Japanese organizations in the Tokyo area.

About 250,000 people lived within this "community" within Tokyo's 12+ million people. The Disaster Planning Chief whom I interviewed for the local government newsletter had a staff of 11, was highly respected, sat near a wall laden with advanced communications gear, and claimed that they'd learned a lot from the Kobe Quake which would make Tokyo even safer in the future.

My two Japanese colleagues deferred to the point of reverence. I sat politely and sipped green tea while the government official gave his informal presentation about all their planning and why we should report that Tokyoites need not be concerned. After all, no one expected a major earthquake in Kobe, but the Tokyo area is much better prepared. He pulled out maps and charts showing 30 evacuation points within his area of responsibility.

Every few months at any time day or night Tokyo residents feel a tremor. It's most pronounced when it happens at night. I got used to it. The sensation and the initial sound would wake me up. Even if I just laid still and went right back to sleep afterwards it was still spooky. There is an initial "creak" or rushing sound sweeping over the neighborhood. It sounds kind of like a rolling gust of wind. I believe that it comes from structural shifting as every foundation begins its first movement. As the successive rocking builds up during the course of several seconds several things leap to mind: is the gas off; am I safe here; what's above me; is this just another minor one, or not...? Everything is moving. Nothing is stable. There was no prior warning.

In Kobe there were shortages of food, water, and medical supplies for several days while lack of government coordination and uncontrolled fires ravaged city neighborhoods. Compounding the crisis situation tourists drove in to take pictures - blocking trucks and emergency vehicles which were trying to get through on the remaining thoroughfares which often lacked traffic signals, dodging fallen debris the whole way. People in wheelchairs were slowly making their way down roadsides and live survivors under rubble were screaming to be dug out while uncoordinated Japanese military forces milled around nearby - it was inappropriate for camera toting tourists to be filling the incoming roads, making a day of it.

Kobe's food shortages were unnecessary. In Tokyo alone there were literally millions of people willing to help - if they'd only been asked. Instead you had an instant proliferation of people outside of every train station with homemade signs and boxes asking for donations to help the Kobe survivors. People gave generously to the men and women working the masses of daily commuters. The boxes and signs looked more official with each passing day. TV celebrities chimed in of course, making an example of putting big bills into such boxes.

I was very quick to tell Japanese friends that my solution would have been entirely different. "Hello Yamato, can you have 50 delivery trucks ready to load up this evening and leave Tokyo at 12AM tonight?" "Hi 7-11, can you provide 70 trucks to carry bentoos to Kobe, loaded and leaving Tokyo at 1AM?" "Lawson, we need 40 trucks, leaving at 2AM", etc. On the news request that people make either 1 or 2 cold bentoos (box lunches) and bring them to the volunteer delivery trucks parked next to their neighborhood train station by 10PM that night. Simple, direct & cost effective; I am positive that the Japanese people would have made way, way too many box lunches on the first night especially.

I was living in Portland, Oregon when San Francisco had its devastating quake in 1989. The following day, along with hundreds of other people, I was down at the Red Cross donating blood. A large number of Puget Sound ferries headed south from the Seattle area due to the number of damaged bridges in the Bay Area. There was no need for centralized control nor waiting for instructions. Instead folks used a good dose of common sense and community concern to work together in small ways.

It is not Japan's infrastructure, per se, which worries me as much as the lack of initiative when the unexpected happens. People don't know what to do. This situation wasn't supposed to be on the test. They wait for instructions.

A good friend of mine wrote an article about an unusual incident which occurred one afternoon at a busy intersection in Osaka. The Westerner came up to the corner and noticed pedestrians milling around, looking. There was a small child out in the middle of the street. Cars passed slowly. He was in no immediate danger but no one seemed to be taking responsibility to bring the child back to safety. After a few moments he overheard two high schools girls there saying that maybe something should be done, yet still they all just stood there. The foreigner got traffic to stop, retrieved the small boy, brought him to the sidewalk and then to the neighborhood policebox. It turned out that the day care center had closed but the mother hadn't returned in time, so they locked up and left him outside. He evidently got confused and scared and started wandering. For emphasis, I'll repeat that one aspect of Japanese culture is a lack of personal initiative, nor swift response either during or shortly after an unexpected emergency situation.

On August 13, 1985 the world's worst single plane disaster occurred in the mountains, only 70 miles northwest of Tokyo. At almost 7PM (with about 2 hours of daylight left) a filled commercial jumbo jet skidded into the side of Mt. Otsuka. U.S. military forces stationed nearby offered to help, quickly assembling teams of doctors and supplies onto several nearby heavy duty helicopters. They were ready and waiting for clearance to go before nightfall and assist the survivors in whatever ways possible. Japanese officials blocked them, claiming that they could do it themselves. The following morning after sunrise the first Japanese rescuers left their bases for the mountains. 520 people were dead by the time they got there.

Following the Kobe earthquake the U.S Navy volunteered to immediately begin ferrying doctors and supplies to the Kobe area. Japanese government officials summarily declined the multiple offers. Over 5,000 people died as a result of the initial quake and in the days which followed. By comparison, in the S.F. quake of 1989, 16 died. In the L.A. quake of 1994 (coincidently one year before Kobe's) there were 56 deaths. Kobe's quake was 7.2 on the Richer scale. San Francisco's was 7.1; Los Angeles' was 6.7 on the scale. Did the Japanese just have bad luck, or is this a sign of something much more ominous?

The PBS NOVA special (mentioned previously, i.e. the impetus for this rebuttal) did correctly report that Japanese gas meters automatically shut off in the event of a sufficiently strong earthquake. This happened to my apartment's gas meter after one night's particularly strong tremor. I didn't know how to turn it back on, but the next day a Japanese friend talked me through it over the phone.

Kobe has other major cities nearby, both Osaka and Kyoto. But Tokyo is the nation's government, commercial, communications, distribution, and population center/capital. If officials couldn't coordinate aid for a large neighboring city like Kobe - what can one expect if and when the capital itself should be in crisis following a major earthquake!? Who will give instructions during the possible temporary power vacuum?

My section of the city (under the Disaster Planning Manager whom I interviewed) had an official population of about one quarter million, which swells to one half million during the business day. (The city of Tokyo as a whole swells from about 12 to 25 million people, by the way.) Remember that Kobe's quake was in the early morning hours just before the start of the morning commute which would have significantly increased its population and thus potential fatalities.

The Disaster Planning Manager assured us that Tokyo is much better prepared than smaller Kobe. Any damage would be limited. I remember Japanese reactions to the L.A. Northridge (1994) quake. University professors and government officials felt it was too bad that America isn't as well prepared as Japan. Yes, what a disaster. But don't worry, such a tragedy couldn't happen in a major Japanese city. 56 lives lost in L.A. It's unfortunate. Say, have you seen our well designed maps and miniature models...?

For a few years I taught part-time English conversation classes in the evenings. These Japanese businessmen traveled overseas regularly and needed to maintain their English skills via such weekly two hour language classes. We had textbooks but often topics ranged from movies to current events to cultural differences. I learned a lot about their lives and Japanese business practices from them. Sometimes I would informally survey them regarding a topic which I was then interested in or even at the time writing an article about. In three different classes (about 8-12 each) one week I asked about earthquake kits. Remember that these men (and a few women) represent the top in affluence, education, and income in the Japanese business world in Tokyo. They were from among the biggest Japanese corporations, with well known names and products. But almost none of them had any stored water or other essentials at their homes which are typically one or two hours away and thought it was humorous when I asked if they or their companies kept any earthquake supplies at work. I didn't think it was humorous at all. ...Every few months in the Tokyo area, at any time day or night, one will feel a tremor for 5-20 seconds.

Getting back to the day I interviewed the Disaster Planning Manager - I had an excellent opportunity to learn firsthand about their preparations and the 30 evacuation sites he discussed. I started querying about how much water and food was stored at each location. None. And no stored medical supplies. No blankets. No tarps. But we were taken to a particular park which had their huge underground water tanks beneath its tennis courts. In the event of a disaster special earthquake resistant water pipes are supposed to pump this reserve of water to where it's needed to supply the hundreds of thousands of local victims. (In another related earthquake article on this web site I recommend that you just begin walking or bicycling away from Tokyo. Don't stay if at all possible. You don't want to be there on the second or third day.) We were shown a solitary small central garage with cartons of hard tack bread, a stack of portable toilets, and little else. If the intent of these few supplies was merely to keep the nearby government offices relatively endurable during the disaster that would be one thing, but the trusting Japanese people believe that government planners have made sufficient preparations.

Each of the 30 disaster sites has a sign and an emergency radio inside which can call in to the local disaster office. (We visited a typical site; they did a radio check for us.) This particular manager's office, for that section of Tokyo, is on the third story of an older five story building ... the same type of building of which some lost one middle floor during the Kobe quake! I asked him if he had a backup location with similar expensive communications gear, just in case his neat facility became damaged. He reluctantly replied that he didn't. And they had no plans to create even a rudimentary secondary "communications/command" location.

The radios at the 30 sites are each outfitted with an 8 hour battery. I was surprised and queried what they would do to run the radios during the other 64 hours (of the first three days). He gave no answer worth noting. ...Am I wrong in my fears about what would happen to Tokyo in the event of a major earthquake? Lord knows - I hope so. But I care about my former neighbors and the friends whom I left behind.... An excellent book which explores this topic in detail is: "Sixty Seconds That Will Change the World", by Peter Hadfield. The author points out that there are some 900 large petroleum products storage tanks ringing Tokyo Bay, hundreds of research labs with flammable chemical concoctions, and numerous manufacturing facilities tucked into the Tokyo area. Old wooden two-story homes stuffed into a mega-city with few open parks and without yard space in between would provide the tinder. If the winds were wrong that day and uncontrollable fires made the air toxic....

Is the primary responsibility of a local disaster planning manager to simply assuage fears about or to actually prepare for an emergency? This man had 11 full-time persons on staff. They made maps, answered official inqueries, and prepared government reports. But they have made almost no efforts to actually store a few durables like large bandages, tarps, etc..., inexpensive items which would then last for decades.

Japanese insurance companies have astutely re-insured earthquake related policies with non- Japanese companies overseas. This aspect shows excellent prior planning. No one can predict when a major earthquake will hit. But some areas of the world lie on major faults. Many of Tokyo's newer buildings and freeways have been built to weather strong earthquakes. I hope this level of preparation is enough and that the expensive disaster command centers shown in documentaries (to emphasize Japan's believed earthquake preparedness) prove to be more than just front row spectator seats amid the pain and helplessness.

Personal and family preparation for an unexpected natural disaster are essential no matter where you live. Buy a couple of extra cans of cola and throw them in your bottom desk drawer at work or into your locker at school; urban canteens. Avoid discomfort with a little prior preparation. If your live in Japan, California, or another earthquake prone area, even only temporarily, please read my short article (freely available at this web site) on a $5/500 yen earthquake kit. Later you can embellish it to your heart's desire - but this week - buy and store at least these recommended bare essentials.

Go to-->  Japan Quake Info - Preparation Kit

Send comments to: paul@zzz.com

Go To Main Page:  http://www.paulzilla.org/