Japan Basic Earthquake Preparation Kit and Advice

Japan has 10% of the world's earthquakes, that's 1,000 minor tremors each year! So each of us should make reasonable preparations just in case a major one does strike nearby. But it is also important to not overreact following the Kobe Quake last January. [Ed. Note: this was originally written in March 1995.] On the TV news there have been suggestions of tying a whistle to your pajamas, burning animal fat for a crude (and dangerous!) light source, and other assorted ideas. Every Japanese friend of mine thinks that chocolate is a good thing to have in an earthquake kit - but remember its limited shelf life, in months it will go bad (on a hot day - we're talking only hours!).... Let's discuss the odds and reasonable preparations which everyone living in Japan should make.

First, you don't need a flashlight or radio inside a basic earthquake kit. 100 years ago there were zero radios. News traveled from person to person (or by telegraph, smoke signals, etc.). One radio for 200 persons is plenty. A radio and a flashlight both need batteries, which run out quickly, leak acid after time, etc. Your home Quake Kit should be just inside the front door or below the window in your bedroom. Your flashlight though should be near your futon, accessible, not buried down inside your long term kit.

Okay - the odds. First, quakes can happen anytime day or night. So you have a 50% chance (averaged over 1 year) that (if and when) an earthquake hits it will happen during darkness. And if you sleep 8 hours a night (out of a 24 hour day) then there is a 33.3% chance that you'll be sleeping. 66.7% chance that you'll be awake. How many hours a day are you at work or school? You should have one of our recommended ¥500 [$5US] quake kits there as well. If you're out commuting or partying (if and when) the quake hits, well - that's the breaks. But in any event you and I probably won't be killed or maimed in a serious quake. Look at the statistics. It's kind of like flying. Some people are afraid of flying, but statistically speaking - flying is the safest way to travel. Similarly, we should take reasonable precautions, but no plan could completely protect us.

In the 1923 Tokyo earthquake 100,000 persons were killed. A few thousand people died in the initial quake at 11:58am. But many more died in the resulting fires over the next couple of days. Disorganization, lack of communication, no water, screaming people trapped in building rubble.... Then, the smoke. People rushed to the large parks, where the authorities said to go. (At that time Tokyo had less than 2 million people. Today there are about 12 million people (up to 25+ million during the workday!).) It was a horrible disaster! Rumors started. Koreans were supposedly looting. When regular authority breaks down people believe and spread rumors according to their prejudices. Hundreds of innocent Koreans were consequently killed by insane mobs. (Today Japanese news likes to claim that "foreigners" cause much of Japan's crime. This conflicts with actual statistics, but the prejudice is there.)

If you are in a major Japanese city when a devastating earthquake occurs try to get your passport, some money, clothes, etc., and walk (or bicycle) out, if it appears possible to do so. A person can walk pretty far in one day. Relatively level terrain, roads to guide the way. No problem. For example the distance from Tokyo Station to Narita Airport is about 70 kilometers (45 miles). At 8 km/hour an uninjured person could walk that far in a day or two. (Many of the American settlers in the 1850's literally walked across the West starting in the Spring, from St. Louis to California. -It can be done.)

There are several reasons to try to leave the quake area - and to help others do the same. In the Kobe quake we saw the almost total lack of personal initiative on the part of average Japanese citizens. Why should the locals need to be told what makes sense? Tourists driving in, blocking roads so that relief vehicles couldn't get through. Lack of coordination in food delivery. Little effort to search for trapped persons until a couple of days had passed... Unbelievable! A whistle on your pajamas? A pick ax and hydraulic jack would be more appropriate.

What is the most reasonable level of preparation? That's our focus. We can't stop the quakes from happening. But we can respond quickly and help others to escape the danger.

An important note is in order: the Japanese government wants everyone to go to the large city parks. But if law & order breaks down (followed by lack of sanitation), remember what has happened in history. -Incredibly, just following the Kobe Quake some Japanese news reports said that "foreigners" were looting. In fact, one story told that some foreigners were coming into the area to steal. That's just what prejudiced people need to hear! Actually I don't doubt the validity, just as I'm sure that more than a few Japanese criminals filtered into the area too. But the consequences could be disastrous for us minority foreigners. Guilty until proven innocent.... This writer's advice is to make a few newfound friends and walk out to less congested areas, if possible.

The TCQ Quake Kit is cheap, flexible and long lasting. Let the department stores sell their expensive wares. You and I are going down to the 100 yen shops for our kits. The core of this kit should cost you ¥500! (About $5 US.) That's all. For that amount of "insurance" (actually ¥1000, for 2 kits) you are prepared for most quake-related danger. But if a large cabinet crushes your leg or a chunk of concrete lands on your head then even the most expensive kit in the world wouldn't do you a bit of good, would it? The essential items are: 1 roll of toilet paper, 2 candles, matches, 4 safety pins, a pen, a small knife, ¥2000 [$20US] (or more) in cash, 3-5 meters of strong string, spoon, plastic bowl with lid, 1 liter of bottled water, and 1 sealed package of dry biscuits or crackers. These are put together, wrapped inside 2 excess t-shirts, then wrapped into 4-5 plastic grocery bags. All of this is minimum. And except for the cash and t-shirts it should run you ¥500 or less to put this all together. The idea is to be able to survive the first day or so without too much discomfort, if this is at all possible ... given the overall situation. You should make 2 kits. One for home and the other for your primary work or school location. Statistically speaking, this would be pretty good preparation. A compact, durable kit which will last for several years.

The San Francisco quake of 1989 happened at 5 pm. Most people weren't home. So their elaborate kits at home were buried or at least inaccessible. I remember seeing news clips of people returning home a few days later - to retrieve (among other things) their emergency kits. You just can't completely prepare for "the Big One."

Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote an entire book (while in prison) on onion skins, since he had no paper. In an emergency situation you must be innovative. This is paramount! What can you do with a whole roll of toilet paper? You could write on it, make temporary flags, clean a wound, wrap food for later, blow your nose, make a deck of 52 square cards (ah, kind of..), start a chain letter, twist tightly when wet, then dry, to make a crude wick, etc. Remember, if there's no running water then you can't flush the toilets or wash your hands. This is important - a million people crammed together, with limited sanitation! In 3-4 days diseases could begin spreading. Keep as clean as possible. Heavy smoke from fires? Tie one of the t-shirts around your mouth and nose. If possible, use a wet t-shirt. Your 2 t-shirts double as towels or they could be torn into strips for either a tourniquet (to stop the blood from a gaping wound) or to tie a splint. With toppled buildings nearby wood for splints should be readily available. A broken arm or dislocated shoulder? Use those safety pins (or even heavy staples, glue, etc.) to make one t-shirt into a temporary sling. Affix the hem to the neckline. Put the t-shirt on and slip the arm into the "sling" made by the material.

At the risk of "false advertising" you really should add a few more things. But at least have the water, biscuits and a few other things on hand. It's all useable, long lasting stuff. Your school/office based kit should have some extra prescription medication, contact lens cleaner, sanitary napkins, etc. Imagine that you can't go home and no stores will be open for a few days. Actually, part of my kit also includes a few cans of cola. They have a long shelf life and carbohydrates. Chocolate though won't last through one August. Also, I want nothing that needs batteries. But then a deck of cards or flask of whiskey would be useful. Whiskey is a pain killer, friend maker, and crude sterilizer. How about one of those paperback books that you've been planning to read someday. Do you smoke? Unless you plan to quit (or barter at a disadvantage) for a few tense days you may want to add a few packs to your kit.

Without a change of clothes and probably no razor I wouldn't win any beauty contests, but then I don't want to walk across the city carrying extra baggage either. Realistically ... I'd probably be aiding the injured in some relief center rather than just saving my own skin. I'd help my team with foraging, teach the Japanese military SDF the basics in traffic control, etc. Heavy winter clothes? I don't plan to be alone nor completely outside. But it depends on where in Japan you live.

For long term planning Japan is the best country in the world. A lot of wisdom goes into decision making here. But when the unexpected happens it seems that no one knows what to do unless they're told. If and when a tragedy does strike ... let's help our Japanese neighbors and show them how to make quick decisions - that save lives. (Copyright 1995-97, by Paul Abramson)

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