Most people know that the bedrock underneath Japan is roughly as steady as the stock market in Russia, due to Japan being located slap bang on the intersection of three tectonic plates. Most of you probably remember the Tohoku (Fukushima) earthquake in 2011 (magnitude 9.0 – apparently the fifth biggest earthquake on this planet since records began). And some of you might even remember the bad earthquake in Kobe (magnitude 7.3), about 20 min train journey from Osaka, back in 1995 (see photos above and below of the memorial in Kobe). So, you can see why earthquakes were one major thing that worried me last year when we were thinking about moving to Japan. In fact they still worry me – a lot! Apparently 20% of the World’s earthquakes take place in Japan and not all of these are just some little tiddlers, but more like huge sumo wrestlers who can make the floor shake and spin you around as if you were as light as one coffee size pill of Canderel. Whether or not you are as petite as the Japanese or your body shape resembles more of a standard European person, these bad boys can make you feel like you are having the ride of a lifetime on a Waltzer, Rollercoaster or a quad-bike driven by Johnny Knoxville.
One morning when doing a school drop-off I talked to one of the Japanese school mums about earthquakes. I told her that when the school had had an earthquake drill my son’s teacher had to have a private chat with me because my son had got upset about the drill. And on our way home from school my son explained in a distressed manner that he did not like the earthquake drill at school. When I asked ‘Why?’ he said (a) that he could not hold the brace position as long as the teacher wanted him to. It hurt his back. And (b) he agreed with the teacher that it is better that something falls on his arms (in the brace position) rather than on his head but that he would miss his arms if they were ‘destroyed’ during an earthquake. A fair point, I suppose – I wouldn’t want my arms being destroyed either. The school mum with whom I was talking said that earthquakes are dangerous and should be treated with respect and that children (and adults) should be scared of earthquakes. I asked why people chose to stay in Japan with its bad earthquakes, and didn’t move to safer countries. She pointed out that there are many other places on earth that are equally dangerous with all sorts of natural and man-made disasters and people live in those places (actually thinking about it, California has the same problem with earthquakes). She continued:
This is Japan. It’s our home. We have many earthquakes here. We’ve always had them. There is nothing we can do about that. We have no choice but to wait for the next big one, but we are as prepared as we can be.’
And the last clause of the last sentence is very true.
First, modern houses are built to be earthquake-proof. The building we live in was built in 2008 which means that it is not the latest technology, given that the Tohoku earthquake resulted in some new building guidelines being introduced for new builds – new standards with steel, new standards with the amount of concrete, etc. I am not an architect or structural engineer but I believe they build new buildings so that the foundations rest on a ball/balls or other moving parts which means that the structure will give and move rather than crack if there is an earthquake. In practice, this movement means that our building is likely to bend during an earthquake. Apparently, the more movement the higher up you live. Given that we live on the 24th floor, our apartment will be visited by one of those sumo wrestlers I mentioned above even on the occasion of just a medium sized earthquake. I hope we will not freak out and have to find a new apartment as soon as we experience our first proper earthquake, which apparently happens quite often with foreigners and, in fact, also with Japanese people who are silly enough to move to apartments high up in tall buildings.
We’ve already had several small earthquakes since we moved to Osaka 6 months ago, but no proper ones which would have, for instance, woken me up during the night. Our 3-year-old daughter having Type 1 diabetes means that I practically sleep with one eye open,and wake up with the slightest alarming noise. But the rocking movement created by a small earthquake during the night doesn’t seem to have the same effect on me. However, the movement does have an effect on things like crockery and glasses in the kitchen cupboards and on the TV. Even a relatively small earthquake can throw these out of the cupboards / off the TV stand. And in fact, one of the most common causes of death during earthquakes is people being hit by heavy household items. Because no-one wants to be hit or killed by their TV, PC or microwave oven, many Japanese shops sell a kind of adhesive with which you can use to ‘glue’ your TV and PC to the stand or desk (see photo below). I bought some of that stuff and glued the TV on its stand. But because our TV stand is as steady as a one legged camel, I also glued the TV stand on the floor (see photos below). That should do it. In fact, the TV is so tightly glued onto the stand, and the stand onto the floor that we might have to leave them where there are when we move out.
There is one issue that we still need to get sorted, and that is our children’s bunk bed. Apparently, the bed is likely to fall over during an earthquake unless it is screwed to the wall. The problem is that we are renting this apartment. The landlord is unlikely to be very happy to find earthquake-proof bolts in his walls when we move out. So, what we need to do is to buy big bars and screw them on the floor and ceiling (the bed, not the children).
Second, most people I know in Osaka have a small bag packed in case they need to leave their home during an emergency – the general instruction is to leave buildings during an earthquake. And you should take your emergency bag with you. We have two sets of stairs in our building, breakable walls dividing balcony areas of different apartments (see photos below), so that we can get out of our apartment even if our apartment front door frame has been distorted badly. And if it is impossible to exit the building by going down the stairs, we have the option of going up. You see, there is a helipad on the roof of our building.
My work colleagues encouraged me to pack an emergency bag for my family as well, and I did. I think I’ve remembered all the essentials: clean underwear, towels, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, tissues, plasters, painkillers, dry shampoo, deodorant, etc. (and, of course, mascara) (see photo). In addition to our emergency bag, I have packed something even more important than soap and clean underwear. You may recall that our 3-year-old daughter has Type 1 diabetes and needs her insulin, blood tests, and sugar regardless of whether or not half the city’s buildings are just a pile of rubble on the ground. We have decided not to rely on the hospitals having the capacity to cater for a small diabetic person during a crisis like a bad earthquake. So, we have a bag ready in which we’ve packed our daughter’s essential diabetes stuff and more sugar than can be found in a small sweet shop (see photo). The supply in the bag should keep our daughter going for at least 3 weeks.
Third, my workplace has also considered earthquakes. Of course we have an emergency protocol and an allocated meeting place should there be an earthquake, just like my son’s school, but in addition, the first week of work they asked me to draw a map to show where we lived. I thought that it was so that they can calculate the cost of my commute – which my workplace covers – but they said that one reason for the map was earthquakes. They said, if there is a bad earthquake, they will come and find and help their employees. That’s one of the nicest things I think I’ve ever heard an employer say!
Fourth, it is not only by drills that schools over here prepare for earthquakes. They’ve asked for a supply of spare clothes in case the children need to stay at the school due to a natural disaster (earthquake, tsunami, typhoon). The instructions are that if the local government has issued a warning to people about leaving their homes, parents should not attempt to go and pick their children up from their school. Although, I feel that I would like to be with my children should there be a major natural disaster, I think the school is in a way much better prepared for these things than a novice like me.
Fifth, not only do they run earthquake drills at schools and other public places in Japan, but they also run a schedule of drills for whole cities. We had a drill here in Osaka about a month ago. I was shopping in a big department store and I received a message on my mobile phone saying ‘Emergency drill’ in English with a page of other relevant information in Japanese. This is what happens in Japan. When there is a real natural disaster they broadcast information and warnings on TV, and also send everyone with a Japanese mobile phone a text message warning them of the imminent danger. People are advised to seek shelter in schools, hospitals and other government buildings, which are robust buildings and should tolerate even quite bad earthquakes. They are also positioned so that they should not be flooded during any tsunamis, which may follow earthquakes.
So, even us living on the 24th floor is not a good thing in terms of movement during earthquakes, a good thing about living on the 24th floor is that we should be high enough to be safe from any potential tsunamis. This is, of course, providing that the building is not on fire or badly damaged during the earthquake. To be prepared for spending a several day period in the apartment we have a stash of food and water in the cupboards – similarly to the ‘hätävara’ that you were supposed to have in Finnish homes during the cold war (see photo of our currently slightly puny reserves in our natural-disaster-cupboard, thinking about it, it seems to be missing the essential bottle of Vodka – I must stock up) . In fact, the sirens wailing during an earthquake/tsunami drill in Osaka are not too different from the testing of the alarms in my home town of Kotka the first Wednesday of every month at noon to urge people to go to the ‘safety’ of underground bunkers from the Russian nuclear missiles. In case you are wondering, yes, in Finland, there are bunkers under most public buildings, blocks of flats and some private homes.
In Finland we have a saying which roughly translates to ‘someone’s moped doing a wheelie’ (‘lähtee mopo käsistä’). So, in the event of Putin’s moped doing a wheelie and deciding to try to change the Russian borders, the Finnish are well prepared with their bunkers (with or without vodka).
So, we, like the rest of Japan, are relatively well prepared for earthquakes. Nevertheless, I am really hoping there won’t be a bad earthquake here during our stay in Japan. That last sentence sounded really selfish. I suppose what I could have said is: I really hope that there won’t be a bad earthquake in Japan ever again. But me saying that would be way too optimistic, unrealistic and completely ignoring the fact that there will be more earthquakes in Japan. We just don’t know when.