The 2011 Earthquake

It’s been five years today since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake – I’m sure most of you remember it. It was a huge earthquake, one of the World’s strongest since records began. Below is a video clip giving, in my opinion, a good (but scary!) illustration as to how strong the earthquake was. The clip shows seismic activity in and around Japan in 2011, smallish earthquakes taking place daily (as they do over here). However, on the 11th March (around 1min 50sec mark into the clip) it all kicks off. If you watch it, make sure you have the volume on, as the strength of the earthquake is represented not only visually, but also in audio form.


I will not attempt to write about the 2011 earthquake, the aftermath, the current state of people who experienced it or Japan’s earthquake/tsunami defences post 2011, since there are thousands of people who are much better suited to write about it than me. You can probably find information and first-hand descriptions of the incident in your national (or even local) paper today, should you want to remind yourself what happened on that day when over 18 000 people lost their lives and when thousands of people lost their loved ones, homes and livelihoods. And maybe you – like me and millions of Japanese people – will spend a few moments today thinking about that day five years ago and the people whose lives that day ended or changed forever.




Back in 2011 we didn’t live in Japan, we had little general interest in Japan and we didn’t then know that one day we would live in that country, known for its bad earthquakes. A couple of years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, I was offered a job in Osaka and we were considering a move to Japan. We were concerned not only about the nuclear disaster that followed the 2011 earthquake, but also that something similar to that earthquake might be repeated while we live in Japan. I assume this is something that most foreigners – in particular those who come to Japan with children – are likely to think about, at least occasionally. We decided to move to Japan regardless of the possibility of a big earthquake(s), but to be prepared for an occurrence of one, and hope for the best (you can read my earlier blog post as to how we prepare for earthquakes here).

Emergency rations

Pre-typhoon clouds

Pre-typhoon clouds

If you read my previous post, you know that we are currently on Yoron Island (near Okinawa) on holiday, and you also know that yesterday we bought some emergency rations (chocolate, biscuits, crisps, pot noodles and wine) for our holiday cottage so that we could survive through super typhoon Dujuan, which was heading towards Okinawa.

Dujuan however missed Yoron and headed to Taiwan instead. I was relieved that we didn’t have to experience a super typhoon whilst in our holiday cottage by a beach on a tiny, relatively remote, Pacific island. However, my husband, whose mindset is that of a 16-year old’s, was disappointed. He wanted to experience a proper typhoon – something that a year and a half in Osaka hasn’t been able to deliver.

You see, in terms of Typhoons, Osaka seems to be ideally positioned. Many times there has been an emergency warning for Osaka, and we’ve stocked up on food and bottled water, filled the bathtub with water (to flush the toilet if electricity goes), brought the washing line and our kids’ paddling pools in from the balcony, and expected a front row view from our 24th floor apartment of the wind, rain and airborne 7-Eleven staff, who are expected to go to work even in emergency weather conditions. But the typhoons have always changed their course and battered other places, most commonly Okinawa, and we’ve yet to experience a flying 7-Eleven cashier.

Anyway, today was a new day, and no sign of Dujuan.

Like most mornings, our son and daughter got up earlier than my husband and I. They went downstairs to the living area of our holiday cottage, discovered the chocolate and crisp wrappings and an empty bottle of white wine that my husband and I had polished off after the kids had gone to bed (and Dujuan had changed its course), and with disgust, my son goes:

‘Look! They’ve been pigging out again.’

Pre-typhoon clouds

Pre-typhoon clouds

This is Japan – our Home. We have Earthquakes.



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.


Herro Neoguri the Typhoon!


Greetings from wet Japan. It is the rainy season – which in fact has not felt that ‘rainy’ in comparison to England. My 14 years in England has taught me that nothing beats England when it comes to rain. England may not be world class when it comes to the World Cup but it certainly wins the ‘rain’ competition hands down. So, in comparison, the rain during Osaka’s rainy season so far has felt as plentiful as a mosquito emptying its half empty bladder. Until now! A powerful typhoon, Neoguri, hit the South of Japan, Okinawa yesterday and is heading this way. So, it is looking like it’ll be this wind-speeds-of-up-to-250/kph-Typhoon that will bring the rain that I’ve so been missing in the extremely hot and humid June-July climate of Osaka.

When we moved to Japan we knew that there were typhoons here, but because ‘typhoon’ for some reason doesn’t sound as bad as a ‘hurricane’ I was not too concerned about them. I might be extremely stupid, but I am not too worried about typhoons, hurricanes or cyclones – whichever you want to call them. Perhaps it is because I am from Finland – a country with a less than perfect climate. You see, we don’t have hurricanes in Finland but we do have some pretty cold winters. I’ve experienced minus 35 degrees; a temperature in which your eyelashes freeze together. Minus 35 degrees is so cold that I’ve had my car’s gear stick freeze in gear, regardless of the fact that the car’s engine was plugged into the mains to defrost it. In case you Brits are wondering: you leave your car in gear in Finland and don’t usually leave the hand brake on because the brake can freeze. Furthermore, there are areas in Finland, namely north of Finland, where the sun doesn’t come up for several weeks during the winter. Even down south, where I am from, you only get a couple of hours of daylight per day in December. So I’ve got used to some pretty terrible conditions. And my husband is from Manchester. In my opinion, Neoguri sounds like a pussycat in comparison to some characters you encounter in Manchester. So I am hoping we’ll be just fine.

In any case, I went to work yesterday and found that my colleagues greeted me not with ‘Good Morning!’ but with ‘Typhoon is coming! They kindly briefed me on the survival techniques in relation to the Japanese rainy season’s big bad wolf.

Survival tip number 1: Don’t go on the balcony.

My colleagues know that we live on the 24th floor of our building, so they were concerned that we might be blown off the balcony. They must think I am a bit dim to give such obvious advice, but as soon as I got home I told our au pair not to go out on the balcony with (or without) our 3-year old daughter when the typhoon arrives. He probably thought the same as me when my colleagues gave me that spiel, but you just have to state the obvious sometimes, just to be on the safe side -that is, this side of the balcony rail.

Survival tip number 2: Don’t go and try to take photos of the river or the sea.

Don’t worry, I won’t. I’m not on Instagram so there is no need to get killed when taking photos of 14 metre waves. I’d rather stay home and have a cup of tea – or a glass of wine – while sitting in an empty bathtub with my daughter and au pair just in case Neoguri is getting the better of our apartment block (luckily, my husband and our son are currently in England, so we won’t have to squeeze into the bathtub all five of us). But, this reminds me, I must send the au pair to get some wine and food supplies this morning so that we can see it through the typhoon without having to venture outside during the storm. Our au pair is excited, not about the shopping but about the typhoon. Unlike me, he is on Instagram and is gagging to get some cool photos to upload.

Survival tip number 3: Listen to the news and don’t come to work if the local government has advised people to stay in.

This is easier said than done. You see, I don’t know Japanese beyond your everyday essentials like ‘Good morning’ ‘Thank you’ and ‘See you later’. I won’t understand any potential warnings on TV or radio. Ok. Every so often we get a warning in English on TV (see photos) but these alerts just appear at random so it would be quite tricky to rely on those in the morning when determining whether I need to get ready for work or not. I think I’ll have to ring my colleague to get the latest news in English first thing tomorrow morning.

This reminds me of England. Pretty much every winter England is hit with ‘extreme weather’, which, from a Finnish perspective, seems like three flakes of snow. It nevertheless brings the whole country to its knees: public transport is at a standstill, supermarkets run out of food, and schools and workplaces are closed. I can understand that a quarter of an inch of snow on the ground it is a natural disaster for a country that is not used to it. But given that during most of the 14 winters that I spent in England we had snow at least for a couple of days I think the government could be a little more prepared. In Japan the situation is somewhat different. They are well prepared over here, but a powerful Typhoon is a different kettle of fish to half an inch of snow.

IMG_2301        IMG_2304

Survival tip number 4: Don’t bother trying to use your umbrella.

This is actually something that a Typhoon novice like myself could have gone and done. Not because I didn’t realize that umbrellas can’t really take 250 km/hour winds, but because I wouldn’t have really thought about it. So, yesterday I went and bought a rain jacket. It looked ok in the packet, but I don’t think it is very flattering on me (see photo). In fact, I think I can safely say that it is the least flattering piece of clothing I own. If you ever see me wearing anything less flattering than that white, slightly see through, bin liner please tell me to go and burn that garment immediately.


Survival tip number 5: Don’t position yourself near anything that can fall down in the heavy winds and kill you.

As I’ve understood it, in most places in Japan it is relatively unlikely that a typhoon, even a Jabba the Hut of typhoons like Neoguri, kills people. That is, unless you decide to take shelter somewhere you shouldn’t. I mean, camping may not be the best form of accommodation during a typhoon. Similarly, it may not be advisable to go and park yourself next to a wobbly traffic sign, mess of a power cable (which are everywhere in Osaka, see photo) or a bad example of DIY.


So, my family’s plan for the next couple of days is to stay indoors, away from anything that can kill us, and make it through the typhoon so that we can experience our first Japanese earthquake.