Saturday 8 September 2018

Disaster Prevention Day: Preparing for the Big One

Not losing to the rain (雨にもまけず)
not losing to the wind (風にもまけず)
not losing to the snow nor to summer's heat (雪にも夏の暑さにもまけぬ)
with a strong body (丈夫なからだをもち)
unfettered by desire (慾はなく)
never offending anyone (決して瞋らず)
always quietly smiling (いつもしずかにわらっている)

Ame ni mo Makezu (Be not Defeated by the Rain) by Kenji Miyazawa

September 1st was Disaster Prevention Day (Bōsai no Hi =防災の日) in Japan and millions participated in drills and exercises - including children and non-Japanese - to prepare for the next "X-day" as well as to mark the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the last big one in the capital in which over 100,000 people died (for a modern video simulation see here). As I wrote in an earlier post, Tokyo is way overdue another: the chances of a big one hitting the capital in the next few years is said to be in the region of 70-75%. It has been estimated that the potential death toll could be as high as 320,000 with 2.4 million collapsed or burned buildings for a quake centred on the Nankai Trough fault.

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In 2015 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government sent a 300+ page book (pictured) entitled Tokyo Bōsai (東京防災)together with a local map showing evacuation centres (hi'nanjo =避難所) and evacuation areas (hi'nan basho =避難場所)to all households. The book was highly acclaimed since it was written in a very clear and straightforward manner with lots of illustrations and manga-style explanations (available in English here). One page has images of what you need to have on hand when you evacuate the house (mochidashi mono =持ち出しもの) "if" the worst case scenario happens (moshimo no toki =もしもの時) including torch, candles, helmet, water, batteries, gloves, bank book and seal, first-aid box, and cash. There are also detailed instructions about securing furniture: our fridge for example is secured to the ceiling so that it won't fall over in the event of a quake while the TV is bolted down.

Since Disaster Prevention Day on Saturday, we have had the most powerful typhoon to hit Japan in 25 years on Tuesday/Wednesday quickly followed by a massive quake in Hokkaido Thursday which triggered landslides and an electricity blackout which they have said will take a week to fully restore. The number of deaths and missing rises each day and many people remain in emergency shelters. Watching the people in Hokkaido without electricity and water, queueing up at local government offices to recharge their phones made me re-think my own family's preparations for Tokyo X-Day. Indeed, on September 1st the newspapers came with multiple flyers advertising "disaster goods" (pictured). We took the opportunity to order more water, stock up on food like dried noodles, and also get a large battery capable of recharging phones and powering lamps, cool boxes, and computers.

From a sociologist's point of view, it is interesting how the frequency of natural disasters in Japan have been linked to "national character" (kokuminsei =国民性) traits such as perseverance (nintai-ryoku=忍耐力 or nebari-zuyoi =ねばり強い). Certainly, the word gaman (patience/endurance) became something of a keyword "to understand the Japanese" after the triple disaster of 3.11 (see here for a paper I wrote examining the portrayal of Japanese national identity in the media in the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake). The link between nation and nature - the idea that climate and exposure to multiple disasters has influenced Japanese thinking and behaviour - has received a lot of attention by a number of famous Japanese writers such as Yanagita Kunio and Watsuji Tetsuro. We certainly need to be careful, though, making such sweeping generalisations; the tragic reality is that most Japanese are not sufficiently prepared for the worst and are no more or less resilient or stoic than people in other countries.