Friday 12 October 2018

Terrifying Typhoons: Resilience and Respect for Nature

September saw more than its fair share of natural disasters, including the  most powerful typhoon to hit the country for twenty five years closely followed by the Hokkaido earthquake a few days later. And that was not the end of it. Typhoon Trami (number 24 or nijū-yon gō in Japanese - yes, it was the 24th this year!) resulted in 200 injuries and 3 deaths as it barrelled through the mainland on the evening and throughout the night of September 30th (Sunday). In this post I thought I'd write about the effects of such a typhoon on everyday life in Japan and describe how it feels to sleep (or try to sleep!) through one.

Before the winds and rain started to be felt in Tokyo the trains stopped early (around 8:00pm), something for which the train companies received a great deal of praise since it forced commuters to return home early, probably saving lives. The next day, safety checks delayed the re-start of many lines as trees and other objects had to be cleared off tracks resulting in further delays and absolute chaos at big stations like Shinjuku. All but two of my students were unable to reach school on time and in the end I had to cancel class; we were told not to penalise students who were absent or late for that day. The fact that classes went ahead at all was due to the university's policy of relying on the weather warnings (kishōkeihō =気象警報) issued by the meteorological agency: if the warning is lifted (kaijo =解除) by 6:00am classes are supposed to go ahead (a classic example of the Japanese tendency to go by the rule book rather than be flexible and adapt to actual circumstances).

Although we were lucky to avoid power outages (450,000 households in the Tokyo area were not so lucky) the winds were incredibly strong, despite the typhoon not hitting the capital head-on, and speeds of up to 164kph were recorded in the nearby city of Hachioji, western Tokyo, in the early hours of Monday. We made sure all the windows were firmly shut in our 8th floor apartment and that there was nothing left on the balcony. At bedtime the wind was picking up and it had started to rain quite hard; by the time I should have been nodding off it was rattling the windows in rather frightening fashion. Needless to say it took me hours to fall asleep.
Waking up on the Monday morning, it was quite a shock to see the sheer quantity of foliage and branches that had fallen off the bushes and trees surrounding the apartment block. One of the apartments had actually had a tree crash into it; see the emergency notice (kinkyū kokuchi =緊急告知) on the apartment noticeboard informing residents of the need for emergency cutting (bassai =伐採). Walking (or trying to walk) the dog that morning along the the Green Road, a popular 21km tree-lined walking path which rings the city, was easier said than done. Some parts were simply impassable as the picture shows.

A few days later, after the clean-up, signs warning to be careful of broken branches falling (ore-eda rakka=折れ枝落下) dotted the Green Road with some areas cordoned off entirely. Typhoon season - which typically runs from May to October, peaking in August/September - is almost over, but with three months of the year remaining and 25 typhoons so far this year promises to exceed 30 which is rather unusual. Some may point to global warming, but the record was actually set in 1967, which saw an incredible 39 super storms batter the country: a reminder of the kind of resilience - and respect for nature - needed to live life in everyday Japan.

UPDATE:  A post-typhoon survey by Prof. Seiki Takatsuki along a 30km stretch found 111 trees (including large cherry and hinoki cypress trees) had been felled by the wind, particularly in the Eastern part, with most of the trees falling in a northerly direction suggesting the winds blew from south to north.