Ben Hills

I did as I had been told when the Big One struck. I shouted “Jishin da!” (“It’s an earthquake”), I turned off the gas, I propped the door open with a chair, I placed a tea-cosy on my head and dived under the table just as the kitchen floor began to buck like a balsawood raft in a typhoon, the crash of breaking glass and masonry became deafening and flames lit up the window.

Feel like a fool? Yes, but who cares when you survive the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, in which 140,000 of your fellow residents of Tokyo perish. The bad news is that I was killed a short time afterwards when I lost my bearings in a smoke-filled maze of corridors, choking to death on the floor of someone’s office.

Every week since it opened in April last year, around 1,000 Tokyo people have made their way out to the boondocks of Tachikawa – next to an air force base, an hour’s train ride west of Tokyo – to risk their lives in the virtual reality of the world’s most advanced earthquake simulator.

Here, in a $120 million centre run by the Tokyo Fire Department, they can practise their survival skills for a choice of five earthquakes (up to and including the bone-jarring Great Kanto which registered 7.9 on the Richter scale) simulated with alarming authenticity in a typical Tokyo kitchen, which is mounted on a bed of computer-controlled hydraulics.

Families cringe under a planetarium-style projection screen as skyscrapers collapse on top of them, they grope their way through artificial smoke, practise dousing blazing kitchens with extinguishers and hoses and give heart massage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a row of waxy dummies with artificial pulses throbbing in their waxy wrists.

“We hope they enjoy the experience,” says Hiroyasu Kadokura, the chief instructor at the centre. “But, of course, all this has a serious purpose.”After each drill the visitors insert a plastic ID card into a computer which grades them according to how well they performed. Below a certain score does not mean just failure. It means you would be dead if this had been a real quake.

Knowing that you are living in the world’s most dangerous earthquake zone is part of everyday life for the 30 million residents of the Greater Tokyo area, the South Kanto region which, if it were a country, would be the sixth richest in the world with an economy bigger than Britain’s.

From kindergarten onwards, children are drilled in safety procedures. Everyone knows which is their designated local sanctuary, one of 137 parks(or, in my case, a nearby Buddhist temple) where they must go for food and shelter if their home is destroyed, and loudspeakers for broadcasting earthquake warnings festoon suburban streets.

It’s like middle America in the 1960s stocking its bomb shelters with corned beef and preparing for nuclear war.

Except that this holocaust is not just possible, nor even just likely. It is inevitable that Tokyo will be hit by a major quake – the only question is when.

Dr Frank Press, president of the US National Academy of Sciences and a world authority on seismology and disaster planning, says there is a 40 to 50 per cent chance of a disastrous earthquake in California, of a Richter magnitude of seven or eight, within the next 20 years.

“Japan is 10 times more dangerous than California,” he declares. “It is one of the most dangerous areas in the world. That’s a fact of life; you have to live with it, and you have to be prepared for it.”

Geologically, the gods Izanami and Izanagi couldn’t have picked a worse place to locate what would become the richest and most technologically advanced nation of the late 20th century. Japan is on the Pacific rim of fire, a region where white-hot molten magma regularly bursts through the earth’s crust.

Eighty-three active volcanoes give an almost nightly fireworks display for TV audiences. The latest eruption, of Mt Unzen on the southern island of Kyushu, continues to sweep away small towns in an invincible torrent of mud and lava two years after it first exploded, killing 43 people.

Legend has it that a giant catfish sleeps beneath the Japanese archipelago, waking occasionally to cause tremendous damage to the mortals above by flicking its tail. Scientists have a more mundane explanation for the tremors that constantly shake the country: four great tectonic plates grinding relentlessly against each other scores of kilometres underground.

At the Japan Meterological Agency, across the moat from the wooded groundrial Palace (which will be the agency staff’s sanctuary when the quake hits), 10,000 earth tremors a year are monitored – more than one an hour – and about three every day are powerful enough to be felt. One in 10 of all the earthquakes in the world happens in Japan.

The last mega-quake to hit these genuinely shaky isles targeted the Sea of Japan port of Fukui in 1948, destroying much of the city and killing more than 4,000 people. Until last month, things had been ominously quiet. Then, as I sat watching television, I noticed two lamps hanging from the ceiling suddenly start swinging slowly from side to side. A thousand kilometres to the north, under the bed of the Sea of Japan, a quake of Richter force 7.8 (twice the power of the one that extensively damaged parts of San Francisco four years ago) had erupted, sending 30-metre mountains of water racing across the ocean at 500 km/h. More than 200 people were drowned, burnt to death or crushed by falling buildings in the havoc wreaked on coastal villages around Hokkaido.

These huge waves, tsunamis as they are called, are even more terrifying to Japanese who live near the sea than the actual tremors. They speed across the oceans from as far away as Chile, smashing up any coastlines in their path. In 1983 one came roaring ashore in Akita prefecture, on the north-west tip of Japan’s main island, turning entire fishing villages into driftwood and sweeping 104 people to their deaths.

But although these are disasters for those involved, they are not the cataclysms Japan – and the rest of the world – thinks of when the conversation turns to earthquakes. The image is of a great city as comprehensively flattened as Hiroshima after the bomb, and with more people dead.

Outside, under the avenue of ginkgo trees that shade the curved tiled roof of the shrine, lie rows of weirdly deformed, rusty iron objects. At first glance it looks like Melbourne municipal art. Closer inspection reveals that these are the remains of human artefacts – the chassis of a car, a torpedo tube, a tonne of nails – half melted in the heat of some unimaginable furnace.

This is Yokoami Park, today a quiet, leafy place where tramps doze on park benches but which 70 years ago was a killing ground without parallel in the history of natural disasters. On these five hectares of land, more than 40,000 people perished in an instant.

Cracked and withered photographs in the small museum nearby attest to the horrors of that day, when a newly modernised city of 2 million people was demolished by an earthquake so powerful the needles on the old seismometers went off the graph paper. Clocks and half-melted watches verify the time: 11.58 am on September 1, 1923, an anniversary still marked around the country as Disaster Day, much as Australia commemorates Anzac Day.

Although the quake itself killed tens of thousands – Frank Lloyd Wright’s newly opened “earthquake-proof” Imperial Hotel was one of the few downtown buildings left standing – the inferno that followed was far more deadly. The quake hit as people were lighting their braziers to cook lunch, and the con-flagration swept like wildfire through the suburbs of paper and wooden buildings.

People from Yokoami – a densely packed residential and commercial area of Tokyo – grabbed their children and their belongings and fled to the park, where they believed the open ground and the “firebreak” of the nearby Sumida River would protect them.

But as the afternoon wore on, the huddled thousands watched as the sky turned black and the intensity of the fires increased, creating a vacuum over the park into which the flames, vaulting the river, were sucked, incinerating all but a few hundred of the people sheltering there.

There are a number of moving memorials in the grounds of the shrine which was built to commemorate the dead and which, incidentally, was used as a mortuary during the second and even more horrific destruction of Tokyo just 22 years later by General Curtis Le May’s Superfortresses. One is a carved stone frieze which honours the 5,000 schoolchildren who died on that September afternoon. The other, a much newer black granite slab, is in atonement for the subsequent murder of 6,000 Koreans, beheaded in the streets by the citizens of Tokyo in a frenzy of xenocidal rage and grief.

All told, 142,807 people were either killed or listed as missing and never found; another 103,724 were injured.

The Great Kanto earthquake obliterated a third of Tokyo and almost all of the great port city of Yokohama, leaving nearly 1 million people homeless. In today’s dollars it caused close to $100 billion of damage, wiping out nearly half Japan’s annual gross domestic product.

In accurately recorded history, only the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, China, took more lives (242,000) – and there the economic damage was far smaller than in Tokyo. And what chills the city’s civic fathers, as well as national and international leaders, is that when it happens again – not if, when – the destruction will dwarf what happened 70 years ago.

Even by Tokyo real estate standards, Shirahige East is no desirable residential neighbourhood. Through the suburb oozes the toxic sludge of the Sumida River, its banks lined with factories and oil storage tanks. Backstreets are crammed with tiny sweatshops jammed next to shoebox wooden houses, bars and dosshouses. A day-labour queue of dejected job-seekers slouches against a wall. It’s like Altona or Botany without the charm and the views.

But for those who want to survive Tokyo’s coming Great Quake, this is the place to live – not the trendy, leafy streets of Aoyama, nor even the residential pocket behind the skyscrapers of inner-city Kamiyacho where I live. There is altogether too much red on the earthquake-danger chart printed by the Fire Brigade computer for my liking.

Along the Sumida River, stretching for more than one kilometre, is a soulless string of 18 interconnected concrete blocks of flats, a 40-metre high Great Wall of Tokyo which is home to 1,800 low-income families (low income in Japan is defined, incidentally, by a family of four having less than $60,000 a year to live on). So it’s ironic that if there is an earthquake and subsequent firestorm, Tokyo’s poorest people will have the best chance of surviving, apart perhaps from the Imperial family secure in their leafy enclave of palaces. The princes and the paupers will inherit the ruins.

The foundations of the residential blocks are sunk 40 metres into the ground, double the normal depth, to survive the initial shock. Electronic monitors on the roof continually scour the horizon, sending the signals down to a control room buried in the basement. In the event of a major fire, steel shutters will slam down over the windows, and high-pressure cannon – fed by giant internal reservoirs – will spray a wall of water 30 metres away.

Between the firewall of the apartment blocks and the river is a park to which 100,000 other residents of Shirahage East will be evacuated for safety. It has a fully equipped hospital, stores of blankets and a week’s supply of”kan pan”, a kind of dehydrated dog biscuit.

The project cost the Tokyo City Government $800 million and when completed in 1981, it was intended to be the first of six massive quake-proof structures erected around the city. However, the yen didn’t add up – the buildings run at a huge loss – and the plan has been abandoned.

For the other 29,995,000 people of Tokyo it will be a case of turn the gas off, hide under the table and pray, when the Big One hits. Two recent official studies have concluded that in spite of all the advances in building technology and earthquake warning, a Great Kanto-sized quake today would cause even greater destruction than in 1923.

In spite of the billions of yen spent on public awareness, three quarters of blase Tokyoites have done nothing to increase the survivability of them and their houses (such as chaining up their bookcases), and when a quake does hit somewhere such as Hokkaido, 60 per cent of people polled say they would react by “standing there, waiting to see what would happen next”.

A Great Kanto quake today would kill up to 156,000 people and injure 200,000 more, according to official government projections. One quarter of the city – up to 2.6 million buildings – would be knocked down, incinerated in the subsequent fires or washed away by a tsunami. In spite of its high-tech image, seven out of every eight houses in Tokyo, including mine, are made of timber.

As far as the cost of reconstruction is concerned, estimates put it anywhere from $500 billion to well in excess of a trillion dollars. Peter Hadfield, author of Sixty Seconds That Will Change the World (Pan Macmillan), argues that as Japan sucked in the gigantic amounts of capital needed to rebuild, the entire world would be plunged into a recession that would last at least six years.

Ironically, one of the safest places to be when the Big One hits will be inside one of the glass and concrete skyscrapers that have been shooting up over the past decade in Tokyo’s new “exurbs” such as Shinjuku. These buildings employ a technology known as “base isolation”, in which Japanese companies such as Kajima and Oyabashi have become world leaders.

Buildings such as Mitsubishi’s 70-storey Landmark Tower in Yokohama – the tallest building in Japan, which opened last month – float on enormous rubber cushions, designed to ease the impact of a quake. The latest technology also has computer-controlled weights on the roof, designed to counterbalance the tilt and shaking of even the most violent quake.

All this, of course, is theoretical. These buildings are less than 10 years old and have never been subjected to the real thing.

The major worry is that about one quarter of Tokyo – including the Maranouchi district, headquarters of the world’s second biggest financial centre – is built on reclaimed land which can literally liquefy in an earthquake. There are scores of examples in Japan of otherwise sound buildings simply sinking into the ground, or toppling over like a brick dropped end-on in a bucket of mud when a quake strikes and the earth beneath them melts.

As well, little has been done to regulate the kombinats, huge tank farms surrounding Tokyo Bay where oil, petrol and toxic chemicals are stored. There are more than 100 of these installations, and if they were to ignite during a quake the heat – forget the clouds of toxic smoke – would be the equivalent of several thermonuclear devices going off.

The horror movie produced by the Fire Brigade – complete with chairs that vibrate as the shocks hit – gives just a small, sanitised inkling of what the holocaust would be like to live through: glass showers from skyscrapers, slicing people to pieces in the streets … cars piled up on ruptured freeways in blazing heaps … fire sweeping through suburban streets like a whirl-wind, incinerating families in their homes.

The one question queasy audiences have as they totter away from all this is: will there be any warning?

Room 233 at the Japan Meteorological Agency’s headquarters in the commercial district of Otemachi looks like the operations room of any medium-sized army. In the anteroom are six grey couches, a row of metal lockers, some folding screens; inside is a conference room with wall maps, electronic displays, a long table with speakers and notepads in front of each chair.

For 16 years this room has been waiting for the meeting for which it was designed: a meeting which will decide whether or not the Tokyo region is about to be hit by a major earthquake. It is part of the agency’s$110-million-a-year attempt to predict the unpredictable.

Buried deep in the earth’s crust beneath the blue-grey waters of Suruga Bay, 150 km south-west of the agency’s operations room, are more than 100 probes which monitor the geology of this ultra-unstable region where the Philippines tectonic plate is forced beneath the Eurasian plate on which Japan sits. If there is a major earthquake, this is where it may begin.

If anything unusual is detected, the six “sensei” (wise men) who form the agency’s earthquake panel – Japan’s most eminent seismologists – will be collected by police car from wherever they are and rushed here with sirens blaring, to review the data.

Canutish as it sounds, the agency is required by Act of Parliament to give at least two days’ notice of a tokkai, the name given to this type of earthquake. The absurdity is that Suruga Bay is not the only direction from which a quake could come, nor would it be the most destructive. It’s a bit like demanding a bushfire warning, but only for bushfires coming from the south-west.

A tokkai quake would ravage the Shizuoka industrial area west of Tokyo, causing great loss of life – more than 10,000 dead – and destroying tens of thousands of homes and factories.

However, its impact on Tokyo itself would be minimal – smaller than the Loma Prieta earthquake that knocked down a span of San Francisco’s Oakland Bay Bridge in 1989 and killed 64 people. In Japan, that barely counts.

Far more dangerous would be a chokka-gatta (literally “directly underneath”) earthquake, bursting up from the maze of uncharted sub-faults under the city. The agency’s public relations director, Hiroshi Araya, concedes, “With a tokkai quake, we may be able to give two or three days’warning, but with chokka-gatta and the other types, we cannot predict at all when, or where, or how severe they may be.”

The fact is that in spite of being since the 1880s one of the world leaders in earthquake detection – through scientific detection as well as the observation of animal and fish behaviour, the conductivity of the bark of a certain kind of tree, monitoring cloud formations and other esoterica -neither Japan nor any other nation is close to forecasting what goes on beneath the earth, even as inexactly as it can forecast what goes on above it

Says the US National Academy of Science’s Frank Press, “We have made great advances in the past 20 or 30 years, with global-positioning satellites, for instance, which can record the movements of the earth with an accuracy of one centimetre, but no-one yet has the answer (to earthquake prediction). We may have to go to chaos theory to solve the problem.”

Tokyo University’s Professor Hiroshi Kawasumi has calculated that the Tokyo area has been hit by a noticeable earthquake every 69 years since reliable records began in the year 818.

Since it’s now 70 years since the Great Kanto earthquake, many Tokyoites will tell you that the Big One is a year overdue. In fact, in the three days since I first sat down to write this article, my desk on the 11th floor of the Nikkei newspaper building in Otemachi has been jolted twice by quakes. I have had to replace some old bookcases which threatened to come crashing down when an earlier “minor” shock snapped steel chains holding them to the wall. On the Izu Peninsula, a popular holiday spot south-west of here, 7,625 tremors have been registered in the past week in a “swarm” of quakelets that may presage a major shock. Everyone has the jitters.

However, Professor Kawasumi’s calculations cannot be used to justify the”End of the World is Nigh” tabloid hysteria which has been swamping the Japanese media. He included anything over force five on the Japanese scale -enough to “crack walls, overturn gravestones, stone lanterns etc. and damage chimneys and mud and plaster warehouses”, according to the official guide. But not to destroy a city.

So, yes, an earthquake of some sort is overdue. But whether it will be strong enough to tip over my bookcase, or to flatten the Otemachi district along with the Nikkei building and everyone in it, no-one can predict.

Until then it’s off with the gas, tea- cosies on the head and under the desk for me – and never mind if the rest of blase Tokyo carries on with business as usual.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 7 August 1993
Edition: Late
Section: Good Weekend
Sub section:
Page: 10
Word count: 3777
Keywords: Earthquakes Tokyo Japan
Photography: APP Photo/A Shimbun, Fujifotos/Philip Gordon, Fujifoto
1. Debris of destruction: a wrecked fire engine and fishing boat cast up on a beach in Okushiri after a tsunami roared ashore in the wake of the July 13 quake.
2. This immense block of flats in Shirahige East, is designed to provide a firebreak against and sanctuary from post-quake infernos.
3. At the Tokyo Fire Brigade’s $120 million earthquake centre, city residents learn how to survive a tremor, battling through smoke, above, and taking cover,
4 wearing a’tea-cosy’, a government-issued protective cloth cap.
5. The towering skyscrapers of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, above, are, ironically, among the safest and most earthquake-proof buildings in the capital.
6. Natural evidence of looming disaster is everywhere in Japan. Sakurajima volcano in Kyushu, lets off steam in 1991. Seismic and volcanic activity occur almost daily in this nation on the Pacific rim of fire.