I’ve lived in Japan before and as a result have been unable to escape earthquakes. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had two noticable ones already. I thought this time round, since I am studying disasters as well, it might be not only interesting but useful as well to attend disaster prevention training, Bousai Kunren in Japanese.
It’s now been over four years since the big one took place in this region. I’ve always felt that Japanese people take earthquakes seriously…which may sound funny, but in general, foreigners get a sense of excitement and since we don’t always know what to do, we fail to do anything and just ride them out. They seem to instil fear in us, but we take them primarily as an exciting experience…perhaps because we’ve not really experienced the damage they can cause.
But Japanese people take them seriously as most of them will experience damages from earthquakes once or more times in their lives and comparing the observations I have made when experiencing an earthquake surrounded by foreigners, and surrounded by Japanese, the differences in composure are striking. It was in Tokyo 2011, about 4 months after the big one in Tohoku, when I was sitting in a meeting in a downtown Tokyo office building when the early warning system (that since the Big One, started to become a standard feature in any government building) went off and warned us of impeding danger. Generally, the early warning system is an automated system that collects data on seismic activity and issues a warning ahead of the quake. The system goes off and an automated message is played based on the location and the timing of the earthquake, telling people in the building how to prepare….essentially, cover your head, go under the table if possible and prepare yourself for the shaking. And then the system starts a countdown.
At first the whole situation seemed bizarre, not only because of the early warning system, but also because no one was panicking. But everyone was very serious. Slowly and calmly they started climbing under the tables, or covering their heads and going into the airplane brace position. No one spoke. So I followed lead and in silence we waited for the countdown to reach zero and after a couple of seconds a relatively strong quake took place and lasted for about 5-10 seconds. After this everyone simply looked at each other, exchanged a few words about the intensity, and the meeting went on.
Since coming to Sendai, as I mentioned above, we’ve had a few quakes. But the memory of the big one is still in everyone’s mind and the area has really upped its game. During our induction sessions, the story of the disaster was solemnly weaved into the speeches followed by the spirit and vigour of recovery. And while the remembrance goes on, some very real and pragmatic measures have been taken to increase safety and preparedness.
In our department for instance, we have been provided with personal helmets that we must keep close to our work station at all times. They are to be worn when evacuating from a building after the earthquake. Book shelves have also been equipped with belts to secure people from falling books, and lockers and other heavy equipment has been bolted to the floor. This seems like a rational thing to do, but have never seen this anywhere else in Japan. In addition to this, the university as a whole deploys a warning system that is tested on a regular basis every week. This consists of loud speakers providing information on evacuation, and an emergency signal that tells you to evacuate. The Japanese language classes for foreigners also went through a earthquake drill.
So in general, the level seriousness with this earthquake business feels much higher here than in other places I’ve lived in. But all this is very understandable as people are still dealing with the shock and loss of the massive scale of the last earthquake that was not supposed to take place according to experts. The understanding and realisation that while people were prepared for a disaster, some places were wholly unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude.
The disaster preventation training took place on the 31st October at the local Junior High School. They have a training once a year for the students held together with local residents of the area. On top of that they do regular evacuation trainings. The local Neighbourhood association also runs trainings on regular basis and in general is in charge of the evacuation procedures in case of an emergency. These training sessions, as well as this one, normally consist of fire safety training, explaining how to use fire extinguishers, giving CPR and emergency first aid, and explaining how to behave when the quake hits. Additionally, some tips are given on how to stock your emergency evacuation kit (see example below). After the official training is over, participants are provided with a warm meal that exemplifies the type of food that they’d be offered at a shelter in case of an emergency.
Over lunch I had a chance to have some brief conversations with a few of the local residents. They explained about the procedures and mentioned that this Junior High School is their immediate evacuation centre. However, due to the high number of elderly people in the area, the neighbourhood association experienced some problems in the big earthquake some years ago. Because the neighbourhood stretches over a hill, many elderly people had difficulties reaching the school. As a result many of them ended up taking refuge in the local Temple Rinno-ji who took care of them. Rising elderly population is complicating some of the established emergency procedures. The average age of the participants in the room was well over 50 years old in any case, so the issue is becoming fairly apparent even among the participants who still have the energy and capacity to attend trainings.
While Sendai is a fairly large city and the centre of activity in Tohoku, I can’t help but notice the differences between the city and Tokyo for instance. Or the whole of Kanto region in general. Age is definitely something that is apparent. People are older. And another thing that I have only recently began to realise is the lack of children on the streets and neighbourhoods. While Tokyo has the lowest birthrate in the country, the presence of children is still apparent. You see children everywhere and families spend a great deal of time in the public. In Sendai this is not as apparent, but could be related to the other factors such as the sprawl and structure of the city, abundance of space compared to Tokyo and the increased level of privacy that people have here.
Nevertheless, the population is getting older everywhere in Japan, and not only can this create complications in the case of disasters (in 3/11 the elderly and women were the most vulnerable) but in recovery as well. Affected populations tend to become more conservative after disasters and look into the past rather than the future, and this tendency is exacerbated if the affected population is older. The fact that there are more older people undergoing recovery efforts than younger people may not necessarily help to attract younger populations to the affected areas. This is a specific issue related to this disaster.
But putting the social side aside for the moment. I feel like the training was an interesting experience that I can take away from it, alongside my pack of face masks that were gifted to us.