Praise for Japan’s earthquake preparedness measures

Returning from my first trip to Japan (and first time ever outside Europe), everyone back home wanted to know what I enjoyed most while there. My reply was completely different from what they were expecting me to say: I praised their population’s preparedness for disasters.

Nowhere else in the whole world had I felt safer than in Tokyo, a city that lies at the intersection of 3 major tectonic plates, where huge natural disasters occur all the time, and is one of the world’s most populated areas.

Whatsoever, when you take into consideration that I’m living with an earthquake phobia and crowds anxiety, my answer starts to make sense.

The truth is, I’ve had an earthquake phobia since I can remember. The crazy kind, that’s always on the back of my mind, affecting the way I live my life. As in waking up randomly in the middle of the night, convinced there’s an earthquake and I need to get to safety.

My second fear, the one of being in a crowded place, is something I developed lately, triggered by recent events. Perhaps the most important of them was a fire in a club familiar to me because of the nature of my job and social context (I used to work in the music industry). 63 people died in that fire, and, among them, six I personally knew. How can you not live with a fear of crowds after something like this happens next to you? But I’m digressing.

Growing old likely has a say in this as well, as I became more aware of the threats I’m exposing myself to every single day.

In the “ovarian lottery” (as Warren Buffett calls it) I got the “lucky” ticket of being born in a country that lacks any disaster risk reduction. No preparedness, no mitigation measures.

Downright ignorant, given that the regional tectonic plates movements are as reliable as spring’s arrival. They offer us a major earthquake once every generation or so. Powerful enough to cause huge damage (7+ Richter magnitude), but the time gap allows people to forget about it. Until it hits again.

The social background, a lack of education and dogmatic approach to religion are the cause of a behaviour I personally consider irrational. Trying to make people become aware of the imminent threat and teach them how to prepare for disasters will only trigger weird reactions, such as “it won’t happen to me”, “if it happens, it would be an act of God“, or they’ll start wondering why you’re suddenly talking about earthquakes, convinced there’s a conspiracy somewhere at a higher level, that they’re being left out.

Meanwhile, in Japan… Well, I haven’t had the chance to visit the whole country, but I did visit Tokyo and the prefecture of Yamanashi (located a couple of hundred kilometers west of Tokyo, where Mount Fuji also rises), and I felt safer there than anywhere else I’ve ever been to.

By being constantly exposed to natural disasters and hazards, they became what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “antifragile”. Japanese were forced to adapt to a precarious living and became extremely organized and disciplined. If you don’t keep your cool, panicking will cause more damage than the hazard itself.

In Tokyo you can easily forget you’re in one of the most populated urban areas on Earth. I know that the same number of people live there as they do in my whole country (and that’s without counting Tokyo’s suburbia), but I never felt this way.

Back home and in most European touristic and crowded cities I’ve been to, everyone’s running around like a headless chicken. It’s a permanent noise and traffic jam. Everyone’s going everywhere, suddenly stopping or changing directions, not caring about disturbing others. You’re being pushed around every second, trying not to get squashed by the masses.

I’m sure Tokyo has its crowded places as well (I didn’t get to experience the infamous morning hours, for example, when people are being pushed in the subway wagons by other people whose job is to do this), but it’s nowhere close to what I experienced before in places that are much less populated.

One of the reasons for that is a culture of group harmony. They have a huge respect for the ones around them, the community, placing others’ needs above their individual ones. Everyone’s disciplined, they have a plan for every situation, they follow the rules, they know where they’re heading, they walk on the correct side of the street, they stand in line, they form queues everywhere, they never raise their voices, never disturb others. Overall, they’re organized and calm – a vital attitude in case shit hits the fan.

Unlike the aggressive and individualistic Western culture, Japanese are being raised with a different mentality: that you will never succeed alone and you need to learn how to cooperate with those around you.

A short detour from the subject, but perfectly illustrates the point: a few years ago I read a great book about the Japanese running culture, written by British journalist Finn Adharanand. It’s called “The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running” and it’s part running, part travel book. Finn explains how Japanese became among the best (and most obsessed) runners in the world… but with a focus on relay races (or “ekiden”, how they call them).

Their biggest sporting event takes place on January 2nd-3rd and has a 30% TV viewership rating: it’s a 218 km relay race, where teams of student runners compete for their universities.

Ok. Back to earthquakes.

Here are some of the preparedness measures that are common in Japan and can easily be adopted in my home country (or anywhere else, for that matter):

– They’re educated from the smallest age possible and taught how to act in case an earthquake hits. They have a personalized plan for every possible situation. What do you do in case the earthquake hits when you’re home? What if you’re sleeping? If you’re cooking, what do you do first, turn off the gas or go to your safe place? (correct answer: go to safe place! Gas should automatically shut off). What if you’re at school? In the office? In the elevator of a tall building? In the subway? In the bus station? In your car? On a bridge? And so on.

– They organize earthquake drills every few months and they take them seriously. In the city where I live, drills are mocked and ignored (in the best case scenario, if they are organized).

– They have detailed emergency evacuation plans, maps, signs and safety exits everywhere, written in Japanese and English.

– They keep multiple safety kits that help them survive in case of an earthquake. From basic things, such as water and food (highly caloric and nutritional, so it occupies little space), to other stuff, such as surviving tools, medical first help kit, water filtering pills, dust masks etc.

– They have services that alert them in case of an earthquake, before the wave hits – the TV automatically broadcasts them, and they also have a broadcast system that’s mandatory for all phones sold after 2007. 10 seconds are enough to step away from any glass that can break, furniture that can fall in your head, safely stop your car, or hold on tight to others – if you’re in a public place (human chains are more effective than holding tight to objects around you – this is something else I learned while taking this trip).

– They learn what to do in case of a fire or if they get trapped under a collapsed building. Yes, that’s a possibility, so they need to take it into account and act accordingly.

– They learn how to survive on their own for the first 72 hours after an earthquake hits – if they only have minor injuries. Those 72 hours are critical for those who really do need help from authorities – the critical cases and those still stuck under marble.

– They learn how to use whatever they find around and transform / built into something else they might need. For example: how to create a toilet out of plastics bottles, how to use a plastic bottle to isolate an injury, even how to cook rice.

– They’re taught how to get in touch with their families. Their emergency line has a special service for this, where they can record messages, so that they won’t block cell networks. I have no clue if something similar to this exists in my country.

– They learn how disaster centers looks like, the conditions that people live in – sometimes even for more than half an year after the earthquake hit (spoiler alert: in cardboards, along with other refugees), and how to act once they’re there in order not to disturb others (again the mentality pattern of group harmony above individualism).

– This and the next one are harder to apply in my country, given the poverty rate (intellectual and economic), but it’s still important: They earthquake proof their houses. This means that they secure the furniture and home appliances, ceiling lamps, make sure the exit door isn’t blocked by anything that could fall (this one’s actually easy to apply), etc.

– They destroy and rebuild their buildings all the time, using the latest scientific research that will enforce them.

The most common myth I’ve heard in Romania was the saying that if a building already endured a major earthquake, it’s strong enough to endure another one. It doesn’t work this way. Just because a building seems robust and you can’t see the cracks, it’s no guarantee that it will be able to stand the test of another earthquake.

On a personal note, here are a few measures for my own earthquake phobia (and some common myths & fears that I still have):

– I keep an emergency bag in my house, close to door, just to grab it and go when quake trembling stops (you won’t have time or mental clarity to pack for it when earthquake hits).

– I set an emergency meeting place with my better half, where we’ll meet in case of an earthquake – and the odds are we won’t be able to get in touch via our usual communication methods. We chose a place that’s close enough to where we work / live, open space so it doesn’t have any surrounding buildings that might fall over, and also far enough from any subway station or anything else that might of public interest.

– My parent’s house, where I previously lived, was designed and built 10 years ago to resist a major earthquake. My parents are aware of my fears and this was a special request when they built the house. The building where I’m currently living in is newer and also responsibly built.

– Most of the furniture was bought by us and it’s minimalist, with pieces that sit low on the ground. There’s nothing that could block the exit.

– I have a few apps that alert me in case of an earthquake. The problem with these is they depend on INFP (the local earthquakes research institution). In case their internet connection is down, no other app will work – and this happened before.

The apps: the INFP browser extension, push notifications through Telegram and Twitter. I have no other notifications on mobile, I always keep it on silent and I set those apps (Telegram and Twitter) to override any Do not disturb setting. I’ve been using those alerts for 2 or 3 years now (we only had minor earthquakes during this time). For more details, check out Radu’s dedicated article.

Regarding these alerts, one of the common arguments I heard against them are that you’ll panic and act irrationally when you hear it, and that it’s useless cause you don’t have enough time to do anything. I beg to disagree.

At first I was also reacting like a crazy person when I was hearing the alarm, with the heart rate of a sprint, but it’s a sensitivity that disappears in time. You learn to keep your cool and just do what I need to do.

Regarding the time you actually have: with the internet connection and all, I counted the seconds elapsed between when the alarm goes on and the rupturing fault wave arrives. There are aprox. 10 seconds – plenty of time to safely pull over your car, step away from the oven or anything that might fall or break, and hold on tight.

– In the past year I’ve also been trying to enroll as a volunteer in the Red Cross‘ disaster relief training, but the local organization never replied. Any alternatives you recommend?

– What I am still afraid of and is out of my control: the possibility that an earthquake hits while I’m on the subway. Not as much the earthquake itself, but the panicking masses. The only way I can avoid this is by stop riding the subway, but that’s not always an option.

I’ll end my praise for Japan with one recommendation, in case you ever have the chance to visit Tokyo: go experience one of their earthquake simulators.

You’ll be put on a platform that resembles a living room and… start shaking. happy At the one I visited, they gradually increase the magnitude, from 4 (on Richter) all the way up to 7. In the end, you’ll experience the earthquake that hit Japan in March 2011 – the exact movement of the tectonic plates, for the same amount of time – a few seconds that will feel like an eternity.

It’s a unique opportunity. How many times can you experience how an earthquake feels, while also in a safe, controlled environment?

Further reading I recommend:

Information I referred to:


Berlin, Jan. 01 2017

4 Comments

  1. Excellent read!

    For the subway – be careful that in Bucharest most of the stations’ false roof is unstable. The stations themselves can resist an 8+ Mw earthquake, but the dangling lights could hit you in the head.

    So search for a more secure place when you enter a station, just in case. Cover your head if possible when an earthquake hits.

    Also (I have the same crowd phobia) I always search for escape routes in case the station is crowded. It depends from station to station – avoiding the crowd usually means retreating under the stairs (not the escalators, though) or near one of the station’s pillars, out of the crowd’s way.

  2. Their preparation for disasters can be seen in the latest Top Gear episode (Japan special) when you can see how the population left their houses in Fukushima.

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