Preparing for Disasters

Every day at 5:00pm, the gentle melody of the Japanese children’s song rings out across our neighborhood from a loudspeaker in a local park – one of hundreds of loudspeakers situated at schools and parks throughout Tokyo.

The daily jingle does more than signify the arrival of evening. It is a test of the system that has been designed to warn Tokyoites of an earthquake striking the most populous city in the world.

Natural disasters are a reality of life in the island nation of Japan –– earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods and landslides.

Japan lies on the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire, the most seismically active area in the world and has about 10 per cent of the world’s active volcanoes. The most famous, Mount Fuji that is visible from Tokyo on clear days, last erupted in 1707 but is still active.

Around 1,500 earthquakes strike Japan every year and minor tremors occur somewhere nearly every day. Experts say the question is not IF a magnitude 7 earthquake will hit Tokyo before 2050, but WHEN.

National and local government agencies maintain sophisticated disaster monitoring, warning and recovery systems. When earthquakes or severe weather conditions are expected or occur, the Japan Meteorological Agency issues official advisories and warnings. Recognizing that survival requires planning, the government agencies provide the public with significant preparedness information.

For example, the Meteorological Agency publishes National Seismic Hazard Maps for Japan. One displays probabilistic evaluations of earthquake occurrences for specific locations and another, the Scenario Earthquake Shaking Maps, show strong motion scenarios for probable location specific earthquakes.

Another example are visible reminders of potential dangers. Tokyo, given its seaside location and network of large and small rivers, is very vulnerable to flooding when heavy rains cause major rivers to overflow. The Tokyo municipal government provides area flood hazard maps, warning signage and buildings in areas most likely to flood display expected high water markings.

However, much of the country’s disaster preparation comes down to personal responsibility.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government published a disaster preparedness book to help get the residents of Japan’s capital ready for “the big one”, the earthquake long conjectured to take place with an epicenter under the city itself. The book, which translates as “Tokyo Disaster Prevention”, carries the subtitle “Let’s Get Prepared!” is available in English.

People are advised to maintain a “Disaster Kit” with enough food, water, first aid supplies and essential items to survive for up to a week. Keiko has provisioned our kit in a backpack and has identified the local shelters that accommodate pets.

We have also taken other precautions, bolting or otherwise securing furniture, like the 65” tv, clothing cabinets and bookcases to the wall so they won’t topple over during an earthquake.

I find it interesting that the thought of being impacted by a natural disaster is not at the top of my mind. Perhaps that is because I have confidence that the government will do its best to forecast and issue advisories and warnings of potential natural disasters. Perhaps more significant is that I know everyone is ever mindful of and prepared for such occurrences, and together we will help each other survive. That is a really nice feeling. I am alive and well, and loving it!

Japan Tsunami Alert

A smartphone alert in the middle of the night woke both Keiko and myself. It was a tsunami warning message from the Japan Meteorological Agency issued after an underwater volcano in the South Pacific exploded in a violent eruption. Although government officials had initially ruled out a damaging tsunami, the agency said that some waves had already hit some areas along Japan’s Pacific coast and more were expected.

As morning dawned we learned that waves of 1+ meter had been observed along the Pacific coast. The Meteorological Agency noted that higher waves may arrive after the initial ones, and expressed concern that waves of 3 meters could hit Iwate prefecture located in the northern most region of Honshu, Japan’s main island. A 1.1-meter wave was recorded at 2:26 a.m. on Sunday in Iwate Prefecture’s Kuji Port sinking a number of fishing boats.

According to the agency, the tsunami waves may have been magnified due to changes in atmospheric pressure caused by the eruption.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said at least 210,000 people in seven prefectures were asked to flee from the seaside. Fortunately, there was no observable impact in the Tokyo area.

Japan Covid Update

Will Japan’s “good fortune” again make up for slow or deficient government action in combating a dreadful disease?

Cynics say that new year optimism lasts until at least the second week in January. My personal hope that the Japanese government had learned something from the ineffectiveness of previous efforts to mitigate past Covid episodes here sadly supports the point.

With Covid cases attributed to the highly infectious Omicron variant in Tokyo and other population centers increasing at an alarming rate, the new Prime Minister and Ministry bureaucrats have promised that decisions will be made and announced this coming Monday.

That they will represent an effective response or be quickly and efficiently implemented remain significant questions. Past experience is not a cause for optimism.

Let it Snow!!

On Thursday January 6, 2022 we were greeted to a surprize snowstorm. The event began with some flurries about 1PM; by evening some 4-5 inches of snow covered roadways and sidewalks. A rare event for Tokyo; a wonderful gift for us, particularly Toma who donned his rubber boots and enjoyed romping through the snow. This morning, with a clear blue sky and a warming sun, we continued to enjoy this unexpected winter pleasure.

If you’re alone
I’ll be your shadow.
If you want to cry,
I’ll be your shoulder.
If you want a hug,
I’ll be your pillow.
If you need to be happy,
I’ll be your smile …
But anytime you need a friend,
I’ll just be me.
Toma and friend

Living in Japan: The Front Line of History?

Having departed for Japan, my adopted homeland, on October 1-2, 2019, I feel so fortunate to have left the United States before the pandemic and all the social and political chaos took hold. 

Admittedly, for the past 27 months life in the pandemic era has been somewhat lonely.  However despite some moments of fear and worry, I have found ways to build social relationships, be intellectually engaged and physically active.  The response allowed me to improve my health, amuse myself and be productive.

That said, as I now reach the autumn of my years living far away from family and friends, the emotional intensity of the experience seemed far greater this past year. Perhaps it is accepting that the way things were will never return.

The New Normal ––

The Economist said it best “… it is time to face the world’s predictable unpredictability. The pattern for the rest of the 2020s is not the familiar routine of the pre-covid years, but the turmoil and bewilderment of the pandemic era. The new normal is already here.  Just get used to it!”

Feeling somewhat lonely and leading a life complicated by the pandemic and a sense of anxiety due to an uncertain future has tested my resolve to look forward and enjoy the adventure of a new and challenging life experience –– growing old in a distant land.  Under the circumstances it was natural to become nostalgic, a tendency some regard as unhealthy. Actually, I discovered the contrary; that spending some time thinking about the past can be rewarding.  Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots. It made me feel good about myself, what I have accomplished and my relationships with family and friends. It reinforced my positive outlook and renewed my strength to move forward.

Moving Forward ––

And, moving forward while living in Japan promises to be a most fascinating and challenging experience.

A recent special report in The Economist on Japan provides an interesting perspective on what to expect:

“Two tales are often told about Japan. The first is of a nation in decline, with a shrinking and aging population, sapped of its vitality. The second is of an alluring, hyper-functional, somewhat eccentric society—a nice place to eat sushi or explore strange subcultures, but of little wider relevance to the outside world. Both tales lead people to dismiss Japan. That is a mistake.”

“As our special report this week argues, Japan is not an outlier—it is a harbinger. Many of the challenges it faces already affect other countries, or soon will, including rapid aging, secular stagnation, the risk of natural disasters, and the peril of being caught between China and America. The fact that some of these problems hit Japan early makes it a useful laboratory for observing their effects and working out how to respond.”

Excerpted from The Economist | Dec 11, 2021 –– What the world can learn from Japan: The oldest big country has lessons for those that will soon age and shrink. The report reviews why the country is on the front line of the most significant global issues: foreign and security policy, climate and the environment, demography, the economy, and immigration.

One specific example from the above cited report describes Japan as a “department store of natural hazards. … Few countries have been shaped so much by hazards and disasters. Besides earthquakes and tsunamis, there are typhoons, floods, landslides and volcanic eruptions. Japan has had to learn to live with risks, making it a laboratory for resilient societies.” (A potential massive earthquake and tsunami impacting Tokyo at some point in the future is accepted as a given by experts and the general public alike.)

So, stay tuned for more of my observations on what is like to live on the front line of history.