Preparing for the Big One: The Japanese Earthquake Mindset

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On June 21, 2015
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Photo by Kahoku Shimpo

Recently, there have been a few relatively small earthquakes across Japan. However, a similar spate of quakes occurred in the run-up to the horrific Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. So, naturally, some commentators are somewhat on edge, and urging all of us here in Japan to prepare for “the big one”.

In spite of this media fervour, I have noticed very little sign of anxiety, much less panic, from my Japanese friends and colleagues. When 9/11 happened in the US, it ushered in a whole new level of paranoia. People were, and to some extent still are, afraid of the constant, and implied threat of terrorism. An already reactionary and ill-informed press kicked into overdrive.

The debates around the validity of the so-called war on terror are best left to a different blog and a writer far better equipped to handle the inevitably ignorant comments such a discussion would incur. Yet the reality is, statistically, especially if you live in a place as tectonically active as Japan, you are far more likely to die in a quake or tsunami than you are in any kind of terrorist attack.

However, as I said, nobody here, on the surface at least, seems particularly scared of the prospect. I wondered why. So I asked some of my colleagues. The answers they gave, whilst varied, seemed to share some common threads.

“It’s nature, so not much we can do about it,” said one of my colleagues.

“In the end, we all have to go some way and at some time,” added another.

Others where more bullish in their outlook. One of my friends proclaimed: “I survived the Hanshin Quake in ’95 so I can survive whatever else the Earth decides to throw at me.”

One of my friends recounted how a family member of hers had gone one step further in beating the odds. The individual had narrowly escaped not just one, but two such disasters. A native of Kobe, she told me of how her older brother had completed his university studies and began job-hunting in 1994. Having finally accepted a suitable job, he moved from Kobe to northern Japan in December of that year, just a matter of days before the quake struck.

The apartment building he had been living in was completely destroyed. Not content with cheating death once, he decided to move back from his adopted home in Sendai, to Hyogo Prefecture in February of 2011, again narrowly missing another disaster by mere days. He now lives happily in Osaka. As an Osaka resident myself, I have requested that my friend inform me immediately should her brother decide to move house again!

Such stories are indicative of the dark humour that many Japanese derive from such tragedies. Whilst some may find taking a light-hearted approach to this kind of tragedy somewhat distasteful, it certainly seems to help people here accept the reality of their situation. Indeed, I would say it is one way in which people from my country of birth, Scotland, and Japanese people are quite similar. It may not always be appropriate but sometimes being able to laugh in the face of adversity is one of the most potent weapons that the human psyche has.

They also say that in times of tragedy, people show their true nature. This is certainly true of the Japanese. The tremendous sense of camaraderie and compassion that was, and continues to be, manifest in Japanese people from all walks of life, in the ongoing efforts to rebuild Tohoku 4 years on, is evidence of this. The political classes, with their constant stalling and indecision could do well to follow the example of these volunteers.

Likewise, Kobe today stands as a glorious monument to the ingenuity and determination of people in the face of adversity and to the indomitable nature of the human spirit. It is a vibrant, modern city, full of hope. People who visit Kobe these days often remark that the people there have a warmth and humility to them that isn’t necessarily always on display in other parts of Japan. I’ve spoken before about the joviality and friendship I have encountered in the 2 years since I moved to the Kansai region, but Kobe goes beyond this. Many would site the ongoing healing process, from the deep wounds wrought on the city in the ’95 quake as a reason for this. Here’s hoping that in 10 or 15 years from now, Tohoku will have progressed to a similarly splendid new dawn,

In conclusion, whilst earthquakes are indeed an inevitability of life in Japan, and no doubt someday another “big one” will hit, when it does come, I have no doubt that this country will be ready, and the people will handle that crisis with the same humour, determination and stoicism they have shown in the past. Whatever happens, Japan, and its people, will endure.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • maulinator says:

    What is being addressed here is less about mindset but a fact of life. Earthquakes happen in Japan all the time, the novelty wears off prettty quickly if you have lived here for a while. It is the same along the San Nadreas faultline in California. Earthquakes in southern Cal are a fact of life. They are a part of the “lifestyle” of living there. It is not something that one dwells upon. While preparation and acknowledgement of the potential hazard is a good thing, it is not an issue that is all consuming. You are more likely to die in a car accident than in an earthquake, but people do not fear cars or distress about walking around town. It is a fact, but nothing to dwell upon. One is more likely to get shot and killed in the US than in Japan, but not everyone is walking around looking over their shoulders (perhaps now in the US they should be) and life goes on. I guess as a person who has not experienced earthquakes as a part of life it may strike one as odd and that no one is anxious of the possibility, but it is part of life and there is no point on dwelling on it. Take my hometown of NYC the epicenter of 9/11. The attacks happened, people are more aware that an attack can happen but most people are no longer anxious. The threat is always there, but no one can dwell on it and live a normal life. The psyche of the people of the city has moved on. A lot of the paranoia and anxiety is actually just fear and exacerbation by CNN and other media outlets and not the real psyche of the people living there.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      A very valid point. The media certainly does its best to stir up panic and paranoia for its own ends. Its one reason why i was glad to finally quit the newspaper game before moving to Japan. Certainly the few new yorkers i have met in my life have all been immensely positive and optimistic people. They certainly show the right way to move forward from a tragedy and not allow fear to dictate their lives. I hope i’ll have the chance to visit there someday.

  • Macarons & Sakura Tea says:

    ”I have no doubt that this country will be ready, and the people will handle that crisis with the same humour, determination and stoicism they have shown in the past.”

    My fellowmen are also known for their light-heartedness and resilience amidst tragedies. I can only wish that I can also say this part, ”I have no doubt that this country will be ready” when the Big One [7.2 magnitude] comes. Systemic corruption causes this wishful thinking. The little consolation I have as a resident of a 10 story tower in downtown Manila is that it is owned, designed, and built by a persnickety engineer. In Tokyo, I call home my spot on the 14th floor of a tower in the heart of Shinjuku. I was caught in strong earthquakes for a couple of times while in Japan, but I always felt calm, and not panicky at all unlike when caught in one, even of a lesser magnitude back at home. Anyhow, thank you so much for this relevant and meaningful piece.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thank you, im glad you enjoyed reading. Certainly it is incredibly sad when storms or such things kill so many in the phillipines, whilst those same storms often go on to have a far lesser impact on Japan due to the better construction. I hope someday your country will feel as safe to you as Japan does now.

  • Pick Up says:

    Whatever happens, Japan, and its people, will endure.

    Can’t agree more.

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