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Japan -- a whole lotta quakin' goin' on

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I said to Tomoka-san, “don’t worry, we have many years to discover Tokyo together”.  “But we can’t be sure of the future”, he insisted.  “Is it your health?”  “No”.  “We have been waiting for another big earthquake for many years.  It’ll probably happen in the next two years.  We don’t know if we will still be here after that.”

When I met Miyuki-san, she explained with an air of superiority that thanks to earthquakes, the Japanese have a totally different relationship with nature and life.  “We are fatalistic, we can accept whatever happens.  After all, if we were really afraid of earthquakes, we would leave our country.  But very few Japanese ever leave their country.  We Japanese are used to earthquakes, I have heard that about 20 per cent of the world's earthquakes take place here because we are sitting on the boundaries of at least three tectonic plates.  In actaul fact, we are more concerned about typhoons than earthquakes.”

The 1923 Great Kantō earthquake lives on in the memory of older Japanese people.  And since Japanese society has a bigger share of older people than any other country, the social consciousness is very marked by the risk of another big one.  Some experts argue that another big earthquake was due 60 years after the Great Kanto quake, others argue for 80 years.  Whatever the case, another great earthquake is overdue.  Tokyo is located near a fault line beneath the Izu peninsula.

Over 100,000 people were killed in the Great Kanto earthquake which struck the Kantō plain on Honshū on September 1, 1923 with a magnitude of 8.3 on the Richter scale.  Tokyo, Yokohama and nearby prefectures were devastated.  60 per cent of Tokyo’s population was left homeless.

Even those Tokyo residents who had been lulled into a false sense of security were awaken to their Damoclean Sword by the Great Hanshin earthquake, which struck Kobe on 17 January 1995.  This was the country’s worst earthquake since the Great Kantō earthquake, and killed over 6,000 people and felled some 200,000 buildings.  According to the Guinness Book of Records, it was the "costliest natural disaster to befall any one country".

Contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was inspired to write a collection of short stories, “After the Quake”, revealing some of the psychological marks of the Kobe earthquake.  Predictably, they are stories of urban alienation and social disintegration.  But they also give an insight into what an emotional disturbance earthquakes must be for the Japanese people.

The first story, “UFO in Kushiro”, is about Komura, a hi-fi equipment salesman in Tokyo’s Akihabara “Electronics Town”.  After five straight days watching the effects of the quake on television, his wife disappears leaving a note which says “you have nothing inside that you can give me”.  Shimao, who he later meets, asks if it was due to the earthquake.  As she says, “I wonder if things like that aren’t connected somehow … stuff like that happens all the time”.  Keiko, Shimao’s friend, agreed -- even if you can’t see the connections.

The Japanese government, and foreign embassies, are over abundant in advice for dealing with earthquakes.  But based on Murakami’s stories, nothing can prepare the mind and spirit.




“After the quake” by Haruki Muakami.  Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin.  Vintage Books, London.  2003.



As I lay in Watanabe-san’s arms, the bed started moving.  First it felt like a jackhammer underneath.  Then it felt like a boat in a wild sea.  “It’s an earthquake”, she screamed, “it’s so exciting, so much fun.  I love earthquakes.”