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How Japan Became a Leader in Disaster Preparation

4 minute read
Emily Rauhala

Just before noon on the morning of Sept. 1, 1923, a massive earthquake shook Japan’s Kanto Plain, hitting the busy industrial cities of Tokyo and Yokohama. The quake leveled buildings and sent cooking stoves tumbling to the ground. Fanned by typhoon winds off Tokyo Bay, the flames spread across the flattened landscape, raining ash on evacuees. Rumors spread that Koreans were looting and thousands were massacred in retribution. By the time the Kanto Plain stopped seething, at least 100,000 people were dead and most of the region lay in ruin. The devastation was so complete, the loss so profound, that Japan considered moving the capital.

Instead, they rebuilt — very carefully. Fire-prone, wood and brick buildings were replaced with six-story towers of concrete and steel. Motorways were built, a subway system planned and an airport erected. By 1935, the population rivaled that of New York and London.

(See pictures of the massive earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011.)

Perched on the Ring of Fire, an arc of seismic activity that encircles the Pacific Basin, Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world — but it’s also one of the best equipped to handle them. Having survived the quake of 1923, the utter the devastation of World War II and, later, in 1995, the earthquake in Kobe, the country has done more than most when it comes to disaster preparedness.

Japan is arguably the world leader in readiness. Every year since 1960, the country marks Disaster Prevention Day on Sept. 1, the anniversary of the 1923 Tokyo quake. At many Japanese schools, first-day-of-class celebrations include an evacuation drill. Even the Prime Minster participates: at this year’s closing ceremony, Naoto Kan spoke about the importance of “mutual aid” in times of crisis. “I would like to ensure that the government will prepare itself for disaster, together with the people, so that it can confidently say that ‘Providing is preventing,’ ” he said.

Japan boasts the world’s most sophisticated earthquake early-warning systems. Emergency drills organized by public and private organizations work, among other things, to transport “stranded” commuters from their offices to their homes. Japan’s tsunami warning service, set up in 1952, consists of 300 sensors around the archipelago, including 80 aquatic sensors that monitor seismic activity 24/7. The network is designed to predict the height, speed, location and arrival time of any tsunami heading for the Japanese coast. Tsunami safety has been a focus of coastal city planning throughout the nation. On Japan’s east coast, where tsunamis frequently hit, hundreds of earthquake and tsunami proof shelters have been built. Some cities have built tsunami walls and floodgates so that the waves don’t travel inland through river systems.

(Read “Japan Quake Causes Nuclear Emergency.”)

When disaster does hit, as it did today, Japan’s buildings fare relatively well. In 1981 Japan updated its building guidelines with an eye to earthquake science. The devastating Kobe earthquake, which claimed some 5,100 lives, spurred another round of research on earthquake safety and disaster management. In 2000, the country’s building codes were revised again, this time with specific requirements and mandatory checks. Even at the local level, preparedness is a priority: from 1979 to 2009, Shizuoka prefecture alone poured more than $4 billion into improving the safety of hospitals, schools and social welfare facilities. Though Japanese cities often shake, they rarely topple. “This gives me great faith in Japan’s building codes,” said Hong Kong University’s Charles Schencking, a historian who studies earthquakes in Japan.

Of course, all the preparation in the world can’t stop the earth from trembling. Today’s quake and the waves that followed have taken hundreds of lives and triggered tsunami warnings across Pacific. The damage is extensive and will take much time to repair. Still, whatever the extent of the death and destruction, it would be much worse if not for Japan’s hard-earned culture of preparedness.

With reporting by Erica Ho, Hillary Brenhouse, Christy Choi and Krista Mahr

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Write to Emily Rauhala at emily_rauhala@timeasia.com