Photo: つるたま on Pakutaso

Earthquakes in Japan – A Foreigner's Perspective

I guess I’ve been lucky. In all the time I have been in Japan, I have only encountered a few relatively minor earthquakes. In fact, in their own way, each experience was kind of funny.

Photo by にっしーな on Pakutaso.

I remember the first time I felt a quake. It was when I lived in Chiba Prefecture. I remember telling my girlfriend at the time, a Tokyo native, about how I had never experienced either a typhoon or an earthquake.

Then came the 3-day weekend. We were stranded at my house eating convenience store food and watching movies as a typhoon struck on Saturday and Sunday. We were then awoken early on the Monday morning as I felt the tremors of a quake. It turned out to be relatively minor but the circumstances were kind of comical.

Photo by Martin Luff on Flickr.

I have this strange habit of always keeping a glass of water next to my bed in case I’m thirsty during the night. That morning we both awoke suddenly, and I looked across to the bedside table where the glass of water was shaking, the contents appearing to bounce around inside the transparent container. 

Holding me tighter suddenly, my girlfriend asked, “What is it?”

“Well,” I replied calmly. “Either there’s a Tyrannosaurus outside our window, or we’re having an earthquake!”

A few years later, in Okayama, I was in bed again when a sudden, noticeably more violent quake struck. All we could do was just hang on until it subsided after a minute or so. 

Of course, never being one to miss the opportunity for a bad joke, I looked across at my rather shaken partner and asked her “Did the Earth move for you, darling?” On reflection that was probably the moment when our relationship started to go downhill!

The latest and indeed scariest quake I have felt to date came back in 2013, shortly after I moved to Osaka.

Photo by arditpg on Flickr.

It was around 5am and once again I was in bed, though sadly by myself this time! A relatively strong quake caused some structural damage on the island of Awajishima, about 50 km south of Osaka. Thankfully no one was injured, but it wasn’t a good day to be on the 9th floor of an apartment building in Osaka.

By the time I woke up and realised what had happened, the tremor had already subsided. I slowly drifted back to sleep, but just as I was about to nod off, came the panicked phone call from my dad. “Son, are you ok!! We heard there was a big earthquake near Osaka.” 

“I’m fine dad, don’t worry.” I said. “Anyway, I’m off back to bed now.”

“OK,” he replied. 

Then, borrowing a turn of phrase from that legendary TV detective, Columbo, he said: “Oh, just one more thing. Did you check that there’s no tsunami?”

Then a sudden wave of panic washed over me. My apartment is in the harbour district! Of course it only took the matter of a few seconds to run into my living room, smashing my kneecap off the coffee table as I went, before turning on the TV news and realizing there was no tsunami. 

But by then, I was far too wound up, and swollen of knee, to go back to bed. So there I was, 5.30 am, and I had the prospect of working until 9pm that night to look forward to, with less than 4 hours sleep from the previous day. 

Still, on the plus side, my home was intact and the quake wasn’t “the big one”. 

But as far as dodging Japan’s earthquakes goes, there are few people luckier than my friend’s brother. My friend is a native of Kobe, and she was there when the great Hanshin quake of 1995 destroyed much of the city. Her brother was a recent university graduate at the time. He was busy searching for a job, and finally landed his dream job in December of 1994. 

The only catch was that he would have to move to northern Japan to take up the offer. 

After some deliberations, he finally moved there in early January of 1995. 

Less than 2 weeks later, the quake struck, and the temporary apartment he had been living in was destroyed. 

A lucky escape for sure, but his story doesn’t end there. He went on to have a very successful career in his chosen field, and worked in the Tohoku region for much of the next two decades. 

However, his heart remained in Kansai, and in 2011, upon deciding to marry an Osaka lady, he headed back to Kansai and settled in Osaka. Four days later, his former home in Sendai was taken down by another massive earthquake.

Needless to say, as someone who lives in Osaka, I have demanded that my friend let me know the second her brother decides to move house again!

Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Of course, it’s all very well making jokes and telling funny stories about earthquakes when I personally haven’t been affected by them. But the devastation they can cause is no laughing matter. 

Indeed I recall watching helplessly from my home in Hong Kong in 2011 as much of Tohoku was destroyed and 10,000 lives lost. The sickness I felt in my stomach that day brought me to the realization of just how much I missed Japan and how strongly I felt a desire to return, and I did just over 18 months later. 

Thankfully, these days the government has numerous schemes in place to better understand and help negate the damage of quakes as much as possible. 

Quake detection apps allow us to receive a mobile phone message warning us of a quake up to 1 minute before it hits. It may not sound like much, but that short amount of time can make a huge difference.

Photo by David Pursehouse on Flickr.

Perhaps most important of all, earthquake damage prevention measures continue to improve year by year. These days the most modern buildings are able to withstand all but the most powerful of quakes and even then they are unlikely to topple completely. 

Japan knows a big quake is inevitable whether it is now or in 200 years, it doesn’t matter. When it comes, we will be ready. 

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