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On Earthquakes

Posted by Shaun


Before coming to Japan, I had absolutely no conception of what an earthquake was. We actually have a minor fault line in Missouri, but even in the rare times that it’s gotten some action, I haven’t felt the tremors. We had earthquake drills in elementary school, but all they really told us was to get under a table and hold onto the legs. The tornado drills, fire drills, and lockdown drills got much more attention. Now, after less than a month in Japan, I’ve felt one real earthquake and a few simulated ones, and I’ve heard the March 11th earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster discussed in almost every one of my classes and most of the speeches delivered to us at Waseda functions, whether by students and faculty. In response to the disaster, Waseda gave us wallet-sized booklets about what to do should an earthquake hit the campus area, and Japan Study added to our orientation schedule a trip to an earthquake and fire safety education center.

The safety education center was a moving experience for me in light of the March 11th disaster. Of course, it’s impossible to truly understand what the people in Fukushima went through on that day and continue to go through now, but I feel like I got closer on that day. The first thing our group did was take turns sitting in a Japanese-style room that shook with a simulated earthquake. I can see why not everyone took the experience seriously. The earthquake room was on a platform that looked a little ridiculous when it rocked back and forth, and it’s funny to watch the looks on your peers’ faces when the floor unexpectedly starts moving. But for me, experiencing the simulated earthquakes was a moving and somewhat frightening experience. The strongest quake we felt was, if I remember correctly, 6.0, and the quake that hit Fukushima was a 9.0. Since we were sitting in a Japanese-style room for the earthquake simulation, I attempted to kneel in the Japanese style, and for several seconds of a 6.0 earthquake, my legs were sliding out from under me while I struggled to hold the cushion I had been sitting on over my head and neck. While before I had no understanding of earthquakes, now I had just enough background knowledge to begin to understand the fear an even larger quake would bring. The people in Eastern Japan who were affected by the earthquake weren’t sitting in a pre-arranged room with no furniture except zabuton cushions, waiting for it to happen, and the simulated quake paled in length and intensity to the real thing. The simulated quake wasn’t accompanied by hundreds of aftershocks (which you can see mapped by location and intensity in this animation).

The fire safety-related elements of the program were uncomfortable for me as well. I guess I’ve had a pretty hands-off fire safety program up until now. For the first time, I actually learned how to use a fire extinguisher, and I got to experience a simulation of the difficulties of navigating a dark, smoke-filled room. Earthquakes and fire both became real for me that day.

There’s an old proverb that says the scariest things for Japanese people are 地震、火事、雷、親父、(jishin, kaji, kaminari, oyaji): earthquakes, fires, thunder, and fathers. Hopefully I can stay safe from all of these dangers while I'm in Japan. 

The most moving part of the earthquake safety center for me was a diorama of the sort of earthquake evacuation centers that many of Japan’s parks or schools are equipped to transform into should disaster strike. This diagram was of a park, and it showed where the public toilets would be, where classrooms could be set up, where people could get water from delivery trucks… As I stared at the little plastic figures, it struck me that people in Japan are living like this now, with no idea when things will be back to normal. I spent a long time just studying that diorama. I don’t really know what to do with the emotions I felt. I donated money right after the disaster, and besides, I don’t have an income right now. But I was definitely moved by my experience at the safety center, and I wanted to attempt to write about it.

The earthquake center experience was also helpful because when I did experience a real earthquake (magnitude 2, I think) in the middle of the night, just a few days after moving in with my host family, I knew that the slight grumbling of the floor under my futon and the rattling of the things on my desk were nothing to worry about, and I could go back to sleep.

2 Responses so far.

  1. akrodgers says:

    Wow that's really interesting! Are these earthquake simulation centers common? That would probably be a really enlightening experience for a lot of people in the US.

  2. @Andrea I think there might be one at the St. Louis Science Center but I could be misrembering. And if there was one it was just a shaking platform, not a whole room like that.

    Shaun, just seeing that map of all the earthquakes in the hours following the big quake was enough to throw me into a mild panic. God, I can't even imagine.

    I've seen the news clips, too, of people in Fukushima in their temporary housing and schools, talking about where to take their children to school and even if they /can/ go back home whether they ever should. I can't imagine that kind of life. It hurts my heart just to think about it.

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