Twice a year our neighbourhood holds emergency evacuation drills. The first of these is held on September 1st, the anniversary of the 1923 quake which devastated Tokyo, the second is held on the First Sunday in December. These are sensible precautions in this part of the world. My part of Japan, you see, is not a very wise place to live. In fact, if I am honest, I have to say that it is a very foolish place to live indeed. It is located pretty much right on top of where the tectonic plates under the earth like to do most of their pushing and shoving. I have bought an old house that shakes when trucks go by in one of the most earthquake prone places in the world and, no matter how I try to look at it, I can’t see how that is in any way a smart move. As a primary school child I remember seeing a television show about the big San Francisco earthquake and learning that earthquakes tend to strike the same areas again and again over the centuries. Even at that young age I recall thinking, ‘Well why on earth don’t those people move. You’d have to be pretty thick to choose to live there!’ Step forward Thicky McThick!
The threat of earthquakes is very real and in my time here I have felt several tremors. Nothing huge, but big enough to wake me up from a sound sleep or to knock things off shelves. Because of the danger, the Japanese do an admirable job of trying to make sure they are as prepared as possible for when the next big one strikes, and thus it was that at 9:00 this morning I found myself wandering across the road to the designated assembly point to line up with my neighbours.
Prior to meeting we had been given a sheet of paper which told us a warning that an earthquake could happen would be received at 7:30a.m., the city sirens telling us that the quake was imminent would go off at 8:30a.m., and at 9:00a.m. the earthquake would strike. This would be great if it bore any semblance to reality. Unfortunately, it is just wishful thinking. Several large quakes have devastated areas of Japan since I first arrived here, and not once did anybody receive any notice that they were about to happen. The first they knew of it was when they were being thrown across the room, or waking up to find that their futon lay under a pile of bricks that used to be their second floor.
Our community lined up in groups according to where our houses were located and when everybody had arrived, an elderly chap spoke weakly into a megaphone telling us of each group’s responsibilities. Ours was to wander around the neighbourhood and check on where fire extinguishers and hoses were located. Two old fellows in our group had taken the whole event very seriously indeed and had come dressed in hard hats. We walked through the streets and our group leader showed us where the extinguishers were and, as a finale, we got to see a big fireman’s hose being plugged into the ground and fired into the neighbouring park. The effort it took the old man to control it didn’t fill me with hope that he would be able to direct it accurately towards a burning building. He looked as though he were wrestling a cut snake.
Apart from now knowing where the local extinguishers are and knowing who not to ask to work the hose, I’m not sure that I’m any better prepared to deal with the neighbourhood collapsing. I did learn a couple of things, however. One was that nearly everybody in my neighbourhood is very old, and the onus may well be on me and two of my youngish neighbours to do the rescuing come catastrophe time, and the other is that there seems to be an unwritten rule which requires elderly men in Japan to wear a baseball cap and pull their slacks up to their nipples.
In the likely event that we don’t receive a warning about a major earthquake, I am not really sure what I will do when it strikes. In fact, I’m not even sure what I should do. There seem to be so many conflicting reports – get under a table, don’t get under a table, stand in a doorway, don’t stand in a doorway, run outside into an open area, wrap yourself in your futon, crouch next to a wall – I’ve been told all of these and more. But the reality is that when a tremor occurs, you don’t do any of those things. You just sit there, look over to whoever happens to be in the room with you and say, ‘Earthquake!’ and then you wait to see if it’s going to get any bigger. And of course if it does, by that time you will probably be getting thrown about all over the place and be unable to position yourself anywhere voluntarily. I suppose you really should take immediate action, but then again if you are wrapped in a futon hiding under your table with a metal bowl upon your head, or go tearing out of the house screaming in search of open space and the tremor amounts to nothing, well, you’d feel a bit of a tool, wouldn’t you? I know it’s better to be safe than sorry, but it’s like bicycle helmets on non-professional cyclists; they make perfect sense and may well save your life, but you still think you look a bit of an arse wearing one and, like an absolute fool, you’d sooner just take the risk of serious head trauma.