Saturday, 8 December 2012

Japan, the land of earthquakes

Japan, probably the most seismically-active country in the world, was rocked by another earthquake today.

I say “another” because it has only been a year since the devastating magnitude-9 quake  which struck Sendai triggering a catastrophic tsunami.

But anyone who has spent any amount of time in the country will know that “another” is the right word, they happen much more frequently than twice in 18 months.

Although big, the 7.3 tremor which shuddered the coast of Japan and made international news this morning is not that much larger than what you should expect to get used to if you ever decide to pay a lengthy visit.

Reading about the quake reminded me of my time in Japan, and how I arrived there at the age of 23 with one main worry on my mind – I have touched down in a major earthquake zone.

I landed in Tokyo in 1997 armed with a Tefl qualification, a job at an English language school, and my eager, curious self.

I had an obsession with the Far East, one which I still have today, and wanted more than anything to live there – shop in the markets, have a flat, work and function in this exotic part of the world.

So I went. I remember arriving in the small suburban town of Shiki by myself, in a dark Tokyo winter, and being absolutely terrified.

For anyone who has never been, Tokyo is not a warm and inviting place, it is not Bangkok, or Hong Kong. It is cold, grey and industrial, and during the winter it is surprisingly bleak and forboding.

The morning before I arrived, probably while I was flying somewhere over east Asia necking a bottle of duty free Teachers to calm my nerves, there had been an earthquake in Tokyo.

Of course there was no sign of it when I arrived as the country is built with these disturbances in mind, everything is designed to sway and shift with the ever-changing mood of the earth below.

But it was a signal of things to come over the next two years.

I found my apartment and unpacked before setting about finding the  local haunt for the other teachers, and that night the quake came up in conversation.

Having just stepped of the plane  I was fair game for the scare stories which are inevitably offered up to newbies to the country.

“I thought that was the big one last night, I really did, I actually got up and started to get dressed.” was the conversation over frothy Asahi beer and noodles.

My disorientation and culture shock having just arrived numbed what was being said.

“You realise there is the chance of a massive earthquake at any time, don’t you, it’ll probably happen at night,” I was told.

“But the smaller ones, you’ll get used to them, they happen all the time. They make such a noise, you will be scared the first time.”

I didn’t take much notice, thinking they were laying it on, but it planted a seed in the back of my mind, it’s is no joke, there is a real danger of a whopper at any point.

The next day at work I took notice of the poster on the wall - “what to do in the event of an earthquake”, the new teacher’s handbook, warning me to know where my local evacuation point was, and what do if there is a serious tremor.

The rumblings went on, and the joy of warning me of the frequency of sizeable quakes shown by my colleagues, was, I found, matched by my students.

“You should not come to Japan if you are scare of earthquake,” said one.

“The big one is coming.”

I laughed it off, but really wanted someone to tell me, “of course it’s not, it’s just an old wives' tale,” or, “there’s no chance of it happening.”

But no-one did – because there was.

“It’s been three weeks since there was a tremor- any day now. You’ll notice them more at night, that’s when you’ll actually hear the earth growling beneath you.”


You don’t really know what to expect until the first time they happen, so when it did, I understood why getting through your first earthquake is sort of like an initiation rite for newcomers setting up home in Japan.

It was about six weeks after I had arrived, and I realised my colleagues had been  right. You actually hear the earth growl.

I was sitting on my futon in my very old Japanese apartment complete with paper walls, tatami floor and a divide between two rooms made of wood and glass.

The small panes were slotted into the criss-cross wooden frame and rattled whenever you slid the door open or closed.

As I was sitting on the floor with a bottle of wine planning my lessons for the next day there was an almighty thud from under the floor, like a massive fist had shot up from nowhere and punched the foundations of the house.

I knew exactly what it was, there is just no mistaking it, it is nothing like a lorry driving past or a car backfiring.

I noticed I was shaking, not through fear, but because the floor was shifting vigorously beneath me, the wooden joists in the apartment were creaking, and the sliding door was rattling.

I remember thinking “If it is the big one, it will have happened before you notice what is going on, so this is ok”. - I had been told that.

But I was not prepared for the noise, a small quake gets stronger and stronger as it builds, before dying down after about 30 seconds to a minute.

You can hear every plank, pane and wall violently resisting the vibrating ground beneath, the glass in the  door sounded like it was going to shatter into thousands of pieces.

Imagine taking one of those big metal garage doors and shaking it with all your might, in your living room, that is what it sounds like.

You start to notice the lights swinging from the ceiling and, most strangely, cockroaches that are disturbed from their hiding places start running across the floor.

“Did you shit yourself last night then?!” 

“Thank you, no I was fine, it was quite exciting really”.

And from students: “Ahh – you feel jishin?” (‘jishin’ literally means earth shake – the Japanese for earthquake).

“No problem, it happen all the time in Japan, one day the big one .... then problem.” 

Thanks for reminding me.

This experience is something you get used to, and yes, they were right, about every six to ten weeks you will get a sizeable quake, mainly during the middle of the night.

This is not because that is when they happen most, but when you are most likely to feel and hear them. You are less likely to on the train or at the top of a tall building.

They become more of an irritation as they wake you up and it is difficult to get back to sleep.

But the fact is they happen all the time in Japan, and it is true Tokyo is well overdue for  big one.

The last was in 1923, and they happen about every 70 years – do the maths.

The consequences are catastrophic, as was seen by the quake and tsunami which hit off the coast of Sendai last March.

But that was not the centre of a busy city, and it was smaller than what is expected to hit Tokyo.

It is no joke.

The Japanese say earthquakes are caused by a giant catfish which lives under the ground and wakes up periodically shaking its tail.

You must pray to its keeper to ensure it stays asleep. If you ever visit the land of the rising sun, I recommend that is exactly what you do.


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