The Hazards of Being Japanese

Although virtually all cultures have some level of appreciation for nature, it is particularly pronounced in Japanese culture. The constant attention to the changing seasons in Japanese literature and culture, the classical Japanese garden that is deliberately constructed to celebrate nature, the mass cherry blossom viewing parties of Tokyo office workers, and the deep appreciation of autumnal and other natural colors are all evidence of the Japanese people’s appreciation for the world of nature. It is ironic that this appreciation developed in a country that has always been more prone to a variety of natural disasters than is the case in much of the rest of the world.

An author who has studied Japan’s most publicized hazard partially titled his work Earthquake Nation (Clancey 2006). Since antiquity, the Japanese have been well aware of this hazard. Earthquakes are the topic of one of the earliest-surviving written poems (about 500 CE) by Emperor Buretsu (Bates 2007, 13). Japan is one of the most vulnerable nations in the world to earthquakes and ranks second only to Indonesia, a much larger country, in total annual number of recorded earthquakes. The Japanese archipelago is situated where three tectonic plates, the Eurasian Plate, the Pacific Plate, and the Philippines Plate, intersect. Approximately 11 percent of the world’s seismic energy is released each year under the Japanese islands. About 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes that reach 6.0 magnitude and higher annually take place in Japan. Throughout Japan, an average of 7,500 earthquakes is recorded annually, and approximately 1,500 can be felt by people. Because of the frequency of earthquakes, tremors strong enough to gently shake a sleeper in bed often receive relatively minor coverage in the Japanese media.

The sudden movement of the earth occasioned by a quake can also cause giant tidal waves, or tsunami, which literally means ‘‘harbor wave.’’ Some of Japan’s worst and most complicated seismic faults are located offshore of the heavily industrialized and populated Tokai region situated southwest of Tokyo. Some scientists estimate that the secondary effect of a major earthquake could very well be a tsunami as high as 27 feet that could reach Tokyo’s waterfront within three or four minutes. Earthquakes can occur in many parts of Japan, as evidenced by the 1995 Kobe earthquake in which 6,400 people died and the 2004 Niigata earthquake that killed 7 and injured more than 830 people. Unfortunately, however, the Kanto Plain, where Tokyo and Yokohama are located, is the most earthquake-prone area in the archipelago.

The worst natural disaster in Japan’s recorded history, the Great Kanto Earthquake, struck Tokyo at 11:58 A.M. on September 1, 1923. Today, the nation commemorates this event by observing Natural Disaster Prevention Day on the anniversary of the earthquake. Although the epicenter of the 7.9-magnitude earthquake was more than 40 miles south to southwest from Tokyo, the earthquake released energy equivalent to the detonation of almost 400 atomic bombs of the size dropped on Hiroshima. The first jolt, lasting a little more than 14 seconds, caused the collapse of most of the Kanto region’s brick and unreinforced concrete buildings.

Fires proved even more destructive for buildings and deadly for humans than the earthquake itself. In Tokyo, 130 fires began within an hour of the earthquake in many of the most populated areas of the city. As the temperature and winds increased, five cyclone-like firestorms engulfed sections of the city. At the Honjo Military Clothing Depot near the banks of the Sumida River, where large numbers of displaced people had gathered, nearly 40,000 people suffocated and burned to death in one of the firestorms. Eyewitness survivors virtually all referred to the area as a hell on earth.

Four days later, more than 20 square miles of Tokyo had burned to the ground. Before a week had elapsed, the earthquake and ensuing fires destroyed most of Tokyo and almost all of Yokohama. The disaster was responsible for the deaths of more than 110,000 people, left 1.5 million people homeless, and required major relief efforts. The earthquake’s total amount of damages of 6.5 billion yen was approximately four times larger than the Japanese national government’s budget for the preceding year (Schencking 2007).

In addition to the great Kanto disaster, much of Tokyo was also destroyed in 1657 and 1703 by earthquakes and accompanying fires. The Japanese people and their government are well aware of virtually the entire archipelago’s vulnerability to earthquakes. Although earthquake prediction is difficult, Japan’s program, which began in 1963, is one of the country’s largest and oldest scientific research endeavors. Earthquake preparation strategies are widespread and include earthquake drills in schools, extensive regulations for the construction of ‘‘earthquake-proof’’ structures, sophisticated warning systems, and careful evacuation route planning.

The Japanese must also annually deal with an average of three to four tropical cyclones—better known as typhoons. Typhoons, most of which originate in the Philippine Sea in the late summer and early fall, can be devastating to both humans and property. In 2004, a year that brought an abnormally high 10 typhoons, one of the tropical megastorms left 63 people dead and injured more than 340 Japanese. In October 1959, a massive typhoon crashed through Nagoya, Japan’s fourth-largest city, killing 5,000 people and leaving 400,000 homeless. Seven days after the storm, more than 25,000 people were still stranded on their roofs because of the water. Although typhoons killed thousands of people from the 1930s through the 1950s, the numbers of deaths they cause have plummeted in recent decades due to technological advances, including the positioning of breakwaters and sophisticated warning systems. Today, typhoons’ effects are primarily limited to often extensive property damage as a result of flooding and landslides.

As if earthquakes, tsunami, and typhoons were not bad enough, Japan has two volcanic zones with approximately 50 active volcanoes that encompass much of Japan, with the exception of Shikoku, the Kansai region in the southern-central part of Honshu, part of western Honshu, and the Kanto Plain. Although it has not erupted since the early 18th century, even Japan’s greatest icon, Mount Fuji, is volcanic. Volcanoes have erupted throughout Japanese history, and evidence exists documenting a large eruption approximately 7,000 years ago off Kyushu’s southern coast that did massive damage to southern Kyushu and spewed ash as far north as Hokkaido. The layer of volcanic debris from this eruption still seriously impedes agriculture in southern Kyushu.

Mount Unzen, a large volcano consisting of several overlapping and proximate lava domes in the Shimabara Peninsula in Kyushu, erupted in 1792 and caused an avalanche and tsunami that killed an estimated 15,000 people. Between 1990 and 1994, Mount Unzen again became active, and 43 scientists and journalists were killed in a 1993 eruption. Thousands of people were evacuated at different times during the volcano’s latest cycle activity, and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed by debris flows in the summer of 1993. In 2000, volcanic eruptions in southwest Hokkaido and in the Izu Islands about 90 miles from Tokyo seriously disrupted local economies and also caused thousands of evacuations (‘‘Mount Unzen,’’ Wikipedia).

Little usable land, almost no natural resources, incredible urban congestion, earthquakes, typhoons, volcanoes—the list of seemingly ill-fated aspects of Japanese life caused by the physical and human geography of the archipelago is long. Still, recent life expectancy averages indicate that Japanese women on average live to be older than 86, making them number one among the world’s countries, while the average Japanese male lives to be 79 and is slightly surpassed only by men who live in Iceland and San Marino. This statistic is at least partial evidence that despite the seemingly cruel hand nature dealt Japan, its people are amazingly flexible and resilient.