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Preparing your kids for the Big One

by Jason Jenkins

Earthquakes and aftershocks are a fact of life in Japan, and since the tragedies of March 11, 2011 remain fresh in many of our memories it’s easy to understand how each significant temblor can weigh on the mind of a Tokyo parent. Nearly everyone in this city has had some sort of preparedness training — from preschools to retirement homes — but a little extra practice has never hurt anyone. That’s why I recommend heading to the Tokyo Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park, where they teach life-saving skills and strategies without being dull, dry or overly dark.

The reason the park is so engaging is because it offers an experience that is immersive: this isn’t an instructional video or diagrams on a screen but rather a mock-up of a disaster zone that you must navigate while making the kind of decisions that could mean life or death during the real thing. The purpose of the simulation is to teach both young and old how to survive the first 72 hours after a major earthquake in the metropolitan Tokyo area. The facility is free to the public, and actually stands on the grounds of one of the city’s main emergency bases of operation. You know the big “Situation Room” you see in disaster movies? They have one of those rooms here. If the staff aren’t busy, and you ask nicely, they might show it to you.

The main attraction, however, is the aftermath “Experience-learning Facility” tour that starts near the main entrance every 30 minutes. You and your brood will each be given a Nintendo DS game console to hang around your neck and then escorted to a large elevator. Once in the elevator, the simulation begins. You begin to ascend a make-believe department store, only to be interrupted by a category 6 quake re-enactment. After the rumbling ends, the elevator doors open on a dark corridor, where you must follow the emergency exit signs to evacuate the building.

Having fun yet?

Once out of the passageway, you emerge onto a mock-up of a downtown Tokyo street that’s been devastated by the Big One. The sounds of helicopters can be overhead while “reporters” cover the fake quake on large, street-side screens. Sure, the scene looks like a cheap Hollywood set, but for some people, it could trigger bad memories. Expect wrecked cars, shattered glass and a crushed home with muffled cries for help within: all simulated, mind you, but realistic enough to give some young ones a fright. My 10 year old found the entire exercise thrilling. My 7-year old did too, but held my hand very tightly, and I saw more than a few preschoolers in panicked sobs. That said, I believe that most elementary school kids can (and should) do this — indeed, this is a common field trip destination for many public schools — but judge for yourself whether your younger ones are ready, and make sure that they know that this is practice and not the real thing.

Here is where the game consoles around your neck come into play. By now you’ve already set them to read in English or Japanese, and as you arrive in the downtown scenario, the Nintendo DS begins to guide you from one area to the next, asking you questions about how you should handle different emergency situations. For example, at one point you practice calling the emergency hotline on a mock payphone, while at another you are asked to look for the most imminent danger in front of you (hint: look up at the teetering air-conditioner unit dangling ominously above). The game consoles keep track of your answers, and are designed to take people to each site in the room at different intervals, so even large groups won’t get tangled up.

There’s something about being present in a simulated environment that makes it more memorable than than a book or video. I hesitate to describe it as “fun,” and I don’t want to come across as flippant or disrespectful, but the fact that it’s enjoyable — exciting even — is what I think makes it stick with the kids and help them recall it if ever needed. Moreover, this was the first time that my children and I went through these procedures together, rather than me at my office and them at their school.

Once you’ve traversed the hazardous zones, don’t rush out the exit. At the end is a room full of displays and resources, including well-designed instructions on how to turn everyday items into survival tools. See how to turn PET bottles into working furniture, and how soda cans can be transformed into lamps and rice cookers.

The Disaster Prevention Park is not a full-day activity, but there is plenty else to occupy your time nearby. You have the National Museum for Emerging Science and Innovation (as mentioned last month) only a few stations away, and Panasonic’s RiSuPia “Digital Network Museum” (also a big hit with my kids) is less than a 10-minute walk.

The Tokyo Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park. 3-8-35 Ariake, Koto-ku, Tokyo 135-0063 Open 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (last entry 4:30pm), Tuesday through Sunday. Closed on Mondays unless a national holiday. Free for all. For more information visit: www.ktr.mlit.go.jp/showa/tokyorinkai/english/index.htm