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Tabloids warn of major quake beneath Tokyo

by Mark Schreiber

Now that northeast Japan is gradually shifting into recovery mode and the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis is becoming more manageable, new themes have been emerging in the vernacular media. One is the life expectancy of the cabinet of PM Naoto Kan.

Another is the frequent aftershocks, some quite large, and many media outlets fret that the March 11 disaster may soon be followed by a major seismological event close to Tokyo.

Recent headlines from the weekly magazines include: “The recurrence of a tsunami and quake under the capital” (Aera, April 25); “Seismologist issues urgent appeal: ‘An M8-class aftershock will come’ ” (Shukan Bunshun, April 28); “Inauspicious signs off the coast of Ibaraki and in southern Ibaraki — the terror of a huge quake under the Tokyo metropolis” (Shukan Asahi, April 28); “Fears of a huge M8-class aftershock to the east of Chiba Prefecture” (Flash, May 3); “The globe has been thrust into a period of major earthquake activity” (Friday, May 5).

While the viewpoints and perspectives of the scientists quoted in the articles vary widely, they are in general agreement that seismological activity off the coast of Japan appears to be intensifying — although no one can be sure if the scope of the activity will be confined to east Japan, some other part of Japan or the entire Pacific rim.

As chief researcher Takuya Nishimura of the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan told Aera (April 25), the March 11 quake was more than just a violent shake.

“The Japanese archipelago had previously been under pressure from the Pacific Plate and was moving west at around 2 cm per year,” said Nishimura. “The earthquake this time saw the plate on the terrestrial side spring up toward the east, so the archipelago has moved toward the east.”

But has this increased the likelihood of a major quake near the capital? No one knows, but we should be prepared for it anyway.

“Earthquake prediction is possible in terms of where an earthquake will strike, but seismology is still not advanced enough to say when,” British geologist Peter Hadfield, author of the 1991 book “Sixty Seconds that Will Change the World: The Coming Tokyo Earthquake,” wrote to me in an e-mail, adding, “The only way to estimate is to look at the time period between past earthquakes and make a rough guess, with a huge margin of error.”

It goes without saying that another destructive event in Tokyo so soon after the tragedy in March would have immense human and economic repercussions not only for Japan, but the entire world. A 2004 projection by a government think tank estimated possible economic losses would reach ¥112 trillion — about tenfold those of the March 11 disaster.

When asked if he agreed with the anxieties that the Tohoku quake and aftershocks would precipitate a major quake in Tokyo, however, Hadfield was noncommittal. “An earthquake along one part of a tectonic plate boundary can indeed trigger an earthquake along an adjacent section of the plate boundary,” he conceded. “But the two events may be separated by a number of years or even decades. So any definitive prediction that another earthquake will happen as a result of the Tohoku quake is purely a guess.”

For those in search of a safe haven, Flash’s Golden Week issue (May 10-17) introduces 40 of the best and worst areas, in terms of their geological stability, in the nation’s major urban areas. The best (and worst) in west and east Japan, respectively, were Suita City (and Yodogawa Ward) in Osaka and Suginami Ward (and Sumida Ward) in Tokyo.

But for most people, moving is not a practical option; so the next best thing is to be prepared. An article in Sunday Mainichi (May 8-15) gave suggestions about stocking up on food, and how to make a robust candle holder out of a discarded soup can. It also warned apartment dwellers to expect inconveniences, such as lack of elevators, in the event of power outages. Residents above the third floor of a high-rise apartment are advised to stock 10 days’ worth of emergency food and water. Every home should have an emergency-use toilet and antidiarrheic medication.

In the foreign community, it has been encouraging to see embassies and consulates take initiatives to look out for the safety of their citizens. The U.S. Embassy, in addition to maintaining a page on its website devoted to disaster preparedness (which it recommends as “an excellent ‘evergreen’ source of information for U.S. citizens”), informed me that it had e-mailed 28 separate messages and advisories to the registered U.S. community in Japan between March 11 and April 14.

The embassy also told me it had transformed its website (japan.usembassy.gov) into a “one-stop shop for earthquake and disaster information,” adding, “U.S. Ambassador John Roos became an important conduit of information for both American and Japanese citizens via Twitter, with the number of followers of @AmbassadorRoos more than quadrupling during the post-March 11 period.”