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Dire quake forecasts fail to stir a numb public

by Philip Brasor

Japan is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, a place where climate and geology conspire to provide almost monthly displays of dramatic destruction.

Then again, one has to wonder how much of this perception is caused by the media. The effects of typhoons and earthquakes on the collective psyche are just as devastating as they are on property when those effects are intensified by a sudden barrage of visual and instructive information. Even more intensifying is the use of journalism for predictive purposes, the way everyday anxiety is constantly reinforced by reports on possible disasters.

Is there a level of fear above which the mind reflexively retreats from imagining the worst? The Great East Japan Earthquake and resulting tsunami that devastated Tohoku and killed thousands was often described as being “beyond imagination” (sōteigai), so the art and science of projecting future catastrophes has had to adjust accordingly. NHK is the leader in this bold new honest approach to preparative reporting, probably because NHK is Japan’s nominal public broadcaster and doesn’t have to worry about spooking sponsors — such as companies selling high-rise condos — with scary speculations. The computer-generated simulations of cataclysms that NHK has produced for its occasional documentaries on the Big One aren’t as impressive as Hollywood’s but they’re frightening enough. They’re also recyclable. I think I’ve seen the one about the inundation of Tokyo’s subway system used for reports on both quake-triggered tsunami and so-called super typhoons. NHK is nothing if not resourceful.

But lately, commercial TV has also joined in the fun, regardless of what sponsors may think, probably because the collective attitude toward disasters since March 11, 2011, has reached the aforementioned tipping point. The fallout from this change of attitude was reflected last year by two revised projections of major quakes, one for Tokyo and the other for the area along the Nankai Trough in the Pacific.

According to the weekly Aera, these studies, carried out by independent geological teams but released through the Cabinet Office, endeavor to be more “realistic” in their projections than past studies. The study group that looked at a possible quake in the Nankai Trough, the ditch in the middle of the ocean that lies parallel to the Pacific coast of central to western Japan, based its projections on a magnitude 9 temblor, the same intensity that struck Tohoku in 2011. The last study of this area, concluded in 2003, used past quakes in the region as its main assessment criteria, and based its prediction of 25,000 deaths on a magnitude 7 quake. The new estimate is 323,000 deaths.

In effect, the study group “scientifically assumed the maximum possible area affected” by such a quake and made its calculations accordingly, says Aera, which adds that, as a result, local governments in affected areas now believe that coming up with measures to save lives and property in the event of a major quake “are useless.” A Ministry of Internal Affairs survey conducted last April showed that 60 percent of Japan’s local governments had no plans in place for assisting elderly and disabled people in the event of a disaster and didn’t intend to make any. Half of the people who died in the 3/11 disasters were seniors.

The new study of a quake hitting Tokyo also changed criteria from the last time it was carried out in 2004. In that study, the epicenter was assumed to occur below Tokyo Bay. The new survey places it under the city itself. Consequently, the number of projected deaths rose from 11,000 to 23,000. But the team stopped short of a worst-case scenario. The magnitude of its projection is limited to 7, which is still strong but much weaker than a 9, the reason being that a magnitude-7 is “more likely to occur” than a magnitude 8 or 9 quake. Aera conjectures that the study group, unlike the Nankai team, doesn’t want to alarm the public.

The difference in the two teams’ approaches highlights the problem with predicting quakes: What is the purpose, other than scientific curiosity? On the surface, projections are supposed to help the public prepare for quakes, but since they are not 100-percent reliable, people make of them what they will, and most of us may wonder what the point is. If we accept the Nankai Trough assessment, then we might as well just stay drunk until the Big One hits. If we read the Tokyo study in contrast, we may also wonder what the point is, since it isn’t the worst-case scenario (though it’s bad enough) and thus may seem like a dodge.

These perceptions were borne out to a point by a nationwide survey the Asahi Shimbun conducted in November, in which 89 percent of respondents admitted they are “not sufficiently prepared” for a major quake. The survey gets detailed in asking to what extent people are prepared — 48 percent know their evacuation centers, 33 percent have emergency supplies — but the general impression is that most respondents think there’s nothing they can do. Only half believe their homes can survive a major quake, and 86 percent of this group say they have no plan to make them safer. A substantial portion also think they “can manage somehow,” an answer that becomes more frequent as the age of the respondent increases.

But the most interesting reaction was to the weirdest question. When asked their opinion of the Nankai Trough worst-case prediction, 80 percent said they “agreed,” meaning, presumably, they thought it was good that the study team laid out a possible disaster in all its terrifying glory, because, obviously, it takes the onus off them for whatever happens. The Asahi calls this attitude the “bias of complacency,” though it could also be an expression of relief: Once you decide there’s nothing you can do about nature, you can get on with your life, or what’s left of it.