You’ve probably noticed that September is the month of bōsai (防災, disaster prevention). Schools and companies hold drills, TV news programs tell you repeatedly to check that your kinkyū hinan baggu (緊急避難バッグ, emergency pack) is stocked and ready. In homes, married couples have conversations (or arguments) about where the flashlight is, why it’s not always in the same place, and whose fault that is. It’s a Japanese couples thing.

Long before the triple calamities of March 11, 2011, Japan as a nation had been disaster-prone — a historical, ancestral fact of life that has made the Japanese hyper-hazard-conscious. Consider the word saigai (災害, disaster), comprised of the kanji characters wazawai (災い, mishap or bad luck) and gai (害, hazard).

The Japanese disaster comes in many forms, and saigai include tensai (天災, literally, heaven-sent disasters — i.e., natural ones) like jishin (地震, earthquakes), kōzui (洪水, floods) and kaji (火事, fires). On a smaller scale, there’s the roster of small catastrophes called sainan (災難); these include everything from mushisasare (虫さされ, mosquito bites) and hage (ハゲ, losing your hair) to wakare (別れ, break-ups), rikon (離婚, divorce) and other relationship troubles.

It’s drummed into us from birth that the quicker we realize calamity can strike at any moment, the better we’ll be prepared to live out life on this archipelago. Nani ga okoru ka wakaranai (何が起こるかわからない, “There’s no telling what might happen”) and Sonae areba urei nashi (備えあれば憂いなし, “Be prepared and you will have no regrets”) are refrains we hear from the cradle.

Speaking as a Tokyoite, disaster is something so embedded in the collective memory, it’s almost as if I actually experienced events like the Kant ō Daishinsai (関東大震災, Great Kanto Earthquake) in 1923 and the Tōkyō Daikūshū (東京大空襲, Great Tokyo Air Raid) of World War II — and even my second cousin’s kekkonsagi jiken (結婚 詐欺事件, marriage scam incident), which is still a katarigusa (語り草, main topic of conversation) among the relatives.

One grows up with stories, like how my grandmother’s sister rescued the family nukadoko (ぬか床, bed of fermented brown rice used for pickling vegetables) when her parents’ house was hit by a firebomb during the taisen (大戦, “great war” — WWII), and how she ran all the way from shitamachi (下町, downtown) Tokyo to the Kōkyo (皇居, Imperial Palace) carrying that nukadoko on her back. As for my second cousin, she fell in love with a man who proposed and then asked for a loan of ¥900,000 as part of a down payment on a condo. She paid up, he disappeared and the condo proved to be nonexistent. There’s another name for this sort of wazawai: jinsai (人災), meaning a man-made catastrophe. How apt.

Growing up in the Japanese public school education system, bōsai is one of the first words we learn, along with sakura (桜, cherry blossom). In most elementary schools, purchasing a bōsai zukin (防災頭巾, fire-resistant hood) is mandatory, and at every drill the child is made to wear that hood and crawl underneath his or her desk, before calmly marching out of the classroom in single file to the schoolyard, where the principal stands at a podium and lectures everyone on the importance of keeping calm and staying in line. The local shōbōsho (消防署, fire station) usually sends someone over to talk about the emergency backpack, and the drill ends with a free distribution of time-honored hijōshoku (非常食, emergency food) such as kanpan (乾パン, dried bread), kanmen (乾麺, dehydrated noodles) and other dried-out stuff that actually doesn’t taste too bad.

(Sad fact: There are always two or three kids in every classroom who eat up the hijōshoku as soon as they get home. An even sadder fact: the infamous kodomo no hinkonritsu (こどもの貧困率, child poverty rate) in Japan has hit an all-time high, with 1 out of 6 kids now living in poverty, many of whom often go hungry.)

Speaking of emergency packs, things are more complicated and mendōkusai (面倒くさい, a major hassle) for adults: The stuff we’re supposed to get ready these days is many and varied — and often embarrassing. One of the major lessons learned after 3/11 was the importance of toilets: It’s the very first cause of anxiety, especially among women and the elderly, and the emphasis has shifted from how to procure food to the best way to deal with one’s haisetsubutsu (排泄物, excrement). The operative word is seijinyō omutsu (成人用おむつ, adult diapers). The main issue and bone of contention in every hinanjo (避難所, shelter) was that a whole lot of people had to crowd around one lone kan’i toire (簡易トイレ, portable toilet stall).

Don’t scoff at diapers — Japan leads the world in this field, and in a crowded shelter with little or no access to running water, the omutsu could turn out to be your best friend. Other mandatory items include a small hōki (箒, broom) and chiritori (塵取り, dustpan), newspaper sheets, several rolls of toilet paper and a large-size dasshūzai (脱臭剤, deodorizer).

If being disaster-prone has taught us anything, it’s that life after the event is when the real hardships begin.

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