It was a fateful day for Tokyo and the nation.
At 11:58 a.m on Sept. 1, 1923, a killer tremor measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale struck the Tokyo area.
Ensuing fires rapidly spread and developed into firestorms that engulfed much of the city. The damage from the quake and fires was devastating: more than 100,000 were killed, 250,000 buildings were destroyed and 447,000 structures burned down.
The postquake economic confusion was one of the factors that triggered a financial panic, leading the nation into a dark era of militarism.
Now that 75 years have passed since the Great Kanto Earthquake, experts agree the possibility has increased that a major quake will strike directly beneath Tokyo. The next “big one” may be smaller than the 1923 quake, say experts who predict it is not likely to exceed a magnitude 7 on the Richter scale.
But that does not mean it would not be disastrous. A 1997 simulation by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government predicted that about 7,200 people would be killed, 158,000 injured, and 378,000 buildings destroyed if an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale were to hit Tokyo.
Japan has been one of the world’s most quake-prone countries and still is, as was recently demonstrated by the powerful Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995.
So, experts advise preparing yourself and your family for a worst-case scenario. Some of the following tips for coping with a major earthquake may be helpful.
Local governments usually designate open-space sites such as parks, schools and riverbeds as evacuation sites. Residents are advised to contact their local municipal office to find out where they should take shelter if a major earthquake hits.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government designates 173 places in Tokyo’s 23 wards and about 3,000 places in other municipalities in Tokyo as evacuation sites.
The metropolitan government also stores drinking water at 178 places, and from anywhere in Tokyo, at least one can be reached within 2 km. The stored water would last for three weeks, assuming that every resident in Tokyo consumes 3 liters a day. Local municipalities in Tokyo also store emergency food for residents.
But such supplies may not be available in towns outside Tokyo, and Tokyo officials recommend that each household and business secure emergency water and food that would last at least three days after a quake.
Indeed, a lack of water supply was one of the most nagging problems for many residents after the 1995 Hanshin quake; it took 90 days for authorities to finish repairing water pipes in quake-stricken areas.
The Disaster Control Division of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government suggests that in addition to cash and valuables, water, food, a first-aid kit, portable radio, flashlight and batteries should be kept at home. Many Japanese households store these items in one bag so they can be easily carried in the event of a major disaster.
Securing routes for emergency vehicles is another pressing issue after a major disaster. Immediately after the 1995 Hanshin earthquake, about 30 percent of roads between 4 and 8 meters wide became impassable to vehicles, causing massive traffic jams.
Motorists are urged not to use cars in disasters. If a major earthquake hits the Tokyo area, the Metropolitan Police Department would shut down many of the major roads, including all expressways in Tokyo, to secure routes for emergency vehicles such as fire engines, ambulances and trucks carrying relief goods.
In the event of a major disaster in Tokyo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government airs disaster information on FM radio stations. InterFM at 76.1 MHz provides such information in 10 languages: English, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Indonesian, Spanish, French, Thai, Portuguese and Japanese.
The following is a list of some useful telephone services in English:
The Foreign Residents’ Advisory Center (Tokyo): (03) 5320-7744;
Chiba Prefectural Foreign Resident Advisory Services: (043) 222-6652;
Kanagawa Prefecture counseling service in English: (045) 324-2299;
Saitama Prefecture counseling service in English: (048) 822-4812, Mondays and Thursdays only;
Network for Foreigners’ Assistance Kobe: (078) 232-1290;
Japan Helpline: (0120) 46-1997;
NTT customer service information: (0120) 364-463.
To call an ambulance or firefighters, dial 119. If you speak in English, make sure to speak clearly and slowly.
Below is a list of some useful Japanese words that you may hear or need to use in the event of an earthquake.
“Jishin” = earthquake
“Hinan basho” = evacuation area
“Hinan basho wa doko desu ka?” = Where is a (nearby) evacuation area?
“Shindo” = the Japanese intensity scale
“Magunichudo” = magnitude on the Richter scale
“Kaji” = fire