In quake-prone Japan, Kumamoto temblors stir worry of 'Tokyo X Day'

by Finbarr Flynn and Katsuyo Kuwako


There’s nothing comical about this manga: office building windows shatter, trains derail and cars plunge from buckling bridges. It all happens at 4:35 p.m. on a day dubbed “Tokyo’s X Day.”

This catastrophic scenario is depicted in a 300-page book on earthquake preparedness published by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The book, which includes tips on how to make fly traps to rid evacuation centers of pests, begins with a weighty warning: Experts say there’s a 70 percent chance of a quake directly hitting the greater Tokyo area, home to 36 million people, within the next three decades.

“It’s a race between us and the earthquake. And if we don’t win it we won’t be able to protect the capital,” said professor Satoshi Fujii of Kyoto University, a special adviser on disaster preparation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet.

Preparations for the “Big One” in Tokyo have taken on more urgency this month after two devastating temblors struck in Kyushu, exposing weaknesses in the nation’s readiness for such disasters. Lying on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines crisscrossing the Pacific Basin, Japan is a nation of quakes, up to 2,000 per year, with densely populated cities. This combination puts thousands of people at risk of losing their lives in a major calamity that could strike at any time.

On April 14, Kumamoto Prefecture sustained the biggest quake in the country since the March 2011 disaster that killed over 16,000 people in the Tohoku region. The quake, with a magnitude of 6.5, was followed some 28 hours later by another registering a magnitude of 7.3. This kind of double strike hadn’t been foreseen by experts, according to Fujii.

The government should immediately inspect official buildings used as disaster command posts after some in Kumamoto were put out of action, he said in an interview. “Once and for all, we have to take action on the basis (that) this thing is coming,” Fujii said.

‘Highly imminent scenario’

There are educated guesses as to how such a disaster might play out. A magnitude-7 earthquake occurring directly under greater Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis, is a “highly imminent scenario” that may result in as many as 23,000 fatalities and ¥95 trillion ($856 billion) in economic damage, according to the Cabinet office’s Disaster Management in Japan white paper for 2015.

The government is aiming to reduce that number by half by reinforcing more houses, preventing fires and attempting to lessen population densities in areas at most risk from an earthquake.

An even more devastating vision assumes a triple-earthquake combined with massive tsunami that would swallow a large swath of Japan’s Pacific coast, with damage reaching as far as Tokyo. That might leave as many as 323,000 people dead and result in economic damage of ¥214 trillion, according to the Cabinet Office. The probability of such a scenario is “extremely small,” but the panel decided to publicize it in order to share lessons learned from the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, according to a final report three years ago.

Early and large-scale evacuation by people to structures resistant to tsunami would reduce fatalities by as much as 80 percent from the deluge, according to the panel. There is about a 70 percent chance of an earthquake with a magnitude of 8 or 9 striking the area off southwest Japan known as the Nankai Trough in the next 30 years.

The government has adopted separate disaster plans since 2014. One addresses earthquakes originating in the Nankai Trough, which has triggered six of at least 7.9 in magnitude since 1600. The other foresees a magnitude-7 quake directly under Tokyo’s main 23 wards. The Tohoku disaster began with a magnitude-9 quake, which triggered tsunami as high as 39 meters, washing away towns and crippling a nuclear power plant.

The Tokyo government’s disaster preparedness book features the dazed hero, Mamoru, a name that means “protect” in Japanese. As he gapes at the tilting buildings and cratering roads, Mamoru finds his mobile phone service has been suspended due to congestion. Eventually, normalcy is restored when it turns out nothing has happened. A quake alert from the Meteorological Agency had triggered his imagination. A caption reads, “This story is fictitious and is nonrelated to real people or organizations.”

Practical tips

Elsewhere in the book there are practical steps on how to make a compress to cope with arterial bleeding, capillary and venous bleeding. The book advises using tights or neckties as a substitute for bandages, and newspapers to stay warm. Supermarket bags can be fashioned into emergency diapers.

Some local governments and companies have agreed to open their offices as emergency shelters if necessary.

Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., the copper and nickel producer that also owns Japan’s only gold mine, has been reviewing its facilities to ensure they can withstand a large earthquake and is prepared to take in people at its Tokyo headquarters if they can’t get home after a disaster stops train services.

Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, which houses the financial districts of Marunouchi and Otemachi, is asking companies to stock three-days’ worth of disaster supplies and has agreements with companies to take in about 27,000 people if needed, according to Kenichiro Ishiwata of the ward’s disaster planning office. The ward estimates 500,000 people may be unable to return home if a large earthquake occurred, and with only 1,000 local-level officials, Ishiwata acknowledges limits to what authorities can do.

“It is only a matter of time before a large subduction zone earthquake occurs offshore of Tokyo,” said Gavin Hayes, research geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey, who was involved in examining this month’s Kumamoto quakes. “Eventually that subduction zone south of the Tohoku earthquake will probably generate a very large earthquake.”

Residents worry about being lost in the aftermath of a disaster. Mariko Kamikawa, who is in her 70s, visited her local Tokyo city office last week to inquire about how she would be rescued if the need arose.

“I have been preparing for this earthquake since even before the Tohoku quake,” said Kamikawa. “I live alone, like many of my friends, there are many old people, so it’s really a worry. If something happened, will the people here come to save us?”

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