National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Natural disasters shake the nation to attention in 2018

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

You wake to pitch blackness, the house shaking crazily. Nightmare? Yes — a waking one. “Where are my glasses?” You’re helpless without your glasses. The shaking gets worse.

Earthquakes, typhoons, torrential rain, withering heat — this summer was a crash course in coping with natural onslaughts. The education is painful but necessary. Worse is to come — if not something unforeseen, then the very luridly foreseen Nankai Trough megaquake. Projections are legion: magnitude 9, 300,000 deaths, ¥1.4 quadrillion worth of damage, 4.3 million refugees; 70, 80 or 90 percent likely to happen within 30 years, with devastation radiating from an epicenter off southwestern Honshu through Nagoya, Chiba, Yokohama and Tokyo. Imagine, says Shukan Gendai magazine — sometimes it’s the relatively small calamities that seize the imagination — 17,000 people stuck between floors in disabled elevators.

Elevators present twin terrors: being stuck in one and being stuck without one. If you live high up in a tall building, with the power down and the water off, your 19th-floor apartment can be a claustrophobic prison, as it was following September’s Hokkaido quake for a Sapporo man Shukan Gendai spoke to. He’s in his 40s and healthy. Trudging up and down 19 flights of stairs for food, bottled water and whatever other needs two days of utility paralysis generate was exhausting but tolerable. But if you’re ill? Infirm? Old?

There’s no law that says earthquakes must occur, or are more likely to occur, in the dead of night, but many seem to. The Hokkaido one did, and a rude awakening it was. You come to your senses, grasp what’s happening, grope for your glasses — where are they?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. You can’t see in the dark anyway. Flashlight — there’s a flashlight somewhere. Where? You need a flashlight to find a flashlight. You hadn’t thought of that pre-quake!

There are many things, says Shukan Gendai, you don’t think of pre-quake. Let us say, it says, that the quake finds you drowning your sorrows, or raising your spirits, with spirits — you’re drunk, in other words. Whether you’ve been partying or moping is suddenly beside the point. The ground is opening beneath your feet, tossing you about like a rag doll. How will you get home? Where is home? You stagger outside. It’s pitch dark, not a light on anywhere. Maybe you promise yourself then and there never to drink again. Or maybe you stagger back into the bar, if it’s still standing, plant yourself on the stool you just vacated, if that’s still standing, and order another whiskey, if the bartender is still standing. In a magnitude 9 earthquake, they probably wouldn’t be.

The first reality of natural disasters is that they kill people. The second is that they displace people — by the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Homelessness seems preferable to death, but the relief of survival ebbs in the ordeal ahead. Death is the end of all ordeals; homelessness the beginning of a potentially very great, very long one. The dread it inspires is suggested by the choice many make to sleep privately in their cars rather than en masse in a shelter. The April 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes killed 55 directly and 170 indirectly. Among the indirect fatalities, Kyodo News reported, 41 — 24 percent — had spent at least one night in a vehicle, risking potentially lethal deep vein thrombosis, better known as economy class syndrome.

“Privacy,” architect Shigeru Ban told the Asahi Shimbun in an interview published last month, “is the most basic human right there is.” Disaster deprives us of it. Ban seeks to minimize the extent to which it does so. He converts mass space into personal space. He builds walls, partitions, rooms. His iconic building material is the cardboard tube — recycled paper. He’s famous worldwide, much in demand in areas reduced to rubble.

Not in his homeland, however. “I’ve been called to Turkey, to Nepal, many places,” he tells the Asahi. “In Japan, no one has ever called me.” He goes anyway, on his own initiative — to Kobe in 1995 after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, to Niigata in 2004 after the Chuetsu Earthquake, to Fukushima in 2011 after the Great East Japan Earthquake, to Kumamoto, to Hokkaido.

He’s won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award. Why does Japan alone scorn his services?

“Wherever I go” in Japan, he says, “I get the same response from the local government: ‘We don’t need you, there’s no precedent.’ Unpartitioned space is easier to manage, you see. Behind partitions, people may drink and cause trouble.”

Ban explains, wheedles, cajoles and finally secures permission to work, but it’s an uphill battle. The lack of privacy, he says, “is why people would rather sleep in their cars than go to a shelter.”

And yet privacy has shallow roots in Japan. The very word had to be borrowed from English to name a novelty of 19th-century Westernization. Traditional homes had no corridors between rooms. Such partitions as there were — screens of thin shoji paper — would hardly have met Ban’s standards. The private conversation would have been impossible; private meditation nearly so.

It’s a fine line, the Japanese have discovered since then, between privacy as a luxury and privacy as a burden. The price to pay for the enrichment it affords is the isolation it imposes. How private — how alone — does one want to be? The answer will vary from individual to individual, and within the same individual from time to time. Alone, we crave company; in company, relief from company. How much the more so when disaster strikes, throwing us into company that is haphazard or privacy that is a locked car.

It’s not the worst fear as we look ahead to nature’s next murderous caprice — but it’s not the least one either.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.