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When Hokkaido native Tatsushi Ueda landed a job at the Shizuoka Prefectural Government nearly 40 years ago, he was given a somber send-off that made him feel like he might never see home again.

It was 1983, a time when Shizuoka Prefecture was still abuzz over a research paper warning about the inevitable Tokai earthquake, or “the Big One.”

“One of the first things people in Hokkaido asked me back then was, ‘Can you survive the earthquake?,'” the press secretary for Shizuoka’s crisis management office recalled in a recent interview. “They were seeing me off as if I were a soldier heading off to war.”

Shizuoka Prefecture lies along the Pacific coast of Tokai, a part of Honshu’s central Chubu region. The Tokai quake theory warns that a magnitude 8 temblor is likely to strike directly under Shizuoka and Suruga Bay, right on the doorstep of Mount Fuji, a volcano. It was proposed in 1976 by Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a junior University of Tokyo researcher who later became one of Japan’s top seismologists.

After Ishibashi’s theory was picked up by the media, it left Shizuoka scrambling to prepare for a catastrophic jolt that reports said “could happen as soon as tomorrow.”

And so began Shizuoka’s journey toward becoming the most “quake-ready” prefecture in Japan. Over the following decades, disaster prevention has become one of Shizuoka’s highest policy priorities and a key part of its residents’ mentality.

But 44 years later, the feared “Big One” continues to elude, and signs of complacency are gradually emerging.

Bracing for a quake

The government invested heavily in the much-touted goal of predicting the arrival of the Tokai quake — an undertaking it effectively froze in 2017 with the implicit admission it had bitten off more than it could chew.

Today, with quake prediction as a science all but abandoned, the Tokai quake is being dwarfed by talk of the latest new threat — the feared Nankai Trough earthquake.

The government says it cannot predict this one but claims it has a roughly 70 percent probability of striking within the next 30 years in a deep ocean valley stretching along the coastline from Shizuoka all the way down to Kochi Prefecture.

Historical records show that Shizuoka — situated at the tectonic junction of the Philippine Sea Plate, the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate — experiences frequent quakes and tsunami. It also hosts part of Mount Fuji, which has repeatedly erupted from time immemorial, as well as the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, which was idled after the 2011 magnitude 9 quake and subsequent tsunami led to core meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture.

The 3/11 quake ravaged the Tohoku region and forced the government to face the fact that “Japan could experience a quake as strong as that” and readjust its hypotheses accordingly, according to Cabinet Office official Satoshi Kawamoto.

With that shift in mentality, Shizuoka, too, updated its damage estimate from the Tokai scenario to reach an almost apocalyptic conclusion: a worst-case death toll of 105,000 in a magnitude 9 Nankai Trough quake.

This 2013 estimate accounted for nearly a third of the nationwide tally of 323,000 released by the central government in a separate estimate the year before.

“It was a shocking figure,” Ueda, the crisis manager, said. “But that doesn’t mean we were in despair. Having for years worked hard under the spirit of ‘Let’s stand up to the Tokai earthquake,’ we felt we could overcome this new challenge by expanding on the expertise we had built all along.”

The new estimate prompted Shizuoka to initiate a 10-year action plan in 2013 to firm up its tsunami countermeasures. As of the end of 2017, the expected death toll had fallen to 65,800, according to the prefecture.

Shizuoka’s disaster prevention program, however, has a much longer history, dating back to the 1970s. From 1979 to 2017, the prefecture invested ¥2.4 trillion in efforts to — among other things — make schools, hospitals and other public facilities more quake-resistant, develop emergency transportation and implement measures to prevent mudslides. It also required builders to comply with more stringent seismic standards than designated by national law. In a testament to the seriousness with which Shizuoka residents take disaster prevention, 33.6 percent of the prefecture’s populace participated in its annual quake drills in fiscal 2017 — a turnout that dwarfed the national average of just 3.3 percent.

Enter Takayoshi Iwata, a former prefectural official who for years spearheaded what he called a “pioneering” effort to make Shizuoka disaster-resistant.

“Shizuoka pretty much had a free rein to do whatever we thought was the best, because until the (1995) Great Hanshin Earthquake (in Hyogo Prefecture), seismic countermeasures had been a territory simply ignored by everyone else. Shizuoka was the only prefecture that was serious about it,” said Iwata, who now heads the Center for Integrated Research and Education of Natural Hazards at Shizuoka University.

Many of Shizuoka’s inventions have since been emulated by other areas of Japan, including a reinforcement technique in which two pillars are combined into an “X” formation to bolster buildings, Iwata said.

The former official also says disaster-related education is featured in every step of the prefecture’s 12-year school curriculum from elementary to high school, a unique system that he believes has ingrained disaster prevention in the consciousness of all Shizuoka residents.

While it’s true Shizuoka might take the brunt of a Nankai Trough earthquake, “gone are the days when Shizuoka alone was thought at risk of quakes,” Iwata said. Every part of Japan, he said, now seems equally quake-prone, with major temblors rocking Niigata in 2004, Kumamoto in 2016 and Hokkaido in 2018.

Ueda agrees with that often-understated assessment.

“The strange reality is that the whole time we were gearing up for the Tokai earthquake, other areas got caught off-guard by earthquakes, whereas nothing major has happened to us,” he said.

“I’m not saying whatever disaster-prevention expertise we’ve accumulated all along makes Shizuoka superior to other prefectures, but I do believe it will contribute to the safety of our residents” when the Big One really hits.

Letting their guard down

As much as Shizuoka touts its preparedness, years of waiting have led to what appears to be a dwindling sense of crisis.

A biennial survey by Shizuoka Prefecture showed in 2017 that the percentage of residents “very interested” in the Nankai Trough or Tokai earthquakes stood at 36.1 percent, down sharply from 63.8 percent after the 2011 mega-quake. The ratio of those “not so interested,” meanwhile, rose to 8.1 percent, the highest in 20 years, the poll showed.

“It’s all about fate. If the quake comes, then that’s that,” said Kaoru Akiyama, a 47-year-old working mother who lives in the coastal city of Numazu.

Although her residence is so close to the sea it can easily be engulfed by tsunami, she said disaster prevention doesn’t take priority in her life.

“Earthquakes don’t really feel real to me unless they happen to me or my family. … My everyday life is just so busy that all I know is that I will do my best to survive when the quake happens. That’s what I tell my kid to do, too.”

In what critics say is a manifestation of that mental shift, a plan is underway to move the Shizuoka Municipal Government’s Shimizu Ward Office and a flagship hospital in the coastal district to tsunami-prone areas. The plan, pushed by Shizuoka Mayor Nobuhiro Tanabe, has ignited a bitter war of words with Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu, who reportedly slammed it as “insane.”

The city is pushing to move the ward office, which is already in a tsunami risk zone, to an area near Shimizu Station that is similarly labeled high-risk. It also backs a plan to move Sakuragaoka Hospital, a private facility currently outside the tsunami danger zone, to the place where the Shimizu Ward Office sits today, just a few hundreds of meters away from the sea.

Tanabe repeatedly claims that moving the ward office closer to the station will help boost the economy and bring Shimizu closer to becoming a “compact city.”

On its website, the city says it will take ample precautions against tsunami by, for instance, redesigning the ward office using pillars to raise it above ground.

While the Shizuoka Municipal Assembly approved the ward office relocation plan in October, Shigeki Kazama, an assemblyman from the local Sosei Shizuoka (Create Shizuoka) Party, said he opposes the plan, calling it a symbol of the city’s weakening vigilance.

“Given a lesson we learned from the Tohoku disaster in 2011, moving the new office to a similarly tsunami-prone area is out of the question,” Kazama said.

“The fact that even the city of Shizuoka, the capital of the prefecture that’s supposed to be the most conscious of disaster prevention, is making decisions like this is very worrying. That could set an egregious precedent for other municipalities as well,” he said. “It is this complacency about disaster prevention that the governor is angry about.”

Dreaming of prediction

The past 40 years have seen both Shizuoka and the central government rethink their positions on the Tokai earthquake theory.

It all started with the Large-Scale Earthquake Countermeasures Act, which was enacted by the Diet in 1978. The unprecedented legislation was premised on the idea that the government could predict the Big One shortly before it hits by detecting anomalous data deemed “precursors” to the approaching upheaval.

The prediction system would enable the prime minister to declare a state of emergency to halt all economic activities in Shizuoka and other municipalities in the vicinity, essentially putting them under lockdown. The law was hastily passed after just two months of Diet deliberation that overlooked an important point: Japan couldn’t predict earthquakes.

Although the system detailed by the law exclusively targeted the Tokai quake, researchers in prediction “continuously trumpeted the possibility they could predict other quakes as well” in the years that followed, notes seismologist Robert Geller, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who is an outspoken critic of quake prediction.

Emboldened by the law, the central government began investing more lavishly than before in quake prediction research. A five-year budget of ¥78.6 billion, for example, was earmarked for such entities as the now defunct Science and Technology Agency and the Meteorological Agency for the period from 1994 to 1998, science ministry data shows. Despite these efforts, the deadly 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake struck completely by surprise, Geller says.

It wasn’t until September 2017 that the government officially acknowledged, based on a report compiled by experts in 2013, that making an “accurate forecast” — a euphemism for prediction — is too difficult. The admission effectively froze the prediction framework of the 1978 law, which had never been activated.

“Although the framework is technically still alive on paper, we have concluded that the technology we have at the moment cannot detect observation data that would warrant the declaration of a state of emergency” stipulated by it, said Kawamoto, the Cabinet Office official.

The prediction framework for the Tokai quake has essentially been supplanted by an alternate warning system that, while ruling out prediction, covers a wider section of the Pacific coast that might be hit by the feared Nankai Trough quake.

Under this system, called rinji jōhō (special information), if a magnitude 8 or bigger jolt strikes in the Nankai Trough, the Meteorological Agency will issue a warning to other high-risk zones urging residents to evacuate and stay vigilant for a week. But unlike the emergency declaration system set up in the 1978 law, the rinji jōhō system doesn’t impose a lockdown on economic activities and, since it is not based on prediction, cannot be issued even if all Nankai Trough zones are struck simultaneously, according to Kawamoto.

Geller, for his part, argues that present science is incapable of not only making short-term “predictions” but long-term “forecasts” as well, rendering as “bogus” the government’s much-hyped forecast that the Nankai Trough quake has a 70 percent probability of striking within the next 30 years. This forecast, he said, is based on what he called the scientifically groundless notion that quakes repeat in cycles.

It is for this reason Geller insists the public should ignore the government’s long-term Nankai Trough forecasts, though this doesn’t mean Shizuoka or anywhere else along the trough isn’t in danger.

“All we can say with today’s science is that every part of Japan is equally at risk of earthquakes,” Geller said.

The retired professor says the government’s forecasts are not only worthless but detrimental. Singling out specific regions as particularly high-risk under the Nankai scenario, he said, can instill a false sense of security in unflagged areas, thereby exacerbating damage.

Aside from this quake, the government is separately claiming a 70 percent probability of a magnitude 7 temblor hitting Tokyo over the next 30 years.

Geller said Japan learned its lesson the hard way in 2011.

“They kept saying Tokai was in danger. But a magnitude 9 earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear crisis happened in Tohoku instead. The damage was needlessly large as a byproduct of complacency induced in Tohoku,” Geller said.

“Had the government emphasized that not only Tokai but also Tohoku and everywhere else can be hit by earthquakes, then necessary precautions might have been taken in advance to prevent meltdowns at the very least.”

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