Out of Japan: Mother Earth holds no fears for the stoics

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - Last Friday night at 8.06pm Japan had its worst earthquake in 11 years - but you would never have guessed from the reactions of the media and people at large. A mere two people died and 450 were injured, and the story received less attention than the continuing tension over Iraq and the Japanese Prime Minister's current tour of South-east Asia.

I write 'a mere two people died' because, given the strength of the quake, which registered 7.5 on the Richter scale, the deaths would have been incomparably higher if the epicentre had been closer to the surface and to a large population centre. The epicentre was 75 miles below ground, and offshore from the town of Kushiro on the northern island of Hokkaido, a relatively sparsely inhabited part of Japan.

But in intensity, the quake was nearly as strong as the 7.9 shock that destroyed large parts of Tokyo in 1923, leaving more than 100,000 people dead. And, as a few dedicated seismologists repeatedly warn, Tokyo is soon due another quake of similar strength. But, as with the boy who cried wolf, people have heard the warnings so often that they have built them into their subconscious, into that part of the mind which registers the dangers of car accidents or the probability of being mugged in New York - and get on with their lives regardless.

Friday's earthquake was so strong it was felt in Tokyo, nearly 600 miles away. A tall bookcase in my flat wobbled ominously, and I held on to it for the duration - nearly half a minute - with heart pounding. (I must confess to a paranoia about earthquakes, having seen the one in Mexico in 1985 that left 10,000 dead - since then I have become highly sensitive to the slightest quiver, real or imagined, under my feet.)

Meanwhile, an American friend was drinking in a bar on the 20th floor of a building in central Tokyo, and watched nervously as the paintings on the wall started to clatter. A Japanese woman reassured him that 'it always feels stronger when you are so high up' - making him feel even worse. 'I was ready to go for the stairs,' he said, apparently the only other person in Tokyo who was at all put out by the event.

Up in Hokkaido, where the shocks were felt more strongly, the locals reacted calmly. Shigeru Toyosaki, 71, was asleep when the earthquake caused his house to slide 60 feet down a slope. 'I woke up as I felt my body being lifted . . . after the tremor stopped, I heard my neighbours calling me from above, and I learned my house had fallen down the slope.' As simple as that, as if his neighbour had told him he had left his car lights on. ('Thanks for mentioning it. Could you give me a hand pushing my house back up the hill again?')

One woman in Kushiro said the main problem with the earthquake was that the water supply had been cut - so she couldn't flush her lavatory.

Of the two people who died, one was an elderly woman who inhaled gas from a ruptured pipe. The other was Ryoichi Kikuchi, who emerged as the tragic hero of the incident. Mr Kikuchi, 65, threw himself on top of his handicapped wife to protect her from falling objects - seconds before a chandelier fell from the ceiling, killing him. His wife survived.

Of course Japan is better accustomed than most to the assaults of the elements. Every year it is battered by typhoons, spewed upon by volcanoes and shaken by earthquakes, not to mention the bashing it gets from US trade negotiators. But still there is something eerie about the extent of public equanimity to the primordial shudders of Mother Earth.

Maybe part of the reason is that in a group-orientated society, nobody wants to stand out by being the first to show signs of incipient panic. Perhaps everyone is going though the same inner contortions, but with admirable self-discipline manages to avoid showing any sign of fear, putting on instead a detached look expressing at most the inconvenience of it all. Or perhaps I am just paranoid.