Peter Popham: The first rule of living in Japan: be prepared for an earthquake

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Earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan – perhaps the most fundamental one. When I moved to Tokyo some years ago I wrote home to tell my family of my first earthquake experiences.

"Surely you mean tremors," they replied. "We haven't heard anything about an earthquake." But the distinction between a quake and a tremor, so apparently obvious in Britain, is not one that impresses the Japanese. A jisshin is a jisshin, is a jisshin. It might start as a tremor, a vaguely sensual, rocking sensation under one's bottom accompanied by a faint squeaking in the rafters, but where is it going to end?

Most just fade out after a few seconds. Others, like yesterday's, start mild and harmless. But then suddenly things are falling off shelves, the walls are heaving back and forth and there is a deep rumbling coming up from the foundations – then you know it's time to dive for cover, under a table or into the lavatory, taking care to leave the door ajar so you can escape later should it become jammed in the frame.

Earthquakes are like mid-air scares in airplanes: far from getting used to them, they get scarier the more of them you go through. There were few reports of outright panic from Japan yesterday, despite the unprecedented, disaster-movie scale of what was unfolding – but that is social discipline, not absence of fear. In fact the legendary social discipline of the Japanese may have developed as a way of coming to terms with their seismic environment without losing control. "Shiran kao suru," or "Making a know-nothing face," is the Japanese equivalent of the British stiff upper lip, and very useful during earthquakes when the bowels threaten to liquefy and every instinct impels you towards the stairs and the door. Japanese learn early in life that the instinctive reaction is often the most perilous because of the debris flying through the air.

Earthquakes are largely to blame for the fact Japan's modern cities are horrendously ugly – to ensure they survive, high-rise concrete and steel structures have to be built enormously solidly. Rivers, coastlines and cliff faces are likewise thickly lined with concrete to reduce the risk of them crumbling away when the earth begins to shake.

But one should not carp: Japan may be the only country in the world which has really come to terms with the damage earthquake can do, and not only enacted appropriate laws but also enforced them. That alone singles it out from the vast majority of countries where earthquakes are a frequent menace.

A destructive earthquake is a serious test of a country's morality – one which most fail spectacularly. The blocks of flats built of cement which turn out to have been made using sand from the beach; the primary school ceilings which crumble and crush dozens of infants; the flyovers whose piers simply disintegrate – these are the scandals common in earthquakes all over the Developing World and not infrequently in southern Europe, too. There were at least a thousand deaths by last night, a horrendous toll – but after the strongest quake since records began 140 years ago, it could have been much worse. For all their economic problems over the past 20 years, the Japanese are still refusing to cut corners. Standing up to earthquakes, daring them to do their worst, is the response of modern, post-war Japan, wealthy and technologically advanced. In the past, before the development of modern building techniques, quakes were simply a fact of life. Because of the intense productivity of their paddy fields, Japanese like other Asians lived in towns and cities which were densely crowded compared with Europe. They developed an architecture of wooden posts and beams, which minimised the risk of being crushed. Intricately constructed rafters would shriek and rock from side to side during a quake and roof tiles would tumble to the ground, but as the houses had no solid masonry walls the risk of being crushed to death was slight.

There was, however, the ever-present risk of fire. On 1 September 1923, the biggest earthquake in Tokyo's history struck: the shock was probably not much greater than the one the city experienced yesterday, but far more disastrous was the firestorm that followed. The area that suffered the worst was the working class east end of the city, where hundreds of thousands lived tightly packed together in flimsy wooden houses. Fire raced through the town with astonishing speed. The residents fled, but there was nowhere to go because Tokyo had very few open spaces. Some 40,000 ended up in the only patch of open land they could find, next to the house and garden of a wealthy banker, and there the flames found them and roasted the lot.

That horror, and the even worse one caused by incendiary bombs during the Second World War, gave the Japanese the resolve never to let it happen again. Yet, despite all the redundantly solid buildings, the fear of fire remains a lively one. There are still no open spaces in the city; the population is in the tens of millions and lives in close proximity to enormous stores of inflammable fuels. Some years ago a report by Tokyo's Metropolitan Research Centre predicted a quake like that of 1923 would spark up to 3,000 fires across the city within 20 minutes, 300 of which would become major ones. Yesterday's inferno in the Cosmo Oil refinery, 40 km east of Tokyo, was a ghastly warning.

The biggest shocks in history

*Chile, May 1960:

At magnitude 9.5, the world's most powerful recorded quake killed 4,485 people and left two million homeless.

*Alaska, March 1964:

The magnitude-9.2 Prince William Sound earthquake killed 128 people.

*Sumatra, December 2004:

Nearly 230,000 people in 14 countries died in the Boxing Day tsunami, triggered by a magnitude-9.1 quake.

*Kamchatka, November 1952:

No one was killed in this magnitude-9 quake in the remote Russian peninsula.

*Arica, August 1868:

Almost 25,000 people died in this magnitude-9 earthquake in modern Chile.

*North America, January 1700:

Using contemporary accounts, historians say this quake reached magnitude 9.

*Japan, March 2011:

The magnitude-8.9 earthquake has already killed at least 1,000 people.

*Chile, February 2010:

The magnitude-8.8 quake killed 524 and was the worst ever to hit Concepción.

*Ecuador, January 1906:

1,500 died after this coastal quake.

*Portugal, November 1755:

The magnitude-8.7 quake devastated Lisbon, killing tens of thousands.

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