Suddenly, a trembling ...

Peter Popham explains why Japan is the last place he would want to be w hen an earthquake hits
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When a violent earthquake hit Los Angeles a year ago, killing 60 people and injuring 300, many Angelenos declared it was the last straw: after riots, smog, floods, fires and spiralling crime figures, the awesome power of the earthquake was the fac tor that was going to propel them to calmer zones.

As the people of Japan's congested cities follow on television the mayhem and misery of Kobe, where more than 1,700 died and 6,000 were injured after Monday morning's quake, and ruminate on the fact that an even more calamitous earthquake has long been expected to strike the capital, similar thoughts must be running through the minds of many. Having briefly entertained the idea, however, they will probably, as so often in the past, forget about it.

It is hard to conceive of a more terrifying place in which to experience an earthquake than a modern Japanese city. While salaries in Japan have overtaken those in the West, and in some respects their living standards, too, houses and flats are still generally small and crammed close together; population densities are among the highest in the world. Merely to keep the cities ticking over, to keep the traffic flowing and the commuters piling in and out of the mind-bogglingly frequent trains, requires levels of efficiency unknown elsewhere. Green spaces are pitifully few and far between; when you look down from the top of a skyscraper the conurbation stretches, a tight-packed jumble of smudgy, low-rise concrete, as far as the eye can see.

All these factors multiply the hazards of earthquake. There is nowhere to run, and tight-packed millions are all trying to run there at once. Each home in quake-prone areas has a designated "safety evacuation area" to which the occupants are required to flee in the event of fire or earthquake, but these are usually no more than school playgrounds or pocket-sized parks - quite inadequate to the task of protecting those living nearby.

Japan's worst earthquake this century hit Tokyo on 1 September 1923, just before noon, when in hundreds of thousands of households lunch was being cooked over charcoal burners. Built almost entirely of flimsy wood, the city was a tinder box, and in the fires caused by the quake more than 140,000 people died. (Its strangest and most sinister outcome was the persecution and killing of many resident Koreans, who were somehow held responsible.) American B-49 bombers caused similarly disastrous firestorms wh en they carpeted the city with incendiary bombs in 1945.

Some lessons were learnt from these two catastrophes. No new building in wood has been permitted in inner-city areas since the war, and regulations governing the structural strength of new concrete and steel buildings are very stringent, and rigidly enforced. Sitting out an earthquake in a Japanese skyscraper, holding haplessly on to your seat as the structure flaps from side to side, is extremely unpleasant - but there is little reason to suppose the thing will not continue to stand.

In other ways, however, the situation is much worse than it was 70 years ago. Despite the building regulations, many of Japan's buildings are older, rickety structures of wood or cement. In 1923, one could walk from one side of Tokyo to the other in an hour. Today, Kobe, like Tokyo, is part of a megalopolis. Back in the Twenties, rickshaw was the fastest mode of transport; today Japan's cities are wall-to-wall with cars, trucks and buses, beribboned by elevated motorways and railway tracks, seamed with gas pipes and electricity cables, with industrial zones full of petrol refineries and chemical plants folded into the fabric. Hundreds of thousands of people live on reclaimed land - vulnerable to tidal waves or tsunamis following a major quake, and threatened even more directly by the danger of liquefaction, when the landfill simply dissolves.

A report in 1990 by the Tokai Bank, based on Land Agency research, suggested that a repeat of the 1923 quake in Tokyo today would result in between 80,000 and 150,000 deaths. Despite the tragedy that has befallen them, the people of Kobe can be thankful the quake did not strike at, say, 8 or 9am instead of 6am, when tens of thousands of commuters would have been on the way to work, and the death toll would have been much higher.

The more imponderable result of a massively destructive earthquake in any major Japanese city is its effect internationally. If massive funds were required to rebuild the city, it has been suggested that the resulting pullout of Japanese money from investment abroad could plunge the world into another recession.

The most horrifying thing about an earthquake, compared with fire, flood or typhoon, is its suddenness, the way it envelopes one totally and immediately: if it is really severe, there is nothing to do but crawl under the nearest table. Accordingly, huge pressure falls on those whose job it is to predict these events. As Japan has been wracked by quakes since prehistory - national myth has it that the country rests on a giant catfish, which waves its tails from time to time - it is not surprising that huge amounts of money and energy have been poured into attempts to foresee earthquakes.

Popular superstition credits all manner of natural phenomena as portending the arrival of an earthquake - odd-shaped clouds, curious rainbows, flocks of birds, the behaviour of cats and dogs. Catfish themselves have been closely observed, their excited thrashings believed to betray their sensitivity to seismic events.

More scientifically, the Japan Meteorological Agency has built five Earthquake Prediction Centres around the country, where seismic events are closely monitored, so that even the start of work in a quarry or a car crash can show up on their screens. If amajor quake were to be clearly indicated by the data, the "six wise men" of the agency's assessment committee would be summoned by pager, to confer as to whether the prime minister should be advised to deliver a warning to the nation.

Such a thing has never yet happened, and the immature state of the science of earthquake prediction, coupled with the terrifying political implications of announcing a warning - causing a major business shutdown - and getting it wrong, make it hard to imagine its happening any time soon. Only 10 days ago, a professor in the science and engineering department of a university in Kyoto warned that pressure on tectonic faults between Osaka and Kyoto was building up, and was likely to cause a force 7 earthquake; but he hedged his bets by saying that it could be expected within the next century.

Unable to run or hide, and given little hope of getting a proper warning, how does the citizen of Kobe or Tokyo confront seismic doomsday? Just as the earthquake itself strips away Japan's Western veneer, revealing its Asian core and leaving it with the sort of massive death toll one would expect in a city of the Third World, so the prospect of a fatal quake exposes the unchanged, Asian contours of the Japanese soul.

Like death, decay and the cycle of the seasons, a quake belongs to that large category of things about which nothing can be done. As they bow their heads piously before great waterfalls or rocks or the Shinto shrines erected to famous generals, so they bow, orientally, to the power of the quake, in the spirit of resignation. The next moment, they begin to rebuild.

Bryan Appleyard is ill.