Quake-prone Japan prepares for the 'big one'

The signs in major department stores do not equivocate: "Buy now . . . It's the earthquake-typhoon season." Several have set up special "safety shops" offering protective and survival equipment that cater to a growing national unease at the frequency of natural disasters, particularly of the earthmoving variety.

Minor earthquakes occur everyday near Tokyo and for years have hardly raised eyebrows. But even to a race inured to the potent visitations of nature -- volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, typhoons, and floods -- a recent flurry of tremors has given cause for concern.

Scientists have been predicting for several years that the Japanese capital has completed the cycle and is now ready for another "big one." A leading expert did not encourage much optimism when he stated recently that the 12 million people of Tokyo were living on a "geophysical time bomb" that could explode at any moment.

It last did so in September 1923, when collapsing buildings -- and more especially fires -- killed an estimated 140,000 people and reduced Tokyo and neighboring Yokohama to rubble and ashes. Concerted efforts are being made to prepare the capital for another earthquake of that magnitude, 7.9 on the open-ended Richter scale.

But disaster planning director Yoshinobu Asakura says flatly: "Nobody really knows how the city will cope with the big one, no matter how much advance planning we do. Really, our main effort is to try and educate the people to cope with a major disaster in a calm manner to reduce the chaotic aftermath that adds to the toll of dead and injured."

Japan has made considerable progress in earthquake prediction, but not to the stage where experts can confidently give, say, 24 hours notice so that Tokyo could be evacuated orderly.

Electronic "early warning devices" have been planted on the bed of the Pacific Ocean in an area historically earthquake-prone south of Tokyo. In theory, they will provide sufficient advanced warning for the halting of train services and evacuation of towns.

But Tokyo has not been included so far, mainly due to the problem of quickly trying to evacuate 12 million people. Observers also worry that too many false alarms could dull reactions to a real disaster.

The emphasis, therefore, is on education. Television programs, for example, repeatedly use model houses to demonstrate the lethal effects of a major tremor and teach people how to cope, especially with fires.

There is also a public education campaign urging families to work out a coordinated emergency plans: Where, for instance, will family members reunite if separated for a time? Each district has designated evacuation areas, such as parks and school playgrounds.

Coping with an earthquake is also part of the school curriculum, even at the elementary level. Children are taught how to huddle under desks or tables the moment a building starts swaying to help protect them from debris.

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