Tokyo readies for 'the big one'

Sunday's largest-ever earthquake-preparation drill will test government - and citizen - coordination.

Neighbors rush to rescue neighbors from the debris of crumbled buildings, a girl bandages her mother's head, a man seizes an extinguisher and douses a nascent fire that might have eaten up an entire apartment block.

If only things went so smoothly after a real earthquake.

At disaster-preparedness drills like this one in a residential neighborhood of central Tokyo this past Sunday, everything moves like clockwork, down to the bowls of free miso soup ladled out to the would-be homeless. But the last time Japan suffered a massive earthquake, in Kobe in 1995, 6,500 people lost their lives amid criticism that rescue efforts were sluggish and uncoordinated. Government officials now say they can do better - but that the public could, too, if only more people would take the initiative to help themselves and neighbors in distress.

"What we've seen is that people expect everything from official government institutions, and they do very little to help themselves and the people around them," says Megumi Mizoue, chairman of the Earthquake Assessment Committee at the Japan Meteorological Agency. In Japan's hierarchical society, many think it improper to assume jobs to which they haven't been assigned. "And in the last 20 years, people have grown more isolated and are living in apartment houses where they don't know their neighbors," adds Mr. Mizoue.

The test will be this Sunday in Tokyo, during Japan's largest-ever earthquake- preparation drill. And especially after a summer in which jolts and volcanic eruptions seemed almost as common as rainshowers, people seem to be taking this year's annual "Disaster Prevention Day" - which falls this Friday, the anniversary of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake - a bit more seriously.

From neighborhood drills like the one at a local junior high school, to efforts by big brokerages to install quake-proof trading rooms, much of Tokyo seems to be preparing for the "big one," expected to hit the city sooner or later.

While office workers often roll their eyes at the annual evacuation drills around Sept. 1, several hundred residents here braved a soppy 90 degree-swelter, sweating through drills early last Sunday. "This is the first time we're joining in this drill, and it's worth it to learn to do things like this at least once," says Hisao Saito, a Chinese-restaurant owner, as he and his two sons study a demonstration on how to put out fires - potentially the most damaging part of an earthquake's aftermath.

This weekend's "Operation Big Rescue Tokyo 2000" will be far broader, carrying a price tag of $2.8 million and involving some 25,000 participants. That includes some 7,000 troops from Japan's Self-Defense Forces, compared to just 500 last year. The pretend "big one" will hit Tokyo at a magnitude of 7.2 during rush hour, 7 a.m.

The bigger-than-ever drill, initiated by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara - unpopular in some circles for his string of nationalistic statements - will also include the previously barred step of landing military airplanes at civilian airports. "This is still a big thing in Japan, and is still not accepted by some," says Gen. (Ret.) Toshiyuki Shikata, Mr. Ishihara's special adviser on disaster prevention and relief, referring to Japan's post World War II unease with the slightest foray of the military into civilian life.

"Judging from the experience of the Kobe earthquake, cooperation among fire department and police and civil defense departments was not good. They were working independently, not together," says Shikata. "In the past, most disaster relief exercises have been done as an event, a show.... We're not releasing the details beforehand, and we do not expect successful results. We need to ... find where we are weak."

Some companies figure that they can't afford trial and error. Germany's Deutsche Bank, which is moving to a spiffy new 44-story building, just spent 10 to 15 percent more to design trading floors that will stay put in an earthquake. Flat terminals are suspended by metal frames that can't tumble over, desks are bolted into the floor. Under each employee's desk is an earthquake kit, including things like emergency food and water, a flashlight, and a whistle. "There are some things we are doing for seismic restraint, because a loss of a millisecond could result in a loss of billions of yen," says Paul Hohnbeen, director of the project.

Though some might think such preparations in a skyscraper are pointless, tall buildings like this may have a better chance of survival because they can sway slightly as the earth jerks back and forth. But that doesn't cover a potentially more damaging vertical-motion quake, or the less common circular motion quakes that make a virtual whirlpool out of the earth below.

But despite the jitters - real and imagined - the so called "big one" is probably not coming any time soon. Seismologists say temblors like the 1923 quake, which took the lives of 140,000 people, occur when the earth's pressure peaks at a cycle of about every 200 years - making it unlikely to recur in this generation. But they say that Japan is due for another major earthquake in the Tokai region just southeast of Tokyo. That one, however, is more likely to give off precursor signals that will alert seismologists in its early stages. The latest Tokyo shakes are likely just part of a seismic cycle that perks up once every eight years or so, but rarely produces a big earthquake, says Mizoue, the JMA seismologist.

Still, the rumbles have people flocking to places like the Honjo Life Safety Learning Center, a high-tech interactive museum where visitors can experience the sensation of an earthquake from the safety of a fake kitchen. Schoolchildren watch a realistic 3-D movie that shows everything people do wrong: from pausing to take possessions from a crumbling house to panicking in the subway and trampling the fallen underfoot.

A survivor of the 1923 earthquake, sporting a white helmet as he guides residents through the drills at the junior high school, says preparation only goes so far. "The earthquake was terrible ... [central Tokyo] was like a sea of fire," Shigeshichi Namiki recalls. "We practice ... but you can't guarantee what any of us will do in a real emergency."

*Monitor staffer Yasue Aoi contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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