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how to survive a Japanese earthquake

Updated on March 11, 2011

When I started teaching in Japan, my students warned me about earthquakes. So the day the supermarket started shaking, I ran for the exit. The cashier blocked my exit. Jishin! Jishin! (Earthquake! Earthquake! I shouted. ). Ae-ro-bic-su! Ae - ro-bic-su! she shouted back pointing  overhead. Turned out an aerobics studio had opened over the shop. When the class really got moving to a funky beat,  the whole building started shaking.

Running for the door is the natural reaction when your world starts shaking. But it's better to stay put. The biggest risk during the quake is getting hit by falling debris. Inside with a roof over your head you have some protection. Japanese homes also use anchors to lock down bookcases and anything heavy that can topple over.

The strongest room in the house is the bathroom. So it makes a good safe room. My Japanese landlord asked me to always keep the bathtub (Japanese word is ofuro) filled with water. It seemed like an odd request until I learnt that In the great Kanto earthquake more people died in the fires than in the earthquake itself. The quake broke the  water lines so there was no water to the homes. During the quake gas lines ruptured sparking infernos  incinerated whole families. My house like most of the Kanto-era homes was made of sheet metal with wooden beams, straw tatami mat  flooring and sliding paper screen doors (shoji). It would burn like a box of matches on the Fourth of July.

That's probably why, the landlord said to always keep my windows a bit open. During an earthquake the window frame can twist making it difficult to open. With all those open windows it's a wonder there are so few break-ins.

The water in the tub can also be your emergency drinking water. You want to also keep an emergency supply of rice, candles and kerosene.

You better hope you're on high ground. Because after the quake ...  the after-shocks ... the fire you can expect up to a 10 meter high wall of water and debris to come barreling down at 50 kilometers an hour. It's called a tsunami. And depending on how far the quake epicenter is from your house you've got 15 to 20 minutes to your ass to someplace above the high water mark.


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