What? Another Earthquake? Again?!

Natural Disasters in Japan: Preparations, Concerns and Aid

By Lim Su Ching 

I remember sitting on the fourth floor of our classroom in KOMCEE when the pillars of the building began to creak as they compensated for the tremors from the magnitude 4 earthquake beneath us.

Being the first intake of international students in PEAK, complete with a foreign lecturer who was equally unfamiliar with the situation, there was a mad dive for cover under the tables. Fingers fiddled over phones as people contacted their parents, siblings or significant others who were oceans away while the more tech savvy ones tweeted or broadcasted on Facebook about this foreign, and slightly alarming first experience. Meanwhile, in the room next door, with the exception of a few bemused glances in our direction, it was business as usual for the local students.

During an earthquake, running for shelter is not always a priority.  Comic strip by xkcd.com

During an earthquake, running for shelter is not always a priority. Comic strip by xkcd.com

Japan is an island situated along three tectonic plates. Natural disasters that occur in the area include earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and even volcanic eruptions. As such, from earthquake drills at primary schools to mandatory structural checks for buildings in Tokyo, a series of disaster contingent plans and safety measures are always at hand.

If the lack of table diving antics is anything to go by, the population itself has become accustomed to such occurrences and there is widespread education to prepare the people for emergencies. According to Haruka Funabiki, a 2nd year student at Komaba, “Many (of the Japanese) people are quite prepared”, and some people “have a few bags ready to take with us if some kind of disaster hits.” Ever since the disaster of March 11, more people have become more conscious of disasters and have taken extra measures to protect themselves.

There was a strong agreement among the students that, factoring in frequency, earthquakes were the greatest cause of concern for the students living in Tokyo. However, volcanic eruptions rank first in severity, due to the difficulty of preparing against it as well the lengthy post-disaster recovery time. Komaba student Yuji Oka compares this to tsunamis and typhoons, which, ‘pass relatively quickly.’ Fortunately for us in Tokyo, volcanic eruptions remain quite rare.

Comic strip from xkcd.com

Comic strip from xkcd.com

When traveling around Japan, the type of threats faced from natural disasters differ according to the area. Landslides are a risk in the hilly terrain that runs through the countryside. When Typhoon Wipha struck last October, mudslides buried people and homes on the slopes of Izu Oshima in a matter of minutes. Yet, the strongest snowstorm in 7 years locked the capital down in January this year with over a thousand traffic accidents while trains faced delays. In an area with such a high population density relative to disasters experienced, the impact of each event is amplified. There is concern that should a major disaster hit the city, a similar paralysis might occur.

The current state of preparation is certainly less than perfect according to 6 second-year students interviewed at University of Tokyo. While most agree that preparations have been made for most major disasters, there remains room for improvement. As phrased by sophomore Yurie Yamada, “When a disaster of a magnitude beyond our expectation strikes, we instantly become as helpless as a beached whale… the government is slow in getting into action and providing help to the disaster area.” Another student expressed her disappointment over the response to the March 11 Tsunami in a similar sentiment. To her, the event illuminated how the country could never be too prepared for large-scale disasters despite their meticulous planning. Two years after the disaster, 300,000 people are estimated to still be homeless or living in residential camps, and post-disaster recovery remains slow.

Despite this, the ability of those living in Japan to rally themselves together against the fury of nature should not be underestimated. Within Todai, students who want to help can join the school’s volunteer program to teach the children affected by the Tsunami on weekends as well as a variety of other inter-college volunteer programs. According to another second year student, Takuro Ihori, there is no lack of volunteers or volunteer programs to help disaster victims. “As long as there is a strong resolution to take action, students will be able to help.”

Su Ching is a 2nd year PEAK student at the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo. 


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