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In Japan, getting ready for the Big One

Many believe a massive earthquake is due any time in Tokai, an area south of Tokyo that sits atop a precarious confluence of tectonic plates. One worried mom has taken preparations into her own hands.

July 31, 2009|John M. Glionna

KISARAZU, JAPAN — Come hell or high water -- she's actually expecting both -- Nobue Kunizaki will be ready when the dreaded Tokai earthquake finally hits central Japan, whether in the next month or years from now.

She's anticipating a temblor that's already got a name as well as estimates on when and where and how mightily it might strike, a guessing game that has rattled even this earthquake-prone nation.

But no one, perhaps, is shakier than the petite 39-year-old. She's built a new "Ninja house" with high-tech gadgets and design improvements that she hopes will withstand the force of the next earthquake for at least long enough for her family to escape.

Go ahead and call her Japan's Chicken Little, the Earthquake Lady or Calamity Queen; others here in this suburban community just outside Tokyo already do.

But Kunizaki is bettering her chances on an archipelago perched upon a precarious confluence of shifting continental plates that each day causes 1,000 quakes strong enough to be felt and scores of temblors annually that are magnitude 5.5 or greater.

Her $600,000 home is connected to Japan's vaunted earthquake early-warning system, which senses the first shaking of a temblor and can give up to half a minute or more of notice before a major earth movement reaches a particular location. There are also secret fall-away doors, emergency lights, indoor sprinklers and other sensors.

"I don't think I'm paranoid," she says. "Tokai is imminent. The earth is going to move in a big way. Now that I'm prepared, I feel I can try to live a normal life."

Kunizaki is illustrative of what experts call Japan's evolving approach to earthquake preparedness. For decades, scientists here focused on technology that could accurately predict an earthquake -- its size, location and time.

Now the government has shifted its approach, acknowledging criticism -- both at home and abroad -- that such formidable natural occurrences cannot be predicted with such certainty.

Instead, Japan has shifted much of its emphasis to instructing people on how to react once a temblor hits.

A nationwide education campaign features drills conducted at centers with quake simulators. Seminars on emergency medical treatment, fire extinguishing and finding one's way out of a smoke-filled building have attracted hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Recently, two Tokyo schoolteachers clutched the legs of a fastened-down table as a simulator stage shook for nearly a minute with the force of a 6.9 temblor, jolting the test room like a malevolent thrill ride.

"Everyone here is surprised at the violence of the movement and how long it lasts," said Toshio Seki, a former firefighter and instructor at Life Safety Learning Center in Tokyo. "They say, 'I didn't know the earth moved so vigorously.' And I tell them that this is just a test. The real one is much worse, much more emotionally terrible."

The Tokai region, centered 100 miles south of Tokyo, is the anticipated ground zero for Japan's next Big One, which researchers say could reach a colossal magnitude 8.0. Southern California's most powerful modern earthquake was the magnitude 7.9 Fort Tejon temblor in 1857.

At Tokai, experts explain, the Philippine Plate is sliding under the Eurasia Plate. In a process known as "crustal deformation," a sharp-edged peninsula that juts into the sea is being pushed down several millimeters a year. The quake would release the pressure, causing the land to leap up several yards and send deadly shock waves across Japan.

The Tokai region was last hit by such an earthquake 154 years ago. With an estimated frequency of 150 years, that means another ground-shaking event here may be just around the corner, Seki said.

"If the quake hits at 6 p.m. rush hour," he told one tour group, "more than 60,000 people could die."

Over the decades, Japanese scientists have spent billions of dollars conducting studies with sensitive equipment they hoped would offer clues to when the Tokai temblor might occur. Then the 1995 Kobe quake hit -- a magnitude 6.9 monster that killed 6,400 people and caused $90 billion in damage.

"Kobe changed everything," said Teruyuki Kato, a professor at the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo. "People complained that no one had predicted a quake in that region. They said researchers had failed."

The government responded with an education campaign that included multimillion-dollar earthquake simulators and other efforts to prepare the public for the aftermath of a quake. Although researchers still use seismic probes and other instruments to monitor movement in Earth's crust, Kato said, the aim no longer is to predict the hour or day or week of the next quake.

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