Living with Earthquakes

On most days I feel at least one earthquake, and once in a while people outside Japan wonder what it is like to live with so many earthquakes. Some say that earthquakes are not something you just get used to, but I’d say it depends on what you mean by “getting used to”. Quakes are not something you can just ignore, but they do become something normal. Well, at least the smaller ones up to level 3 or 4 on the Japanese intensity scale (PDF summary).

When I feel a quake, I become alert immediately, but what I do depends on what the quake feels like. The weakest ones are over almost as soon as I notice them, most take maybe half a minute of constant movements. If the quake feels like it might be a strong one, I will take cover (the standard recommendation is to hide under a table), but that’s actually rare. The picture below shows why cover is important during a strong quake, I took it in the lab after the big one.

Toppled bookshelf half stopped by a table, books lying on the ground

Getting used to earthquakes also changes the mindset outside of quake times. I often think “What if a quake comes?” and then do things like the following:

  • Keeping a reserve of water and food ready
  • Looking for things that could fall down and places for shelter when entering a room I’m not familiar with
  • Placing things so they’re unlikely to fall down, e.g. make sure my cup is in the middle of the table
  • Never putting heavy or otherwise dangerous items in high places

The last one is probably going make me annoy family and friends when I’m back in Germany. Over there it is common to use the area on top of wardrobes as extra storage space, but I won’t be able to feel comfortable with that any more. In Japan this is common knowledge, when I was in Matsusaka my host mother made sure that my bed was far enough away from the one high cupboard in my room. I’m sure there are more things, the items above are just what came to mind immediately while I was writing this. The important thing is to be aware of possible earthquakes and minimize the danger if a bigger one comes, because some day it will.

Another very useful thing is the early warning system. On March 11th it provided us with “valuable seconds” indeed. If you come to Japan, make sure that you know the warning sound! The systems mascot is a cute catfish with a antenna on its head. Why? Because in the old times, people in Japan believed that giant catfishes cause earthquakes, and some earthquakes really feel like something big is alive deep underground.

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