Japan and Earthquakes: A Brief Introduction

Japan is famous for a few key things: Mt. Fuji, Pokemon, anime, sushi, and in the realm of the unfortunate, earthquakes and tsunamis. Today, we’ll focus on the shaking earth that looms as an eerie specter over the land, how Japan is prepared for these sudden strikes, and what it’s like to be in them.

Earthquake Preparedness: Early Warning Systems

This may come as a surprise to you, but Japan can predict when earthquakes will happen and alert its citizens so they can prepare. The downside is that you get a handful of seconds, anywhere from 10-30, to get your house in order and hunker down. Usually, you’ll get a piercing alarm on your mobile phone when a big one is about to hit, so you know it’s for real when you hear any of these (the first is the one you’ll most likely hear on your phone):

Turn your volume down. I couldn’t get through the whole video because they are too real and freaked me out a bit! Viewer discretion advised.

And when you see this:

Earthquake Warning - Two Second Street - www.twosecondstreet.com
The emergency broadcast pushes through everything on your phone. Very thankful to have this, even though it freaks you out!

You do get the occasional false alarms, but I’d rather be freaked out a bit and not shaken than not have any warning at all. That might just be me, though. I remember one time I was on the top floor of one of our university buildings (7F, I think?) when the alarm went off during my class. I looked at my students and asked “Should we do anything?” It was early in my tenure and I hadn’t experienced many earthquakes to that point. They stared at me like I had the answers, and so we stared one another down, no one moving, waiting for the other to take charge, while literally nothing came to pass. I shrugged and carried on with the lesson.

The Mind Games of Earthquakes and Mental Adjustment

Another time was during the pandemic, we had an earthquake during one of my morning classes. I felt it and saw a few of my student’s cameras shaking. I said “Oh, we’re shaking a bit, is everyone OK? Yeah, doesn’t feel dangerous, so let’s carry on” and went on with the lesson while we all shook a bit. You get used to it after a while. I was proud of myself for not freaking out or freezing like I had before. I was very skittish my first year here in Japan.

When I first got here, the idea of earthquakes were terrifying to me. Hurricanes you can see coming and track. Earthquakes? Not so much. I remember scouting out places I’d ideally like to be if an earthquake hit, memorized evacuation routes and centers, and devoted way to much mental energy (spurred on by some pretty bad anxiety) to anticipating the earthquake. It’s a big mental adjustment if you’ve never had to live with them and it’s tricky to adjust. My expectations were that each earthquake would be this intense, violent shaking that would knock my hot water kettle off the table and shatter my windows, but most are pretty benign. I did, however, experience a pretty scary one just the other night that reminded me that yes, they can be powerful and scary sometimes.

February 13, 2021: A Big One

Then comes around 11 PM on March 13th. Everyone gets the piercing alarm. I’m in bed, reading on my Kindle, and my wife is in the living room, watching Lemonade on her laptop. I begin to feel the rumblings, as per usual, but something is different: I’m noticing a lot more side-to-side shaking that begins to intensify every few seconds. It gets stronger and stronger, and I sit up in bed in a bit of a panic: Was this going to get worse? I can hear all of our furniture creaking and shaking, our laundry rack rocking violently in the laundry room, the TV teetering close to falling flat on its face. My wife came into the bedroom and we held hands. It shook harder and after I thought we were going to get tossed around more, it began to ebb: things began to calm down. I looked at my wife, our hearts racing. “I should have opened the front door,” I remember saying at one point. You do that in case the frame of your building gets messed up, that way you have an escape and your door isn’t jammed into place.

What happened was this: A 7.3 (originally called a 7.1 moments after it happened) shook just off the coast of Fukushima, right where the earthquake that caused the Fukushima disaster of March 11th, 2011 happened (they call that day 3/11 out here). Everyone checked in with each other online: Twitter, Facebook, Line; messages went flying. “Strongest I’ve felt in the 8 years I’ve been here,” one said. “Worst one since 3/11” said another. “Felt the shaking in Nagoya,” “Felt tremors up here in Hokkaido,” and “Slight shaking here in Osaka” popped up on my screen as I scrolled through messages.

Turns out, this big boy was actually an aftershock of the 3/11 earthquake, nearly ten years out from the original quake. This, to me, is absolutely bonkers. These things are so powerful that they can have after effects a decade later.

The Shindo Scale

Japan does measure the Richter Scale recordings, yes, but they also have their own scale to measure the felt intensity of the earthquake, known as the Shindo Scale. The scale goes up to 7, with degrees of + and – (upper and lower) to add nuance to each level. The February 13th earthquake, as seen in the tweet above, registered a massive 6- to 6+ near the epicenter, with 4 and 5 being felt across most of central and eastern Japan. But what does that mean?

Thank you, Meteorological Agency of Japan!

To also put some perspective, you can also replace people in those with unsecured items. Around Six Upper and Seven, you may also see some concrete walls begin to buckle and collapse. That’s the apocalyptical, natural-disaster movie level shaking. We in Kawagoe hit the Four/Five Lower levels, and we were hundreds of kilometers away. Now, if you imagine 100x the force, then you have the 9.0 earthquake that hit on 3/11. It’s absolutely terrifying to think of something that powerful coming out of the blue.

It was off the coast of Fukushima; don’t let the headline confuse you. Just a good example video of how intense the shaking was there!

That being said, do these big ones happen often? No. More likely than not, you’ll get a light shaking like I described in my story. The sounds really are unsettling (creaking doors, mostly), but the intensity isn’t that bad with most earthquakes. The ones at night you’ll sleep through as they harmlessly tussle their way through the area. Given how prepared Japan is, and how hard it is to knock over their buildings, there are really few places on earth you’d be safer during an earthquake than in Japan.


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