Well-drilled Japan copes when the ground shakes

October 06, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Masayuki Nishimura felt a tiny earthquake about 10:25 p.m. Tuesday, and then, a few moments later, a hard

side-to-side shake began.

Nothing unusual in that. Tremors of varying degrees vibrate through Japan daily. At the old public bath he owns in the Ikebukuro ward of Tokyo, it was a just a few more ripples in the tub. Then came the shock. He heard a crash and saw a half-dozen screaming, naked women rush out from their side of the bath.

A 50-foot chimney for the heating system had fractured near where they were soaking. The broken, listing barrel is one of the few signs of damage in Japan's largest city from a quake that struck 500 miles away off the northern island of Hokkaido and rattled every building in between.

Near the sparsely populated epicenter, the destruction is more severe but, given the possibilities, relatively mild. Eight houses collapsed, some roads buckled, water pipes cracked and train service was disrupted. One person died, apparently after a fright-induced heart attack, and 228 suffered mostly minor injuries.

Skyscrapers and bridges swayed but didn't bend. Items fell off shelves but not onto people. Even the fallout from the fracture of Mr. Nishimura's chimney was halted by a protective metal girdle.

The slight wreckage in Japan contrasts sharply with reports of numerous fatalities and widespread property loss in former Japanese-controlled islands north of Hokkaido now controlled by Russia.

Some of the difference may be a result of the vast response mechanism that the Japanese have built up in generations of exposure to quakes.

Every schoolchild and every company employee is reminded annually of the terrible impact of the 1923 quake that struck outside of Tokyo. More than 140,000 people died, and the country was irreparably changed.

On the Great Kanto Quake's fall anniversary, there are nationwide drills, complete with full rescue gear and cries of distress. Homes typically have earthquake information posters stuck by magnets to refrigerators. Television stations keep cameras on their rooftops running 24 hours a day to be sure to capture a record of what might occur. Preventing apathy are the periodic publications of thrillers that predict Kanto II and chastise some element of Japanese society for being flagrantly unprepared.

Within minutes of Tuesday's quake, emergency information was broadcast by every radio and television outlet in Japan -- with the notable exception of the public service station run by the U.S. military, which since the occupation has been permitted to hold a privileged position on the Japanese radio dial and is exempt from local laws. It broadcast country-and-western music.

Following well-known instructions, numerous Japanese questioned yesterday said that they responded to the Tuesday night quake by diving under tables.

Special tidal wave warnings were directed toward people living on the coast, particularly in Hokkaido, typically advising evacuation. Many quickly left for emergency shelters carrying their ever-available emergency kits of flashlights, dried food and clothing. The shelters themselves were open and waiting with spare blankets and canned drinks.

In the hardest-hit city, Kushiro on the northeast coast, residents had recently conducted a full evacuation drill, said Yukihiko Akada, headmaster of Asahi Elementary School.

"Everyone knew how to deal with the situation," he said. "Everyone was calm."

Only a year ago, a smaller but closer earthquake injured 900, and another across Hokkaido led to more than 200 fatalities, mostly from tidal waves that followed.

Within hours of the impact, recovery had begun. Mr. Akada's school was open for classes yesterday morning and only a few missed class. "They wanted to sleep."

At the Kushiro outlet of the giant Mitsukoshi Department Store, manager Koichi Asakoshi said that, aside from rainy weather, "business is normal." Road crews were immediately out doing repairs.

Even Mr. Nishimura's public bath was not down for long. The women, he said, are back in the tub, as usual. "They come back here because they've come here for a long time," he explained. Quake or no quake.

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