Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Russian Roulette

The earthquake yesterday in Northwestern Japan, which has so far resulted in 9 known deaths (possibly more to come), fills me with the feeling that I'm playing Russian roulette by continuing to remain in Tokyo. Everyone talks about how Tokyo is "overdue" for a "big one" and I always believe that's a bit of nonsense since mother nature doesn't work on a schedule.

When it comes to nature (or even life in general), anything can happen any time but nothing "has to" happen at any particular time. I think that the sort of people who enjoy talking about how Tokyo is overdue for a devastating quake are the sort that smile just a little and experience a thrill when they hear there's been a bad car accident nearby. Some people really just love the excitement that comes along with unusual and unusually bad news which isn't going to affect them.

However, it is a fact that anyone living in the "Ring of Fire" is gambling that a truly horrible earthquake isn't going to come her way. That doesn't mean I'm going to run off and escape "the big one" because the truth is that a natural disaster can hit anyone anywhere anytime and what will be will be. When I lived in Pennsylvania, there were floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. In fact, I saw a real twister in the distance when I was a child. It didn't come too near our house but tornadoes are very unpredictable and can move erratically and demolish one house while leaving neighboring houses standing. You don't know where one will touch down and for one to be close enough for you to see it is a pretty intimidating experience.

Anywhere you live, you're gambling that the natural events which are capable of occurring in that area will not happen to smite you. Even before we lived in dwellings that were big enough and heavy enough to fall and kill us, our ancestors were dying from various natural disasters. Archaeologists speculate that the Olmec civilization was ultimately consumed in a flood. Pompeii was famously destroyed by a volcano which had been dormant for so long that the people who lived near it didn't even suspect it was going to erupt despite there being early signs that it may happen.

The thing about gambling is that it's always more likely that your prediction will not happen than it will. Would you bet your life savings on the possibility that a certain number between 1 and 7,300 would come up on a wheel during a given spin? Twenty years in Japan is 7,300 days and you're betting your life that a huge earthquake that could kill you isn't going to occur. That's a pretty safe bet and odds are that the chances of a hugely devastating quake are far lower than 1 in 7300.

Note: To those who have kindly inquired about our well-being after the quake, we were too far away to be seriously affected though the quake did result in some spooky long-lasting swaying. Thanks for your concern and thoughts. It's very appreciated.


Miko said...

I lost everything in the Kobe 'quake of 1995. Many of my neighbours were killed.

Even now I remember how we all used to arrogantly assume that Kobe was safe, and that the Big One would surely hit Tokyo. In those days only 2% of households in Kobe had earthquake insurance. (Funnily enough, since it happened I've now been lulled into believing that lightning never strikes the same place twice, and so feel perfectly safe here. I would NOT feel safe if I were living in Tokyo.)

So, you just never know! You are very wise to be cautious, I think.

CMUwriter said...

What exactly is "long-lasting swaying"?

Shari said...

Miko: I'm very sorry to hear that you were in the Kobe quake. It must have been a devastating experience for you, especially your neighbor's deaths.

We don't have quake insurance because, honestly, I think most of the contents of our apartment (aside from my husband and myself) aren't really all that valuable. If we were to survive and lose everything, we'd likely just leave Japan.

I don't feel any more or less safe anywhere. I think you just can't know what will happen wherever you live and there's no reason to live by your fears. When the time comes to shuffle off the coil of this reality, the time will come.

cmuwriter: Imagine ties on a tie rack gently swinging back and forth for about a half minute like a pendulum in a clock. When the room is moving, even in a gentle fashion, 30 seconds is a very long time. Earthquakes are really scary and, when you're not in one, 10-30 seconds sounds incredibly short but it really is quite long when you're waiting for the room to stop moving.

Leo said...

Living in earthquake country, it's always good to be cautious, but live in fear of earthquakes. And living in earthquake country always makes it more fun. Especially when you live on top of a fault zone (SF Bay area, also "overdue").

Miko said...

Please everybody at least make sure that you have details of your personal info in a safe and accessible place (which is probably much easier now in the age of Internet than it was back in '95). Trying to leave the country, or even the city, when you have no money, no passport, no credit cards, no form of ID, and therefore literally no way of proving that you are who you say you are ... is not easy. The process of re-establishing my old identity was long and gruelling, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

Don't forget to register with your embassy, if you are living abroad.

Don't rely on anyone but yourself.

Leo: at that time we received a lot of encouraging letters from people in the SF Bay area, I was incredibly touched.

Shari said...

Miko: Thanks very much for the excellent advice. It's greatly appreciated. In fact, you spurred me to register on-line with the embassy.

I do wonder if the country you are from has something to do with how hard it is. One of my students was with others on a trip to the US and three of them had their passports stolen and their I.D. was back in their hands within the week. I don't know if they registered or if Japan is just easier to deal with in this regard.

Thanks again!

Miko said...

One of my students and her husband had their passports lifted in Hawaii, and her husband got them new ones within the DAY! He is some kind of bureaucrat himself, which may have had something to do with it.

New Zealand: they mess everything up. Every little thing. (I heard that at one stage the NZ embassy set up and widely advertised a special hotline for concerned friends and relatives - it turned out to be a wrong number!) In fact one of the reasons I decided to stay on in Japan was because I couldn't face having to deal with those idiots anymore.

Another thing. Do you usually wear pyjamas in bed? If you don't, keep some very close by. I didn't, and lived to regret it!

Shari said...

I wear a long (mid-calf length) nightshirt (sort of like an incredibly long T-shirt). I've heard people say that one of the reasons Japanese people always wear pajamas is that they want to be prepared in the event of an earthquake.

I often wonder what would happen is a bad quake occurred between 5:00-7:00 am when a lot of people may be in the shower. Would the streets fill with naked people?

Miko said...

A friend of a student was sitting on the toilet at the very time it happened, the poor thing!

Apparently a lot of marriages ran into trouble, because "why was your car parked in a love hotel?" and other things like that. I can just imagine!

I love my nightshirt to bits, but in spite of my caution I still don't actually wear it in bed (since I was about 12, I haven't worn anything in bed but my undies, to the amazement of all my Japanese friends). I keep it close by, though. Actually, I keep all my clothes close by. I don't wish to get caught short again, that could be embarrassing.

You might want to consider keeping a pair of shoes or sandals next to your bed, even if you don't normally wear them inside. I couldn't get to my genkan (and therefore my shoes) and had to wander through the streets barefoot for the next couple of hours until someone gave me some sneakers. My feet got all cut up from the rubble and broken glass. It was awfully cold too, being January. (Although that was probably a good thing, in light of all the bodies lying around.)

Do you know your neighbours well at all? At the very least, make a point of knowing their names and the number of occupants in each home. This is one of those things that can help *enormously* with rescue efforts, you'd be very surprised.