Earthquake anxiety tops stress list in Japan

Many Japanese experienced 'earthquake sickness' and increasing levels of anxiety following last year's earthquake. Others seem to take it in stride, Craig Dale reports.

Japanese have grown up with earthquakes, with 9,700 last year alone. But they're still the country's greatest fear

Masa Abe is ready for the Big One — or as ready as he can be. "The basic idea is that we can survive for three days," he says.

He shows me the provisions that he and his wife have stockpiled in their apartment in case a huge earthquake hits Tokyo.

In the spare room, a closet is filled with cans of soup, helmets and masks. Three boxes containing 30 litres of bottled water sit against a wall.

Two bags are packed in case the couple has to leave the building and head to a shelter. Inside them, more water, corned beef and crackers, clothes, boots, hand-crank lights that require no batteries, a small gas camping stove, toilet paper and a radio.

"We grew up with earthquakes and we always had small earthquakes," says Abe, who works for a life insurance company in Tokyo. "We're prepared."

Japan experienced 9,723 earthquakes last year, more than one an hour on average.

Abe and generations of others here have learned this from their parents, their teachers and their elected officials. It's part of life in Japan, a nation built on some of the most unstable land in the world.

The movement of the Earth's tectonic plates has shaken this country for millions of years and recent history — a year ago this week — provided reminders of the deadly outcomes.

The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake (magnitude 7.9 on the Richter scale) leveled Tokyo and the surrounding area, triggering tsunami and destructive firestorms. More than 140,000 people died.

The 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake (magnitude 6.9) flattened part of the southwestern city of Kobe and killed 6,400 people.

Then there was the Great East Japan Earthquake (magnitude 9.0) of a year ago, March 11, 2011, that unleashed tsunami and a nuclear crisis. Nearly 20,000 people perished.

Long overdue

Almost everywhere in Japan is vulnerable to earthquakes, but the capital is believed to be long overdue for a powerful tremor. Earlier this year, two seismologists at the University of Tokyo released an ominous prediction — that there is a 70 per cent chance a magnitude-7 earthquake could hit Tokyo within four years. For within 30 years, the probabilty rises to 98 per cent.

The predictions grabbed headlines and raised the anxiety level of the 30 million people who live in the Tokyo metropolitain area.

Other seismologists played down the results, noting the data had been gathered in the months following the March 11, 2011 earthquake, a period of substantial seismic actitivy.

Tokyo police take part in an earthquake disaster drill in September 2011, six months after the devastating quake and tsunami that rocked the northeast. Over half a million emergency officials participated in the exercises. (Reuters)

Analysts at Japan's Meteorological Agency (JMA) say the country had 9,723 earthquakes in 2011 strong enough to be felt by humans.

That averages out to more than one an hour, but 6,757 of them were categorized as aftershocks caused by the March quake.

Seismologists have been working tirelessly for decades to try to figure out how to predict when major tremors will strike, looking back hundreds of years for clues.

They do know that large quakes can beget other large tremors. But all of their data collection, all of their studies haven't brought them to a point where they can alert the public to the arrival of an imminent quake.

"People have looked very carefully at a lot of different kinds of observations before earthquakes, but have never been able to identify something definite that you can say, or you can point to, or a theory you can use to tell you an earthquake is coming," says Jim Mori, a professor at Kyoto University's Disaster Prevention Research Institute.

That doesn't stop scientists from trying. The Japanese government spends more than $100 million annually on earthquake prediction, helping the country become a world leader in this field.

It developed a sophisticated detection network that feeds information to JMA seconds after a tremor happens.

Depending on the intensity, automatic warnings are issued via computers and mobile phones, which tell users a quake of a certain magnitude is arriving in 30 seconds or less, and warning of potential tsunami.

The country's public broadcaster, NHK, announces where the tremor happened and the magnitude. Usually, the physical impact is minimal.

Living on the edge

But what about the psychological impact of these constant warnings, routine safety drills, and the need to remain vigilant?

Many Japanese, who live and work in some of the most earthquake-proof buildings in the world, will tell you that this is just part of their culture. They plan for the worst, calmly reading disaster manuals sent by municipal authorities, which are filled with grim statistics.

The impact of a magnitude 7.3 earthquake under northern Tokyo Bay, for example, could result in as many as 11,000 deaths, experts say. 850,000 buildings would be rendered totally unusable or destroyed by fire. There would be temporary losses of power and water, and train service would be suspended.

Psychologists are studying how living on what amounts to a ticking time bomb affects Japan's population of 127 million.

In 2008, Kazuya Nakayachi, a social psychologist at Kyoto's Doshisha University, found that earthquakes caused the highest anxiety among 51 hazards facing the Japanese population. He's now doing follow-up research to see if anything has changed since March 2011.

"It's not surprising that the anxiety about the earthquake and the nuclear power plant (Fukushima Daiichi) has increased," he says. "The comparison of the results between this time and last time will reveal how the earthquake and tsunami affected the Japanese mind."

'Earthquake sickness'

Anecdotaly, the threat of disaster clearly weighs on most Japanese.

A resident walks amid the rubble caused by the March 11 tsunami at Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan, Wednesday, March 23, 2011.

Parents told CBC News that their children had nightmares or wet their beds following the events of March 11, 2011.

Doctors told the New York Times they were seeing patients with symptoms of "earthquake sickness," people who said they experienced dizziness and anxiety, or felt the ground shaking even when it wasn't.

More seriously, survivors of the tsunami in the northeast, some of whom lost family members and homes, have struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

It's something Tokyo-based journalist Gene Otani can relate to after his experience with the 1995 tremor in Kobe.

"The quake shook me up to an extent that I thought I was going to die," says Otani, who worked for a private radio station at the time and is now an anchor at NHK World.

"After Kobe, I had PTSD for a year. There were thousands of aftershocks. You start sweating and your heart starts beating and you don't know why.

"You have an extreme fear something's going to happen when nothing is."

Otani, whose live coverage of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami was played by broadcasters around the world, says his symptoms lessened with time and didn't come back last year.

Fear of complacency

That, of course, is a good thing. But it's also part of the problem. Despite the fact that Japanese are aware of the risks they face, and for the most part prepared, they are not immune to complacency.

'Strange and mysterious things though, aren't they — earthquakes? We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. We even talk about people being 'down to earth' or having their feet firmly pointed on the ground. But suddenly one day we see that it isn't true.'

— from After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

Nakayachi's research with a colleague from the University of Tokyo has shown that the size of the 2011 tsunami — some with waves as high as 40 metres — made the public less alarmed by the threat of smaller waves, even though a two-metre high wave can sweep away a house.

A similar phenomenon happens with respect to fear of large tremors.

"The one thing that is clear is that it will fade with the passage of time," says Nakayachi. "I think we should build the preparation into daily life rather than trying to block the fading. Because forgetting and the fading with time are human nature."

NHK's Otani also advocates having up-to-date supplies on hand and a plan, but he says people need to try to maintain perspective and, more importantly, their human connections.

"It's important to stock up to a certain extent, but not to be a fanatic about it," he says. "You can't go about life waiting for an earthquake to hit. It'll drive you crazy."

Otani says an equally important survival strategy is staying in touch with friends and family.

"Have your networks. Don't be a loner. Have your personal connections outside of work," he says.

"I always think the helping hand of the neighbor is a lot more powerful. That's more powerful than anything digital, any survival kit you have at home. It's that personal connection that's going to get you through a lot of the hardship.

Last year's tsunami took a more subtle toll, with hundreds of thousands of personal photos lost to the churning waters. Here, survivors look through albums of rescued photos collected in the months that followed for personal mementos. (Toru Hanai / Reuters)