Earthquakes (‘jishin’ (地震) in Japanese) are a fact of life in Japan, and have been so for as long as there has been a Japan. You don’t need me to tell you that. Literally. But what I can tell you is that, unless you have been in an earthquake, the sensation is nothing like what you’d expect.
Firstly, a quick summary: Japan is one of the most earthquake prone countries in the world, if not THE most. You’re looking at 1,500 per year, or 3 or 4 per day. Granted, most of those are small, localized tremors, but even those would have enough muscle to raise an eyebrow in non-quake country like my native UK, where the once-a-decade quake results in hours of news footage of fallen roof tiles.
But why does Japan have so many earthquakes? It’s thanks to those tectonic plates that you learned and promptly forgot about from geography class. At the edges were plates meet, plates bash, smack, scrape and eat each other, and generally cause a racket. But the plates aren’t smooth: they are rough and jagged, and sometimes bits snag together. But the plates still keep trying to budge, so the pressure builds up, until the snagged parts snap loose.
And just like a room full of mousetraps, the effect triggers a mighty chain reaction deep under the earth, which ripples outwards and onto the surface. And Japan lies on a junction of FOUR of these plates.
Now, despite what many people may think, an earthquake is not an up-down motion: it’s a side-to-side sway. Sometimes that sway is smooth (which is usually a sign the epicenter is far away) or it’s jerky (which is close). And you never get used to them, no more than you would get used to biting your own tongue.
But that 1,500 figure is not for nothing, and Japan is the most well-prepared country in the world for quakes. You may have well seen videos of buildings swaying during the Sendai earthquake of 2011. That is very deliberate: rather than having solid buildings try and inevitably fail to stand up to the shock, they are built to flex, to literally roll with it. Here’s a compilation of some buildings swaying to the groove of the earth:
There are evacuation areas all over the country: when you move to a new place, your checklist of things to do includes signing in at the new city hall, opening your utilities, and knowing where your local 避難所 is. All modern phones are equipped with a warning system that will screech as soon as an earthquake is detected – a heads up to dice under the nearest desk. Supermarkets have a ‘disaster goods’ area that sells emergency packs and long-lasting foods and water. And sirens all around town will blast out the dreaded ‘Earthquake Incoming’ jingle which, even as I type this, I feel my hands slicked with sweat as I recall the sound. Fear by association, I guess. Which means it’s doing it’s doing its job perfectly. Here’s a link to my most dreaded sound:
Earthquakes don’t happen all the time here, but the signs of them are always present, some of which can be entirely in your own head. Enter the phenomenon known to the Japanese as ‘Hitori Jishin’ (一人地震), literally ‘one-person earthquake’. That’s the sensation that there is definitely an earthquake happening, though nobody else can feel it – because they’re right, it isn’t, and it’s all in your own head. I’ve developed this bizarre little sensation myself, especially after the Sendai Earthquake where the grounds constant rumbles were very real and you were left in a state of earthquake paranoia.
So no matter what, you can never be truly prepared. Despite huge advancements in technology and understanding, if anything the only thing we know for sure is the complete lack of reason or rhyme to earthquakes. Having a big earthquake doesn’t excuse Japan from having another big one any time soon, and the first sensation of a shudder can either be just a shudder, or can escalate into something much more devastating.