The other day, we were having an orientation for the new JETs, the people on my work program who are just beginning their life in Japan. During this orientation we were discussing disaster preparedness and about an hour later experienced one of the rather large aftershocks reminiscent of ones just after the big quake. We veteran JETs just looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and went back to what we were doing. Thanks, Japan, for such a vivid demonstration.
The second day of orientation we went to a special Disaster Preparedness Center. On the outskirts of Utsunomiya, Tochigi’s capital, is a center dedicated to educating people about the various natural disasters Japan faces. And if there’s a natural disaster that can happen, it is almost certain to happen in Japan. It’s somehow not surprising that people were civil after the earthquake because they’ve been hit by so many different things already. The first thing we did was watch a video basically warning us not to underestimate disasters, especially earthquakes. Although I could see the gravity of what they were talking about, it was also rather amusing because they used scare tactics and cultural hooks that didn’t really work on us foreigners. After the movie is when it started to get interesting. The center has 4 main rooms that showcase what each disaster will be like. They have a wind room, a smoke maze, an earthquake simulator, and a rain room.
The first room had a wind machine to show us what the level of wind would be like in a typhoon. They even warned us beforehand that if we were wearing contacts we should squint our eyes. It was pretty strong, and I could feel my clothes being blown around, but I could still breathe. I’ve had worse when I stick my head out of car windows going down the interstate (sometimes I think I’m part dog). Then I tried to imagine torrential rain, possibly hail, and poor lighting in addition to that kind of wind. It would not be fun. They measured the strength of the wind, but they were using meters per second, so it was confusing. I don’t know what it would be using the American system. I watched some other people go into the room and that was more impressive. It reminded me a bit of the parts in the movie The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is stuck in the tornado.
The second room was actually a series of connected rooms designed to let you know what it was like with poor visibility due to smoke. Our job was to follow the lit exit signs and find our way out of the “maze.” The smoke was made from water vapor and some sort of plant base, which was actually supposed to be good for your skin. It didn’t smell anything like real smoke, and there was no heat in the rooms, but it was still fairly creepy not being able to see anything in the room. It really made me appreciate those exit signs because most of us take them for granted.
The third room was an earthquake simulator. We stood on a large raised platform and got to experience all the levels of earthquake on the Japanese scale, called the Shindo scale. They have levels 0 through 7, including a 5-, 5+, 6-, and 6+. It’s actually a very good scale because they measure what you feel and experience at the surface. Level 0 is the lowest and most people don’t even notice it. Levels 5 and 6 are where you actually start seeing damage and things falling down. A good example is this picture from a Japanese seismic website.
Having been through a level 6 + in March, the simulator seemed more like an amusement park ride, especially as it was only the floor that was moving, not the walls. I could see some of the new JETs were a little shaken up however. The good news is that Japanese buildings are constructed with earthquakes in mind, and if they aren’t earthquake reinforced now, they will be in the next few years because they are going around and updating each building. Schools are the safest because most of them are the community evacuation centers and they house large numbers of children. The way they are reinforced ensures that they sway with the earth and don’t just crumble. It makes them very safe, but quite scary to be in when an earthquake actually hits, as I’ve found out. In human instincts, a swaying building is a very bad sign.
The last room was designed to dump the same amount of water as a typhoon and according to our guide it is the only one in Japan to be able to do so. Luckily, the Japanese also make amazing rain suits so even though we basically stood under a waterfall for 2 minutes, we emerged nice and dry. Having lived in Japan for 4 years now, I know quite well how hard in rains and it was very amusing listening to the new JETs from England marvel at the amount of water Japanese clouds can hold.
All in all it was quite an interesting experience. It made me wonder if we should have tornado simulation centers in Iowa.