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Tokyo Dispatch: Skyscrapers, Earthquake Science, and the Odds of Another Disaster

Tokyo, Japan—Back in 1976, I worked as an English teacher in Sendai, the large city closest to the epicenter of Friday’s horrendous earthquake. Once a week I would go to the campus of Tohoku University—the city’s pre-eminent university—for an afternoon of “English discussion” with a group of professors and grad students. Their research involved the effects of earthquakes on buildings. The senior professor whose name I have forgotten (I tried calling friends there who would remember him, but it’s essentially impossible to get through to Sendai) had been one of the architects of a famous Tokyo skyscraper (pictured here) designed to prevent shards of falling glass from reaching the street in an earthquake. Japan had seen its first skyscraper completed only twelve years earlier. Before that time, skyscrapers were thought too dangerous for such an earthquake-prone country. But scientists like this professor had demonstrated that skyscrapers, if properly constructed, were actually more structurally stable than the six-to-eight-story office buildings that then constituted Japan’s standard office blocks.

Glass and how to avoid it was one of the subjects we discussed in our afternoon sessions; location was another. I asked them why they located themselves in Sendai rather than Tokyo. After all, their funding and oversight came from the Tokyo-based Ministry of Construction; the skyscrapers they worked on were mostly built in Tokyo. And they traveled abroad a lot; whenever a major earthquake hit anywhere in the world, they would visit the site to study the effects on buildings. Indeed one week I was notified that class had been cancelled—they had all flown to Italy in the aftermath of a huge earthquake there. Being in Sendai rather than Tokyo added hours to their frequent journeys abroad.

The senior professor—and in Japan the senior professor of a laboratory or a research institute is essentially an emperor—answered that he refused to raise his family in Tokyo.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because a major earthquake will strike Tokyo in the next 20 years.”

His remark stuck in my mind—particularly because I moved to Tokyo myself a year later. I found myself working on the twenty-sixth floor of a skyscraper—one that did not have any discernible means for capturing shards of flying glass set loose in an earthquake. I caught myself thinking about that now and again when approaching the open plaza in front of my building on the way to and from work.

“What would I do if the big one hit?” That’s a thought that regularly crosses the mind of anyone who lives in Tokyo. The government makes sure the thought keeps crossing. Every year on September 1, the anniversary of the 1923 earthquake that leveled much of Tokyo and killed over 100,000 people, local authorities organize earthquake drills and everyone is reminded to stock flashlights, food, and water, and told where to go if one’s residence collapses.

Tremors do indeed happen all the time here—every couple of weeks it seems. “Japanese entertainment” a friend of mine labeled them.

So whenever things start shaking and rattling, one’s mind is hit by a combination of “here we go again” and “could this be the big one?” But as the years go by, one tends to get complacent. Particularly because one reads accounts by people caught in really destructive earthquakes, like the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 that destroyed much of Kobe. They write of a great roar that accompanies the onset.

Thus, when Friday’s earthquake struck and I didn’t hear any roar, I figured it was just another tremor. I had come back from a late lunch and was relaxing on the couch in my office cubicle when things started to shake. After about ten seconds, I guess, I understood the tremor wasn’t going away as it usually does, it was getting stronger. Books started tumbling out of my bookcase. I stood up—barely; it wasn’t easy—and got out of the way of the bookcase; I didn’t want it crashing on me. Colleagues were running down the corridor—general pandemonium, albeit still no roar. As things finally settled down, announcements came over the building’s intercom—elevators were shut. We heard that on the story below us, ceiling panels had crashed to the floor. Our ceilings were okay, but things were scattered everywhere and we started trying to clean up, all the while being hit by after shocks coming every few minutes. Phones were down, computers were down, but colleagues with mobile phones could get some broadcasts and said the epicenter was somewhere “up north.”

Phones came back pretty soon; I called my partner. He had been at home and our little old house had held up okay, although he said the kitchen was a mess. Subways and trains had stopped. He volunteered to come pick me up in the car—I looked out the window, saw the streets choking with traffic, and told him that was a bad idea.

As the afternoon wore on and the aftershocks kept coming, it was clear things were not going to get back to normal any time soon. One of my colleagues set out for home—a good three-hour walk for him. I finished cleaning up my office (my coffee maker had spilled and there were coffee grounds all over the place), called my partner and told him I would walk home—I figured it would take about an hour.

The streets were clogged with cars and the sidewalks with people, but there was almost—dare I say it—a festive spirit in the air. The Japanese are at their best at times like this; everyone helping each other out; a feeling of collective goodwill and “ we-will-all-get-through-this-together.” While the sidewalks were jammed with those walking home, the restaurants, bars, and cafes were crowded with those who lived too far to walk. I suppose they were settling in for the evening—presumably waiting for the trains to start up again (a few lines would open that night, but it would be the next morning before many could get home). It was chilly, but not cold—just the right weather for a good vigorous walk among crowds of people with whom one feels an immediate bond.

So I almost felt upbeat when I got home. But my partner’s mood was darker—he had been watching television. I sat down and saw why. Names of Sendai suburbs and nearby towns that were familiar to me from those long-ago years—Natori, Kesennuma, Ishinomaki, Kameishi—were juxtaposed with horrendous, sickening pictures. I have dear friends in Sendai and there was no way to find out about them.

It looked as if my old professor friend had been wrong after all. If he had moved himself, his family and his institute to Tokyo, Friday’s quake was the worst he would have experienced. Sendai, however, endured a bad quake in the summer of 1978 that killed ten people—mostly children caught by collapsing walls. And then Friday’s horror. TV reports indicate that some 60,000 people there have been driven out of their homes. Most of the city has been without power. The iconic picture of this earthquake is likely to be that of the city’s airport terminal, isolated in a sea of mud with several hundred people trapped inside after a tsunami tore up the runways and jetways.

I’ve been annoyed by the descriptions in the U.S. press (AP and The New York Times among them) of Sendai as a “port city.” It isn’t; while its city limits technically extend to the Pacific coast, the city center is well over ten miles from the ocean and most of its sea trade comes through a harbor it shares with the nearby fishing town of Shiogama. Sendai is not a Yokohama or a Long Beach. It is much more comparable to a Denver or an Atlanta—i.e., an important regional capital.

It’s probably lucky for Sendai that it isn’t a port city since if it were, the damage would have been far worse; in this earthquake, it has been the coastal towns caught in the earthquake-spawned tsunami that have borne the brunt of the destruction. Some of them have essentially vanished; Minami Sanriku, for example, with a population of over 10,000, has disappeared under the mud and no one at this point knows what has happened to its people.

But maybe my professor friend will have the last word after all. He certainly wasn’t alone in predicting a “big one” for Tokyo. It may be some 35 years since he made his prediction, but Tokyo sits close to some of the most unstable land in the world where not two, but three tectonic plates (North America, Pacific, and Philippine) grind against each other. Today’s Japan Times quotes Satoko Oki of the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute saying that Tokyo residents “shouldn’t consider themselves safe” as if they had dodged a bullet, implying that Friday’s quake might have increased the chances of one hitting Tokyo directly.

Meanwhile, fears of another earthquake have been superseded by fears of nuclear meltdown. The explosion at the Number One Fukushima Plant—which helps supply Tokyo with power—has led to a slew of conflicting stories and accounts. While the earthquake itself has brought out much of the best of Japan—the solidarity, the self-control, the millions of people doing what they need to do without being told and without bellyaching; not to mention the tens of thousands of buildings that survived intact thanks to meticulous work by construction companies and maintenance engineers—the ongoing drama at the plants suggests some of the worst: unaccountable, self-satisfied bureaucracies dismissing their critics and discounting the possibilities of “black swans.” Anti-nuclear activists had warned for decades of precisely what happened—an earthquake of off-the-chart magnitude leading to critical failure of the cooling systems—but were brushed off as amateurs who lacked the credentials and standing for their fears to be taken seriously. One is reminded of nothing so much as the pre-Lehman bankruptcy attitudes of the Wall Street quants who led the economy into disaster by failing to build into their models the possibility of simultaneous meltdowns of global credit markets.

So we wait, hoping the damage will be contained. We’ve been warned that there may be rolling power cuts over the next few days. In the meantime, my partner has filled the tub with water so we can flush the toilets if the water goes off, filled a backpack for each of us with food, flashlights, and a blanket, stockpiled PET bottles of drinking water, and insisted on a detailed plan of where we meet and how we get there in case we are separated or the house collapses in the next earthquake. I feel pretty sure something similar is being played out in millions of households throughout Japan.

I hope both that the sense of urgency lasts and that it turns out not to be necessary—that improbably, my old professor friend continues to be wrong about Tokyo, not that that is very likely. Black swans, after all, have a nasty habit of showing up.

R. Taggart Murphy is a professor in the M.B.A. Program in International Business at the Tokyo campus of Tsukuba University.