Tremors (A meditation on earthquake preparedness)

Dedicated to the Courage and Togetherness of Hokkaido

So, last week there was an earthquake in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Thanks to their world-class seismic architecture and venerated organizational abilities, there were far fewer casualties than there would have been in any other corner of the world, however…

Earthquakes are a fact of life here, and I’m not going to lie: I’m terrified of them. I try not to give into my fear, though (the Fukushima earthquake/tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown was a major factor in my decision not to come teach here, back in 2011); instead, I am learning what I can about how to stay safe and what to do in case of disaster, while soothing myself with the knowledge that there are temples built thousands of years ago here that are *still* standing — thanks to the Japanese people’s long-held knowledge of how to survive life in a burning Ring of Fire.

When searching for an apartment, one of the first questions a real estate agent asks you is, “In what age building would you like to live?” I had heard that Japanese folks prefer newer dwellings, which I at first thought was similar to people in the U.S. who would take a shiny new pre-fab over a classic craftsman…come to find out, it has to do with seismic codes. Our rental agent explained that there have been two major waves of codes: those of 1981 (a result of the devastating 1978 quake in Miyagi), and those of 2000 (the culmination of years of work following Kobe’s 1995 disaster), with many between and subsequently. Most people seek housing built after 2000 (or even later), and places built pre-1981 are doomed to going unrented unless they are put through and pass seismic inspection/updates. Even then, most renters will reject them out-of-hand.

We ended up renting a place built between the two dates, with the (possibly totally flawed — if so, please don’t burst my bubble, the lease is already signed) logic that the building has survived all of the tremors and quakes since it was built, is lovingly cared for by the chief monk of the temple next door (aka our landlord), has passed decades of seismic inspections…and it was far and away the nicest place we could find within our budget in our over-priced, highly sought-after neighborhood.

When registering our residence with the city hall — a requirement for all people who live in Japan, should they wish to open a bank account, cell phone contract, utilities, or any other number of necessities to moving into a place — we were handed the bright yellow Disaster Preparedness Handbook, which I keep on my bedside table, and plan to memorize cover-to-cover. We have begun assembling our Emergency Backpack here at home, and all of our classrooms at school already come equipped. The other night, when a “guerrilla storm” hit town and our building was evacuated (more on that in another post), I was able to witness first-hand people’s organization and preparedness in times of crisis. (And bonus: I have never been more motivated to learn Japanese than I am after that night.) We have regular earthquake drills at school, of varying severity. Tremors regularly occur here, and from our bed in our sixth-floor apartment, they are particularly noticeable.

And yet…I do not fear being killed, assaulted, or stolen from at school, home, or in the street. Every day, I witness millions of people peaceably co-existing. I am living in a place where children can — and do — walk alone to school, ride public transportation on their own, run or ride bikes freely solo or in pairs and packs. As a woman, I can walk home late at night in the largest city in the world without the slightest fear that I will be approached or attacked. As a visible foreigner who has heard three-year-olds that speak the local language better than I do, I am met with kindness and helpfulness 99% of the time that I am out and about on my own. I have more than once seen strangers frantically going from person to person in search of the owner when they found a lost wallet on a bus or train. The police here carry a gun so small, so well-secured (a diminutive five-shooter, in which the first chamber is a blank, squirreled away inside a full-coverage holster), that it is more likely you will be killed by a lightning strike in Japan than by a gun; much less murdered by a law enforcement officer. (Last year’s national toll: 2 deaths-by-gun, 7 by lightning strike. None of these included police involvement.)

In other words, as my mother-in-law put it a few years ago when I was bemoaning the political state of my country to her, “You have guns; we have earthquakes.”

For now, I know which one I prefer.


Me at my very first earthquake drill — when the alarms went off, I was in the teacher workroom.

7 thoughts on “Tremors (A meditation on earthquake preparedness)

  1. Very interesting to learn of the earthquake building codes and how they affect the home rental market. We have been strapping water heaters but I know there is more to do to retrofit older homes for earthquake protection. I feel woefully unprepared for an earthquake on all fronts, but am suspending my anxiety for all of us right now… glad you have a helmet! Let us know what goes in your earthquake preparedness kit.. xoxo


    1. Glad you liked it! Yes, one of my colleagues here is from BC, and said he would prefer to be in an earthquake here than there…I can only imagine how unawares it would take us all! You are right not to waste time on anxiety. Preparedness is good, though. There are actually all kinds of kits you can order online for less than $100 if you don’t want to put together your own. Here are some essentials:

      Water – ideally three days’ worth per person (one liter per day)
      Emergency rations – choose items like canned goods and biscuits that can be eaten without a heat source. Also ideally three days’ worth per person
      First aid kit
      Copies of your passport, residence card, My Number card, any medical booklets
      Flashlight and/or candles – try to find a hand-powered one if possible
      Radio – again, hand-powered if possible
      Cellphone and charger – either battery or solar-powered
      Vinyl sheeting, raincoats and protective clothing
      Lighter and/or matches
      Can opener, knife
      Sanitary products for women, if needed
      Diapers, powdered milk, baby bottles, if needed

      Here is a link to further survival tips, courtesy of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government:



  2. Love reading your posts. You bring it all very much to life. I was worried when I heard about the earthquake! I’m sure I will be anxious every time for you and Tomo but I imagine that on the whole you are much safer there than here. Love you! ~Rivs


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