Experiencing Japan’s worst earthquake
The Great East Japan Earthquake
I hear the rattling of the furniture a millisecond or two before I realise the room in a Tokyo suburb is starting to shake. The jolting comes up from underneath, possessing everything, and I can feel it tremor through my body. I’m sitting at a table and react immediately, jumping (half-falling) onto the ground and grabbing a leg of the table. I can’t help but shout a little – I’m not sure if it’s because I’m scared or because the sound is being shaken out of me like tomato sauce from a glass bottle.
This is what an earthquake feels like, I discover. But not just any earthquake. This is the quake that hit Japan in 2011, killing more than 15,000 people, and creating a nuclear emergency when a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. Here it is referred to as ‘The Great East Japan Earthquake’ but right now all I’m concerned about is that it has a magnitude of 9.0 – the fifth strongest quake ever recorded.
Before you panic, though, I should back up a little. I said this is what an earthquake ‘feels’ like. Because, although I am here in Japan, it’s two years on from that devastating natural disaster and this is just a simulation. But it’s still pretty terrifying.
I’ve come to what many people call ‘The Ikebukuro Earthquake Museum’ – although its official title is ‘The Life Safety Learning Centre’. It really isn’t a museum, that’s a bit of a misnomer, and I realise that pretty soon after arriving.
The Ikebukuro Earthquake Museum
The centre is above a fire station in the Tokyo suburb of Ikebukero. It’s a nondescript building in many senses and would be easy to miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for. When I arrive I am immediately sent to join a group that is just starting a tour – this isn’t the kind of place you can just wander around by yourself.
The group I’m assigned to is almost completely full of Japanese people. They haven’t come here for a fun experience or because they are pretending to be tourists in their hometown. They have been sent here by their employer, school or landlord because the aim of the centre is to teach people how to behave in case of disaster. Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world and, for most of the participants here today, this kind of training is a regular and compulsory activity.
That doesn’t mean that I am unwelcome or seen as a distraction. The organisers of the learning centre (or museum, if you prefer) like having foreigners come along and learn because the scary reality is an earthquake could hit Tokyo at any moment and a bit of knowledge can help anyone.
There are three main activities that I am guided through here. The first is how to use a fire extinguisher.
“1, 2, 3. Pin. Hose. OK?” is about the extent of the explanation in English. But the instructor demonstrates himself and it all becomes pretty obvious. I stand in front of a screen with a projection of a normal kitchen. A fire breaks out on the screen and I grab the extinguisher I’ve been given. As instructed (I think), I pull out the pin, point the hose at the screen and pull the handles together. Water spurts out and I spray the projected fire until it goes out and the cute chimes of Japanese music play to indicate I’ve been successful.
Next is the smoke maze – a training exercise to practice the best way to escape from a building that is filling with smoke. An alarm sounds to alert us to a ‘fire’ and that’s the signal to begin. I open the door to the maze and am confronted with an onslaught of smoke. I cover my mouth and nose with my shirt. Hunched over, almost crawling on all fours, I try to find my way through, using a hand to find the walls when needed. If you go over 120cm in height, an alarm sounds and the instructor’s voice comes through a speaker with a warning (in Japanese) to get lower. After a few false turns and locked doors, I find my way to the other end – still breathing.
The final exercise – the most terrifying of them all – is the earthquake simulator. It is set up as a typical dining room with a table set for five people. But the room is actually built over a machine that will create the tremors and shakes. The instructor can choose different earthquake from the history of Japan – some longer than others, some with more ferocious shaking, others with longer deeper shocks.
When he presses the button and The Great East Japan Earthquake begins, it’s much stronger than I expect. There’s a huge force to the movements beneath the room and I really do have to hang on hard to the leg of the table to not be thrown about. It also goes for so much longer than I would have thought. At least 40 seconds of shaking, only slowing down and easing up in the last few.
Even in a controlled environment, this felt dangerous. I can only imagine how it would have been two years ago when so many Japanese residents were suddenly confronted with this kind of force as plates smashed on the ground around them, signs fell in the street, and houses crumbled.
I’m not sure why this place has attracted the name ‘The Ikebukero Earthquake Museum’. Perhaps it’s from tourists who are trying to justify a visit. But this is not about the past or about looking at exhibits from history. This is about the future and understanding what is lurking at a tectonic level and waiting to strike again at any moment without warning. After experiencing it for myself, I sincerely hope for the sake of this country that it is a long time before the next.