Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Every time they hear that an earthquake happened in Japan (and especially if it is big, like the one with a magnitude of 8.5 that happened the other day), relatives, friends and acquaintances rush to contact me and make sure that I’m OK –this is completely understandable (I would do the same if I were in their place) and very warm and pleasant. What most people don’t understand though is that Japan’s unique characteristics extend to the matter of earthquakes too; obviously I don’t mean the earthquakes themselves but their recording, the information provided to the public and the degree of preparedness for when they hit. Leaving aside the fear at the exact moment of the earthquake, the possibilities that someone gets hurt from the earthquake (and not e.g. from a tsunami that might follow –and this isn’t a common occurrence) are really small.
What makes the situation confusing, especially when it comes to people who contact me from Greece is that beyond the abysmal gap in terms of infrastructure and of the reaction of both the general public and the mass media, a gap that is enough to defuse perhaps the biggest problem of any natural disaster, i.e. panic, there is a difference in the method of recording the actual phenomenon –or, to be more accurate, in the method of informing the public. Instead of the Richter scale (which, incidentally, has been replaced by another called “MMS”) which doesn’t have any practical value outside the scientific community, Japan’s Meteorological Agency, the institution responsible for recording earthquakes and issuing the corresponding bulletins, is using another scale called “Shindo” (震度) that calculates the intensity of the earthquake locally and in terms of its actual effect on people.
The earthquake that happened the other day had a magnitude of 8.5 (or M8.5 in the MMS scale –not the Richter scale) but in Tokyo it had an intensity of Shindo 4 which, according to the Meteorological Agency results in “hanging objects and electric wires swinging considerably, dishes in cupboards rattling, unstable ornaments occasionally falling, very loud noises being heard and people outside noticing the tremor.” In other areas of Japan, northern from Tokyo, the intensity was Shindo 3 (with similar but much less pronounced symptoms) while at the spot where the earthquake actually happened, it was Shindo 5+; like the logarithmic Richter and MMS scales, in the Shindo scale the difference between Shindo 3 and Shindo 4 is smaller than the difference between Shindo 4 and Shindo 5. More simply put, the Shindo scale attempts to inform in a more anthropocentric way about the earthquake’s effects; M8.5 sounds huge but depending on the distance, the depth and other variables, its effects can be (and indeed are) considerably different.
Those who want to learn more can certainly find on the Internet much more reliable information than those my almost inexistent scientific knowledge can offer. What matters though, is that Japan remains the most seriously prepared country for everything related to earthquakes; all Japanese learn the above information (and a lot more) regarding the various scales, the types of earthquakes, how to read an earthquake map or what they need to do when it occurs, since they are of kindergarten age. And this knowledge, combined with the experience that, alas, comes with frequent exposure to the actual phenomenon, contributes significantly to both the avoidance of panic and the very small casualties when the phenomenon gets big. Again, I thank you all for your interest but, frankly, the situation is much less dangerous than what Greek (and, I suspect, other countries’) media would have you believe.
(*) For Spyros
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/ or see his interview in Tokyocheapo.