It may be the birthplace of Zen, but Japan is one of the most disaster-prone places on the planet.
Located on the boundary of four tectonic plates and on the western ridge of the Ring of Fire, Japan is one of the most tectonically active places on earth. Its position, topography and climate make the country particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and volcanic eruptions.
While earthquakes in Japan are a common occurrence, about 1,500 times a year, experts predict that Japan will experience a mega earthquake. Authorities say there is a 70 percent chance that Tokyo will experience a magnitude 7.3 earthquake by 2050, a potential disaster they have called Day X.
This anxiety, combined with fears of a growing threat of North Korean missile attack, has contributed to Japan becoming a booming market in the $200 billion global disaster preparedness industry.
Parents like Hiroko take extreme measures to protect their families. She has installed a shelter in her living room that she hopes will protect her and her young daughter in the event of an emergency.
Hiroko talks to journalist Kumi Taguchi during a Dateline documentary about training in Japan. Credit: SBS date line.
“In case of an earthquake, it is made from aircraft material, so it is very durable. Even if the house breaks down, it will survive,” Hiroko told SBS Dateline.
“So it protects us from earthquakes, ballistic missiles and other dangers.”
A shelter like Hiroko’s will set you back about $15,000, with more luxurious models costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We have nowhere to hide in this place – we don’t have a basement. So I thought shelter would be the answer,” she said.
“The air inside is compressed, and it will last us for two days – that is, if a ballistic missile hits and there is radiation. We’ll have to get out in two days.”
Journalist Kumi Taguchi at Hiroko’s hideout.
The bunker has food, water, blankets, air conditioning and a TV.
The space is cozy for two people and doesn’t have a toilet, but Hiroko came up with a contingency plan, a specially designed disposable trash can that “opens like a paper cup.”
More preparation awareness
Concerns about natural disasters have intensified since the 2011 earthquake that struck off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture.
The Tohoku earthquake, which received a 9 on the Richter scale, and the tsunami destroyed entire towns and villages. More than 19,000 people died or are still missing, more than 6,000 survivors were injured.
This natural disaster also caused the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
A tsunami survivor in the completely destroyed city of Yamada in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan in 2011, two days after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the country’s east coast. Credit: AP/Kyodo News
The disaster made many in Japan think about how to protect themselves from disasters.
Tadayuki Sato is the head of the Phase Free Association in Tokyo, which provides advice on disaster preparedness.
He told the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun that his organization aims to educate people on how to prepare for a disaster before it becomes inevitable.
“I would like people to choose products in terms of whether they will help during natural disasters and share their awareness with those around them,” he said.
“Things that are needed in normal times are also needed in times of distress.”
What is the threat from North Korea?
In addition to the threat of natural disaster, many Japanese are worried about a potential missile attack from North Korea.
North Korea has conducted many strategic missile tests since its first test in 1984.
North Korea launched more than 90 missiles in 2022, the most in a year.
The latest test came last week, just hours before the leaders of South Korea and Japan met for a summit in Tokyo. North Korea has launched a long-range ballistic missile into the waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula.
This photo provided by the North Korean government shows what it says is an ICBM undergoing a launch exercise at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea on Thursday, March 16, 2023. The content of this image is provided by and may not be independent of others. checked. Credit: AP/Korea Central News Agency
Earlier this month, North Korea fired at least two missiles into the Sea of Japan. Last October, he fired his first rocket over Japan since 2017.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said the summit was an important first step towards restoring relations between the two countries after more than a decade of hiatus in bilateral relations due to historical differences.
They stressed the importance of improving relations in light of shared concerns, including an escalation of nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.
Before leaving for Tokyo, Yoon told international media that “Korea and Japan need cooperation during this time of polycrisis,” CNN reported.
“We cannot afford to waste time ignoring the tense Korean-Japanese relationship.”
Day X in Tokyo
Naoshi Hirata is Distinguished Professor of Seismology at the University of Tokyo. He was a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Disaster Prevention Expert Team that produced the official X Day earthquake assessment.
He worries that the people of Tokyo are not ready.
“Not all people, all residents think about it seriously,” Professor Hirata told ABC.
With this in mind, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has released a 300-page guide that includes manga images to help residents prepare.
We have nowhere to hide in this place – we don’t have a basement. So I thought a shelter would be the answer.
He also included “refuge parks” in his urban planning, which serve as survival centers in the event of a natural disaster. The UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs warns that the first 72 hours after a disaster are the most critical to saving lives.
The Guardian reports that these parks are equipped with solar-powered charging stations, public benches that turn into cooking stoves, and manholes that also double as emergency toilets. Underground are water reservoirs and food stores for entire districts.
As for Hiroko, she says she is often asked why she bought herself a bunker in the living room.
“I’m very glad I did it,” she said.
“If something happens, it will save us.”
Watch the Dateline short documentary “Nuclear Families” about the Hiroko Orphanage here.