A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Are you ready for the BIG ONE?

There used to be a cannon, located in the plaza in front of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, which since 1871 had been used to announce the arrival of 12 noon. On September 1, 1923 the usual DON (bang!) never sounded. A little more than a minute before midday, a tremendous earthquake, whose epicenter was in Sagami Bay, hit Tokyo with terrific force. Tokyo University’s seismograph, the only one in the vicinity to have survived the first violent spasm, recorded nearly 2000 more shock waves over the next 3-day period. Over that time, much of the Shita-Machi area of Tokyo had burned down, leaving more than 200,000 dead. Though Tsukuba lay beyond the reach of what came to be called The Great Kanto Earthquake (Kanto Daishinsai) many native Tsukubans and Ibarakians have heard from their grandparents how at that time the sky glowed red to the south at night, and was darkened in the day by drifting smoke .

Tokyo burning and Mt. Tsukuba

Since 1923, September First has been a day to commemorate that tragedy and also to remind all those residing in this disaster prone land of the need to be ready for any possible scenario. Thus, this day is both Shinsai Kinenbi (震災記念日, Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Day), with its annual service at Yokoame Park in Sumida Ward (where the greatest number of victims perished), and Disaster Prevention Day (Bo-sai no Hi, 防災の日), on which you might see firemen leading schoolchildren in evacuation drills (though you are more likely to see this on Sept 2nd as the 1st is the first day back to school!), and plenty of safety tips offered on TV. You might want to take a look at Tsukuba City’s advice for earthquakes. It is both informative and amusing. We are instructed to hide under a desk, secure an exit and turn off the gas and electricity among other things, all at the same time! We are also rightly warned not to listen to rumors, which is an important lesson learned from 1923 when rumors of Koreans poisoning the wells led to the slaughter of large numbers of Koreans by rioting mobs, and the subsequent suppression of Socialists (who were said to be egging on the Koreans!) 

I don’t mean in any way to make light of this subject.  Though it’s been a long time since 1923, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which had Kobe burning helplessly for days, and more recently the Earthquake in Niigata Prefecture (a few years back) which has left people living in shelters TO THIS DAY, show us that there is still a long way to go in terms of preparedness and prevention of death and destruction. I don’t want to seem pessimistic, but the BIG ONE WILL COME SOMEDAY. Sometimes it’s as if you can FEEL the pressure building up on the tectonic plates. It probably would be a very good idea to read up on how to prepare.

As you know, earthquakes are not the only threat. In fact, this area has had much worse luck with flooding over the years. That is one reason why, to the astonishment of many foreigners, most Japanese don’t complain about the concreting over of ALL THE RIVERBANKS. For centuries they have been living in fear of unpredictable rivers and flooding. For them, concrete means progress and security (and it seems to have worked this year!). Tsukuba City also offers some tips on dealing with typhoons, floods and fires.

Before the disciplines of geology and seismology were introduced to Japan, there was a very CURIOUS understanding of the cause of earthquakes, which  has a STRONG CONNECTION to Ibaraki Prefecture.

The trembling of the earth was believed to be caused by the slashing about of a giant subterranean CATFISH (namazu). In order to keep this very dangerous fish restrained, the God of Kashima (Kashima Myojin) pressed down on its head with a heavy stone called the KANAME ISHI (要石), which can be found to this day within the precincts of Ibaraki’s most important shrine, Kashima Jingu. This protective stone became especially popular after a terrible earthquake hit Edo in 1855. That disaster struck in the 10th month, during which it is believed that ALL THE 8,000,000 Gods of Japan leave their own shrines and go to Izumo (Shimane Prefecture). It thus became a firm conviction among most Edo-ites that the earthquake had occurred because the God of Kashima had been away and unable to keep the giant catfish under control. The people beseeched the God to be more vigilant after that and the catfish and kaname ishi became popular subjects of devotion.

God of Kashima Subduing Catfish

The stone, which now protrudes slightly out of the ground, is still considered by believers to keep Kanto safe from earthquakes.

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