Saturday, June 02, 2012

Earthquakes, risk and the Japanese psyche

The Japanese world is a very dangerous place.  Earthquakes, tsunami, floods, nuclear radiation, tornados, murder, lightning, foreigners, overseas travel, snakes, monkeys, wasps, bears, heatstroke, unemployment, overwork; every night on the news the dangers of some new terror are described in excruciating detail.  The only thing they apparently have no fear of is unintended irony, as statistically Japan is the safest country in the world, with the lowest or close to the lowest levels of crime and premature death (not to mention spontaneous dancing) in the history of humanity.  The real threats to society largely go unnoted: depression, loneliness, alcohol and tobacco, AKB48.

The fear of earthquakes is an excellent example of where the Japanese perception of risk results in a hugely sub-optimal outcome.  The earthquake and tsunami last year affected large areas of Tohoku, especially the prefectures of Ibaraki, Fukushima and Miyagi.  About 20,000 people were killed by the tsunami.  Yet this earthquake was completely unpredicted.  Indeed, the last time an earthquake of this magnitude was recorded in the region was in the 800s, and there are only a few incidents of quakes this size in recorded human history.  Japan is an earthquake-prone country; there will undoubtedly be fatal tremblors in the years to come; yet it is extremely unlikely that another quake of similar magnitude will occur in the near future.  In fact, there probably won't be one of similar size for decades or centuries.

That hasn't stopped the Japanese becoming obsessed with quakes and tsunamis.  Schools practice evacuation drills religiously, and town halls pore obsessively over topographic maps, searching feverishly for escape routes to hilltops that are 20 meters or more above sea level.  Most absurdly of all, areas affected by last year's tsunami have responded with the most extraordinary levels of surreal retrospective wishful thinking: land prices on hilltops have doubled or tripled, while land prices at sea level have dropped by 60% or more.  Meanwhile local governments draft plans to install tsunami-proof structures on rooftops for people to hold onto when forced to the roofs of their buildings.  This is despite the fact that these regions are the only areas in Japan that are safe from tsunami: statistically, they will, in all probability, be safe for about a thousand years.  The immense pressure on the tectonic plates nearby has been relieved for the foreseable future, and geologically it is the safest place in Japan.  In the words of Robin Williams in The World According to Garp,  the whole area has been pre-disastered.

At this point it's worth pointing out the atrocious record of earthquake forecasting.  Neither the Tohoku earthquake or the Kobe earthquake were predicted and both were completely unexpected in terms of ferocity.  Meanwhile, the Tokyo region is constantly brought up as the site of the imminently expected 'Big One'.  The truth is that earthquake prediction is such an inexact science that its success rate is little better than chance.  Put it this way: I'm not losing any sleep over it.

The Japanese are not a people that cope well with the unexpected.  They respond to surprise with yet more emphasis on preparing for what they can predict, regardless of its improbability.  They have yet to learn that flexibility in the face of the unexpected is a more useful attribute than a detailed and idealistic plan for a disaster that will probably never come.  As the Sunscreen Song pragmatically tells us:

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never cross your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

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