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Saturday, Nov. 16, 2002

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A whole lot of shaking going on in my mind


Earthquakes are not laughable affairs. The breadth of the destruction and depth of the human tragedy demand only a solemn response.

Yet, the science (or shall we call it an art?) of earthquake prediction is a different matter. Here -- while full chuckles are perhaps still inappropriate -- we may at least be allowed a brief quiver of the lips.

That is also the look on most visitors to Japan when they experience their first tremor. If not veterans of some other earthquake zone, these folks will hold fast to their grins until the bouncing is finally finished.

I remember my own grin well. I wore it as a weak substitute for such critical questions as:

What do I do now? Wet my drawers? Or act cool?

Since it is hard to do both, I slipped into neutral -- that moronic smile -- until the room stopped shaking.

But I thought, "Gee, if I had seen that coming, I could have made a real choice!"

Where I come from earthquakes are rare, though moronic smiles are fairly common. We do, however, put up with another of Mother Nature's nastier moods: tornadoes.

Tornadoes are, in a word, screwy and likewise difficult to predict, although the conditions that spawn them are known to everyone.

So when the rumble in the sky announced the presence of "tornado weather," my family would all shuffle down to the cellar until the unfriendly clouds rolled away.

However, there is no such thing as "earthquake weather." They can't be tracked like a storm, watched like a volcano, gauged like a flood or even plotted like a meteor. They arrive unannounced, similar to some house guests, yet linger for only a moment.

But oh, what havoc they wreak.

So much that discovering how to predict these natural "cement mixers" would seem to be someone's Nobel Prize waiting to happen. Till now, unfortunately, most efforts have been begging.

One well-known approach is to study the behavior of dogs, which -- perhaps because they live closer to the earth -- may have a better hint about what is coming.

The idea is to chart the animal's usual patterns, and if they suddenly do something strange -- for example, if they leap up and begin playing the piano -- then that is your clue to dive under the nearest table.

I have noted that our own dog, which we call Tofu, spends each day in a cycle of sleeping followed by eating and then more sleeping.

This pattern is roughly similar to that of my two sons, the difference being that while Tofu will "speak" upon demand, the two boys will generally not shut up no matter what.

Regardless, detailed scrutiny of both children and pet has revealed no anomalies as to behavior prior to earth tremors. Tofu mopes around our yard and the two boys lay about their bedrooms -- rooms that, earthquake or not, always appear as if we have just suffered a monster shakeup.

Other animals worth observing are fish. The thought here is that fish can sense electromagnetic waves or perhaps even distant shaking before humans, and will thus demonstrate their precognition by biting at any hook in the water.

In other words, if humans had this gift, throngs of people crawling over each other for double cheeseburgers might be a sign that the big one is only moments away.

Bugs are also said to act weird right before an earthquake, though I am not quite sure what such behavior entails. Perhaps a spider might scribble "Here it comes!" into its web, or fireflies might all start blinking the SOS signal.

Whatever -- if you notice a bunch of praying mantises flocking frantically to church, perhaps you should join them.

I put little store in any of these so-called earthquake indicators, and even less in the human prognosticators that dominate certain Web sites and tabloids. I mean, to me predicting Jennifer Lopez's next divorce seems a whole lot easier than being able to tell whether my home in western Tokyo will soon become a beach front.

My wife, however -- perhaps a sign of her Japanese upbringing -- takes all such talk seriously. Thanks to her, we are earthquake-prepared. The local evacuation spot is posted on our fridge, and in our "genkan" my wife keeps a knapsack full of survival necessities: a canister of water, a box of biscuits, a small radio and her makeup kit.

More than this, at times she will get the earthquake heebie-jeebies, in which she will dash in and out of the bath and dress in a jiffy, under the reasoning that "I don't want to be caught naked in an earthquake!"

That this has never occurred in her life before -- even once -- is no comfort.

"All it takes is once! What will I do if our house is destroyed and I don't have any clothes?"

Not that I ever play upon these fears, but at times when she does soak in the tub a little too long and I am waiting, I have casually suggested that the dog is acting goofy, and that it and the bugs have grabbed her earthquake bag and are running for the hills.

This tends to hurry her up.

"You shouldn't make fun of earthquakes," she tells me.

That is no doubt true. For if there is one person you don't want to get riled, it's Mother Nature.

I just wish the old gal would treat us humans the same way she does her dogs, fish and bugs.

When is the next shake coming?

We all want to know.



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