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  • When the Earth Roars: Lessons from the History of Earthquakes in Japan by Gregory Smits
  • Jeff Kingston (bio)
When the Earth Roars: Lessons from the History of Earthquakes in Japan. By Gregory Smits. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Md., 2014. xvi, 209 pages. $80.00, cloth; $79.99, E-book.

The Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 killed nearly 16,000 people in the tsunami zone of northeastern Japan and has indelibly marked the lives of survivors from that cataclysm, including, as of early 2015, over 100,000 nuclear refugees. In the immediate aftermath, Prime Minister Kan Naoto described it as the worst disaster since World War II, while Governor of Tokyo Ishihara Shintarō suggested it was divine punishment. According to Gregory Smits, Ishihara’s comments were not unprecedented, but that hardly excuses his gross insensitivity.

The 3.11 disaster has influenced the field of Japan studies, sparking a proliferation of publications on the consequences of this triple disaster, especially the impact of the nuclear disaster and the disappointing efforts to promote recovery in the region. When the Earth Roars is an excellent guide to the history of earthquakes in Japan that focuses on how these seismic events become what are termed natural disasters. Pennsylvania State University historian Gregory Smits argues that, “just as earthquakes lack characteristic qualities as geophysical phenomena, so, too, do they lack such qualities as natural disasters” (p. 19). Much depends on broader social circumstances and how government and people respond to the sudden chaos unleashed, which is influenced by numerous variables but perhaps most critically depends on prior emergency preparations and capacity for disaster management.

Smits explains that there is an unhelpful and unjustified tendency to assume that the next devastating earthquake will resemble the preceding [End Page 431] one, just like generals mistakenly prepare for the next war based on lessons from the previous one. Past quakes do, however, provide useful lessons. For example, the modern structures in Kobe built to the stricter seismic building code enacted in 1981 (revised in 2000) weathered the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake relatively well. “The dramatic and effective swaying of tall buildings in Tokyo and elsewhere during March 2011 was in part a result,” writes Smits, “of lessons learned or confirmed in 1995” (p. 152). Base isolation of skyscrapers works and is a dramatic example of what can be done to mitigate seismic risks.

Lessons, however, are often forgotten. Along Tohoku’s Sanriku coastline, one can see tsunami stones erected by ancestors warning residents about the high-water mark of previous tsunami and the perils of building any closer to the sea. Smits points out that if settlement patterns had heeded the lessons of the 1896 tsunami, the loss of lives would have been dramatically less in 2011. But over time these warnings became less compelling and those who lived in dangerous coastal lowlands behind protective seawalls developed a false sense of security. Many of these massive barriers were smashed apart on March 11, 2011, as the sea engulfed and pulverized large swathes of coastal communities. But even if the tsunami walls nurtured a dangerous complacency, town officials understood that other countermeasures were essential to reduce risk.

On the anniversary of the March 3, 1933, tsunami, along the Tohoku coast many schools conduct annual evacuation drills, meaning that children and their teachers were prepared just over a week later in 2011 when it was not a drill. This disaster emergency exercise saved many lives among coastal dwellers who knew better than to ignore risk or wish it away. Of course, even the best drills and evacuation plans are not failsafe, but proper risk assessment and suitable preparations by local communities can confer “the greatest degree of safety for the greatest number of people,” Smits notes, “even though that degree will always be less than 100 percent” (p. 5).

Regarding the Fukushima nuclear crisis involving three reactor meltdowns in the wake of the massive tsunami, Smits takes issue with the sotegai (inconceivable) defense of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). He points to explicit warnings in the decade prior to 3.11, including an in-house computer simulation, and to monster tsunami that had blasted the same Sanriku...


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pp. 431-435
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