(Mainichi Japan) January 30, 2012
Anxiety and inattention over Tokyo's next Big One

Last week, the possibility of a new political party being formed under the leadership of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara emerged, but Tokyoites were more shocked by news indicating there was a 70 percent chance of a magnitude 7-level earthquake hitting the capital within four years.

The news caused a stir because it was based on projections by the authoritative Earthquake Research Institute (ERI) at the University of Tokyo.

I visited professor Naoshi Hirata, 57, director of the institute's Earthquake Prediction Research Center, thinking the institute's announcement daring.
But I soon learned that this figure was not an "announcement."

The episode is very interesting.

An initial report on the likelihood of a major quake appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun's Jan. 23 morning editions.  初報は読売新聞23日朝刊だった。

In a front-page exclusive, the daily reported the news with the banner headline: "70% chance of magnitude-7 level Tokyo earthquake within 4 yrs.''

The Nikkei, The Tokyo Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun followed suit in their evening editions and The Asahi Shimbun and The Sankei Shimbun caught up with them in their Jan. 24 editions.

All trailing dailies had almost identical headlines.

TV stations quickly reported the news through their news departments as well as in other programs.  テレビは報道部門だけでなく、各局ごとにいくつもある情報番組が一斉に反応した。

Overwhelmed by a barrage of reports by news organizations, the ERI published a special explanation online to account for the reasons behind the Yomiuri report.

Adding a twist to the saga was the fact that the ERI's study team had reported its predictions at an open forum last fall, and they were covered by the mass media.

Looking back, the Mainichi Shimbun reported in its Sept. 17, 2011 editions that there was a 98 percent chance of a magnitude 7-level earthquake striking the metropolitan region within 30 years.

According to Hirata, a 98 percent chance within 30 years and a 70 percent chance within four years mean the same thing.

But human beings, as they are, take the 30-year span lightly and are surprised by the four-year timeline.

The Yomiuri keenly restructured the publicized data and emphasized the period "within four years," causing a big public reaction and forcing other news outlets to follow suit.

As I was looking into the circumstances surrounding the quake prediction story, the nonfiction book "The Great Kanto Earthquake," by Akira Yoshimura (1927-2006), occurred to me.

From the end of the Meiji era to the early Taisho period, Akitsune Imamura, an assistant professor of seismology at Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), predicted a Tokyo earthquake in newspaper and magazine articles.

But Fusakichi Omori, Japan's foremost authority on seismology and chairman of seismology at the national university, was worried about a commotion in society and tried to defuse public anxiety, resulting in a standoff with Imamura.

On Sept. 1, 1923, the magnitude-7.9 Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo and its vicinity. Omori lost face and died in frustration, while Imamura was catapulted into fame.

But Imamura had sparked confusion when freely talking about earthquakes before eventually toning his warnings down.

The balance between earthquake predictions and reporting is delicate.

When I asked Hirata if the latest episode reminded him of the row between Omori and Imamura, he said with a wry smile, "It's not such a big deal."

"A magnitude-7 quake's energy is one thousandth of the (magnitude-9) Great East Japan Earthquake.

We did not predict an inland earthquake in the capital," Hirata says. "

The reports tended to cause misunderstanding but were meaningful in that they sounded an alarm against inattention in the Kanto region.

The chances of a big earthquake are greater than before and it is necessary to prepare."

At the outset of a news conference on Jan. 27, Tokyo Gov. Ishihara mentioned disaster-prevention steps, believing there would be questions about the University of Tokyo's predictions. However, none of the questions related to the earthquake predictions.

His 30-minute news conference solely covered questions about the new political party under consideration.

The shocking reports about a 70 percent chance of an earthquake hitting the metropolitan area within four years didn't appear to make a dent at all at the news conference.

News reports are cues for people to become aware of inattention.

The bottom line is how to react in an emergency situation.

Yoshimura's parents went through the Great Kanto Earthquake.

During U.S. air raids on Tokyo in the closing days of World War II, Yoshimura got yelled at by his father when he tried to flee with a pack on his back.

Tales by survivors of the March 11 disasters and Yoshimura's books are filled with survival tips that cannot be found by looking to disaster-prevention goods.

(By Takao Yamada, Expert Senior Writer)
毎日新聞 2012年1月30日 東京朝刊

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