Tokyo Journal; The City Isn’t Quaking, but Maybe It Should Be

Copyright The New York Times

Published: October 30, 2000

TOKYO, Oct. 29— Once every few weeks this city is shaken by a tremor so powerful that it becomes Topic A of conversation in the gleaming high-rises that tower above Tokyo and aboard the packed subways that course underground. And then, just as swiftly, conversations shift back to Japan’s economic performance, the latest political scandal or, these days, Japan’s baseball championship series.

Such serenity is in large part attributable to government assurances that every practical earthquake safety precaution has already been taken in Tokyo, and to Japanese familiarity with geological disaster on a huge scale. No one seems to blink at minimum — and oddly precise — estimates of 6,717 people killed and more than 300,000 structures destroyed, mostly by fire, if the Big One hits.

”All of Tokyo’s large buildings are able to withstand a magnitude 7.2 earthquake,” said Kenji Suzuki, the city’s chief of disaster prevention planning, whose offices in the 48-story twin-tower Tokyo government headquarters contain a disaster response command center that resembles a high-tech war room. ”Since scientists tell us that we are unlikely to experience anything bigger than this in the foreseeable future, we are satisfied.”

But after a summer of unusually intense seismic activity across Japan and, earlier this month, the strongest tremor since the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe, seismologists, building experts and the news media are pondering whether this city of 12 million people is now considered safe or, indeed, ever can be.

The Kobe earthquake had a force of 7.2 on the Richter scale, now seldom used. It struck directly under the city, and killed about 6,000 people.

At the Tokyo Fire Department, which would be the lead rescue agency in an earthquake, officials are, like Mr. Suzuki, focused on a quake of the magnitude of that of Kobe.

”A bigger earthquake will probably not happen for another 100 or 200 years,” said Seiichi Ohsawa, a fire department quake preparedness specialist. ”On the other hand, a quake like Kobe’s can be expected to recur fairly often.”

But many experts say that Tokyo and its immediate surroundings, atop one of the world’s most complex and menacing patchworks of seismic faults, could suffer a far more powerful earthquake at any time. In 1923, an earthquake known as the Great Kanto earthquake hit the Tokyo area, leaving an estimated 140,000 people dead. It measured 7.9 on the old Richter scale.

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