Andy in Tokyo

Earthquake drills

Jun 27th 2008
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On Thursday morning we had to take part in an earthquake drill. With Japan being one of the most, if not the most, earthquake-prone country in the world, drills like this are routine. I had expected there to be a grand system set in place in order to swiftly whisk people out of their office and onto the (relative) safety of the street - yellow inflatable slides that pop out from under the windows, for example. The reality was, unfortunately, far plainer: at 12.00 the loudspeaker announced that there had been an earthquake. Five minutes later we were informed that the lifts were out of order and that everyone was to congregate in the basement car park. With all the speed and alertness of sloths everyone left what they were doing and proceeded downstairs.

In the basement a large blue sheet had been strung between the walls; a cardboard sign with the kanji “fire” was stuck in its centre. In front of the sheet stood twenty small fire extinguishers and ten triangular buckets of water; in front of them stood two middle-aged, beige-overalled men with megaphones. They were… The Instructors.

The instruction was far from rigorous. One of the men asked for volunteers to spray the “fire”. People were hastily pushed out from among the crowd by their friends or superiors. Some of the older salarymen, relishing the opportunity to muck about like ten-year-olds, had already scrambled for the fire extinguishers.

The instructors gave one blow of their whistles: the volunteers sprang to life!

The older salarymen took to it with gusto, waddling towards the sheet, shouting “Kaji desu!”, deftly removing the safety clip then, bracing themselves for the expected recoil, aimed the nozzle at the (imaginary) inferno before them and squeezed the trigger. The result? One wet sheet, and several very smug-looking salarymen. Annual earthquake drills appear to be one of the high points of their otherwise routine working life.

Next up for demonstration: the buckets. They were strange, triangular-shaped things with one circular hole in the corner. Was this to help direct the water? Was it stronger? Was somebody having a laugh? Nobody seemed to know, but I’m sure thousands - if not millions - of test buckets had been created, debated, blown up and prodded with weasels in order to reach this final design

At any rate, more volunteers came forward and the buckets were duly put through their paces. Despite the strangeness of their shape they performed admirably, dispensing their moist goodness in a consistent manner, which was the best you can expect from any bucket, really.

With the demonstrations over, one of the instructors concluded by muttering something incomprehensible through his megaphone. Knowing my luck, it was probably the most important part of the training, something along the lines of: “If there’s an earthquake don’t forget to leave through Door X because all the other doors will be closed and you will die a horrible painful death and nobody will come and help you at all, so there.” Nobody else seemed to be listening, but of course they’d heard it a thousand times before and probably knew it by heart.

While the whole experience is difficult to sum up in words, this scene from Big Train sums it up very well indeed:


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