Japan prepares for the next Big One

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TOKYO — It sounds like a weather forecast — not for today, but for the next 30 years.

There is a 70 percent chance of a 7.2-magnitude earthquake between now and 2040 in the southern Kanto area around Tokyo, and a 90 percent chance in nearby Ibaraki, according to Japan’s Earthquake Research Promotion agency.

The likelihood of 8.0-magnitude quakes is 87 percent in the Tokai region about 100 miles southwest of Tokyo, 70 percent in Tonankai near the automotive capital of Nagoya, and 60 percent for a massive 8.4-magnitude Nankai quake near the sprawling Osaka area in western Japan.

Three months after the March 11 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, which killed at least 25,000 people, Japanese leaders and citizens are taking earthquake forecasts seriously and reviewing preparations for disasters.

A 6.7-magnitude quake off northeastern Japan last week sent many tsunami survivors heading once again for high ground. It reminded people that Japan’s spell of disasters might not be over.

“The short answer is: nobody knows when the next one will strike,” said Satoko Oki, a seismologist at the University of Tokyo. “So we have to be prepared.”

Many in Japan fear a repeat of what happened to Indonesia after a 9.0-magnitude quake off Sumatra on Dec. 26, 2004, triggered a tsunami that killed more than 200,000 across the Indian Ocean.

Three months later, on March 28, 2005, an 8.7-magnitude quake — one of the strongest ever recorded - struck Indonesia along the same fault line, killing more than a thousand people in toppled buildings and falling debris.

“Seismologists regret that we thought such a massive tsunami was beyond imagination,” said Ms. Oki, who recently measured a tsunami wave 120 feet high in a narrow cove in northeastern Japan.

“We should have looked at what happened in 2004 in the Indian Ocean and accepted that it could happen in Japan as well.”

Historians figure that at least 195 tsunamis have hit Japan since 400 AD, including three recent killers: off Akita province in 1983; Okushiri near Hokkaido in 1993; and the March 11 tsunami in the northeastern region known in Japanese as Tohoku.

Because of that history, Japan has perhaps more detailed information online about past and potential disasters than any other nation.

The Earthquake Research Promotion office’s website features detailed maps and charts about the probability of major quakes in various areas. The Metropolitan Tokyo Police Department’s website offers earthquake and tsunami precautions in Japanese, English and Chinese.

When quakes strike, TV networks immediately broadcast information about the strength, depth and location of the temblors. Many coastal dwellers go to the Japan Meteorological Agency’s website, which has a simple map showing tsunami warnings.

Though high-rise office buildings swayed like grass in the breeze, and many homes shook violently for more than three minutes, Tokyo escaped heavy damage from the March 11 quake, the largest ever recorded in Japan.

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