13. Disastrous Yokohama
by Pencil Louis
Earthquakes are few in Australia. In fact, until the year
before Vince came to Australia, there had supposedly been no
recorded earthquake casualties in Australia. Then, a quake
had hit Newcastle with its epicentre at Hexham, killing
several people at the Working Men's Club. Vince had passed
this club every morning on his way to work during his six
months in the city.
Vince himself had never felt any earth tremors until he
arrived in Japan. He had been off the plane less than three
hours and was in bed having a nap to recover from the
eighteen hour trip when he felt his first jolt. He was later
to discover that they felt a lot stronger if you were
horizontal, but he leapt off his futon and staggered out
into the kitchen. No one else, it appeared, had felt a
thing. He read in the following day's newspaper that it had
been a very minor earthquake indeed, only 2.2 on the Richter
Scale at the Chiba house where he was staying. Vince knew
that earthquakes got as high as 7.9 and that this scale
increased with a logarithmic progression, which meant that
7.0 was far more intense than twice 3.5.
He had also heard that a major earthquake hit the Kanto
region, which included Tokyo, Yokohama, Chiba and Saitama,
every seventy years. Some believed that you could set your
clock by it. As the last great Kanto earthquake had been at
11:58 a.m. on 1st. September, 1923, he calculated that the
next big one would surely be in 1993 or 1994 some time.
He was soon to learn that the next great earthquake to hit
the Tokyo area already had a name and that seismologists who
monitored the earth's movements on a daily basis said
matter-of-factly that the next big one was just a matter of
time. One continental plate was sliding up under another on
just the other side of the Izu peninsula and thus the next
big one would be called the Great Tokaido Earthquake after
the old road that linked Kyoto with old Edo.
One day, Vince's mother-in-law rang up and screamed, "Don't
either you or Connie go into Tokyo, tomorrow!"
She had been watching a television programme in which a
seismological expert, who had predicted the exact date of
the last San Francisco earthquake, had just announced that
the Great Tokaido Earthquake was due to hit Tokyo, the
The next day was a Sunday and Vince was able to assure
Connie's mother that neither Connie nor he had any
intentions of going anywhere near Tokyo until Monday. What
he didn't tell his relieved mother-in-law was that Yokohama
would be closer to the epicentre than the bigger city to the
How much closer, he didn't know until he went to the
Yokohama Disaster Prevention Centre, which was
coincidentally less than a hundred metres from the old
Tokaido Road. There, he saw just how much of Yokohama had
been destroyed by fire alone during the Great Kanto
Earthquake, how much had been hit by the resulting tidal
wave. He also saw just how much of Yokohama was now on
dangerous reclaimed land. The old Tokaido Road had run along
the shore front in early times, but now it was impossible to
see Tokyo Bay at all from it. You could see the area around
Yokohama station, which would have been under water a
He went through photo after photo of crumbled buildings from
the 1923 and other more recent earthquakes from all around
the world. There were photos from the Phillipines of
buildings almost identical to the four storey apartment
block that he lived in, and one of them was lying face down
on its side as if a giant had come along and just pushed it
If that wasn't enough, the upstairs section dealt with the
dangers of fire and Vince thought uneasily how many of the
casualties of the 1923 earthquake had died in the resulting
fire. The big message seemed to be that it was safer to
crawl away from flames than to run away from the smoke.
Smoke, it turned out, moved faster than Nigel Mansell in a
Formula One race.
If Vince thought he'd got the message already, some of the
attendants at the Disaster Centre had spied him earlier on,
and had other ideas. Almost bodily they pushed him into a
movie theatre where he was shown a 20 minute long film about
the victims of three major earth tremors in the first part
of the 1980's. They'd all been in Japan, but all had done
most damage in Northern Honshu and Hokkaido, nowhere near
Tokyo and even further from Yokohama.
The message came through loud and clear - be prepared, store
food and water beforehand, turn off the gas, fill up the
bath and the washing machine, turn off the gas, don't panic,
stay away from brick or stone walls, hide under tables, open
the front door for an escape route, and know where your
emergency evacuation area was. Thoroughly convinced, Vince
took out a note pad and pen and jotted down these very
points, determined to act on them as soon as he had left.
But the Disaster Centre attendants weren't finished with him
yet. They led him into a strange machine that had a decor
not unlike the dining kitchen area of his apartment with
cupboards, a table and two chairs. He was informed that he
was going to experience the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.
Vince wasn't too keen on the idea. It was Connie after all
who loved roller coaster rides.
"Isn't it enough," he pleaded, "that I'll experience the
next big one?"
But it was to no avail. One of the men cranked up the
machine. Vince was standing in the centre of the room,
wondering if he should get under the table as all the
earthquake procedure manuals suggested you should do. He
feared that it would be too tight a squeeze and so he just
sank to his knees as if he were ready for prayer.
At this point, just as the machine was being cranked up and
hitting 5 on the Richter scale, two coach loads of tourists
piled into the Disaster Centre and jostled each other for a
glimpse of Vince being buffeted and bounced around. The
earthquake simulator was like a train wreck in sound. The
cupboard doors flew open and swung wildly and a plastic
bucket fell out and bounced off Vince's head. He watched as
it clattered across the floor and started to roll backwards
and forwards around in erratic arcs. The chairs juddered and
threatened to fall, but didn't until the very last minute
when one of them grazed Vince's shin. He was lying down
rather than kneeling by now and apart from this, his only
injury was a wrenched shoulder which had come from trying to
rest it against the side of the simulator.
The tremors had come in waves of intensity and Vince would
just think that the experience was about to cease when the
buffeting would start up anew. A roller coaster ride would
have been preferable. Actually, Vince had experienced
something like the earthquake simulator before. It was while
he was hitch hiking on a dusty dirt road between Wollomombi
and Jeogla in New South Wales, Australia. A man had pulled
to the side of the road and told him:
"There's no room in the car, but, if you want a lift, you
can hop in the trailer."
For the next 60 odd kilometres, he'd been bounced off every
pot hole and swung around every bend or deviation in the
road. It was certainly the roughest ride in his life. He had
emerged as he did now from the earthquake simulator with
every bone shaken. Admittedly, the two coach loads of
tourists were applauding, but he did notice that none of
them were game to experience their very own Great Kanto
Earthquake. Perhaps, they thought that he was part of the
Vince feared that he might be shaking more from mounting
terror than from the rattling of the earthquake simulator
itself. He had felt the whole sensation first through his
knees and then through each and every bone, joint and sinew
of his body, which was rattling of its own accord when he
was finally permitted to leave the Disaster Centre.
Connie was in no mood for surprises when Vince arrived home
that evening. She didn't want any flowers. She wasn't in the
mood for champagne or chocolate. She most certainly wasn't
in the mood for 250 tin cans of Yokohama water with a
half-life of five years, tins of fruit and fish, a fire
extinguisher, a gas stove, a glow in the dark transistor
radio, flares, a first aid kit with gaijin size band aids, a
rope ladder and two crash helmets.
Indeed, it took some time for him to persuade her of the
significance of being prepared for the next disaster, but,
for a change, he won out on this one. Within a week, he was
securing bookcases with brackets and putting special seals
on each of the cupboard doors so that things wouldn't fall
As always seems to happen, there were no more earth tremors
for quite some time, not even small ones, and Vince became
quite blas‚ about the Great Tokaido Earthquake. In fact, he
turned his attention to more immediate disasters. Three
substantial typhoons hit Yokohama, that year. Vince was well
aware that there was a saying in Japan that there were four
things to be feared in the following order - first,
earthquakes, second, lightning, third, fire, and fourth,
fathers. Not a word about typhoons, he noticed.
Two of the most ferocious typhoons weren't officially
typhoons. The typhoon season was at the end of summer - late
August through to early October. One of the biggest typhoons
had appeared in June when all rain was considered part of
the tsuyu monsoon season and the other had arrived in
November. Television weather forecasters across the nation
had politely informed their audiences, that while these were
very similar to typhoons and had almost identical
properties, they were in fact not typhoons. Unlike
earthquakes which could arrive at any time, if a typhoon
were to do something as untyphoonly as arrive out of season,
it jolly well didn't deserve to be called a typhoon in the
first place. The tsuyu monsoon brought similar problems. One
year, the steamy rain that hung like a mist that soaked you
from all directions had arrived too early for the weather
forecast to predict and therefore they decided that there
must have been no monsoon season that particular year.
The most ferocious storm Vince did encounter in Japan,
thankfully arrived in the typhoon season. It was Typhoon No.
20, nicknamed Typhoon Keiho, which unleashed its fury on
Yokohama on 19th. September, 1991. Vince had seen at least a
dozen so-called typhoons by this time and all of them had
either rained a little or blown a little, but never had done
both at the same time.
Vince's daytime job was cancelled for the afternoon and his
students were told to go home early. He made his own way
home just in time, not to get wet, but before the trains
stopped moving altogether. He caught the last train to run
between Nagatsuta and Kamoi. It crawled along at a pace that
was hardly faster than walking.
When he reached Kamoi station and crossed the railway
bridge, he had had to wade through 18 inches of water on the
other side.The Tsurumi was in flood. Vince was quite used to
the rapid rise and fall of the Tsurumigawa and other
Japanese rivers, but he had always thought that the high,
built up embankments were a little excessive. When he passed
it, the river was within five feet of the top embankment and
with wind and rain still driving into his face, he could see
the water cascading over the top and flooding the
Vince glimpsed the dairy milk chocolate brown waters with
soccer balls, tree trunks, polystyrene vegetable boxes and
the like bubbling and bouncing along in the swift current.
If he thought that the rush would cleanse the river, he was
wrong. Soccer fields, riverside farms, newly laid gate ball
courts were all under a foot of silt, the following day when
the waters had abated. It would take months to clean it up.
Vince was amazed at how quickly the river had dropped back
to its original level. Eighteen hours later, it was as if
the frothing brown tumult had all been in his mind.
If anything, you could do less when faced by a typhoon than
by an earthquake. You couldn't use a fire extinguisher. You
couldn't escape it. You couldn't hide under the table. All
you could do was stay indoors and pray that the roof didn't
Winter in Yokohama is the most pleasant of the four seasons.
It is cold, but, on most days, the skies are a greyish blue.
There is the odd snow storm, but these are rare and
blizzards are non-existent. It was on a day in the middle of
Japan's coldest month, February, that Vince's earthquake
finally hit. It was 4.8 on the Richter scale or so Vince's
once jarred bones told him.
It had been so long since he had seriously considered the
possibility of the Tokaido Earthquake that he seemed at
first to have forgotten the procedure he'd outlined for
himself. Or perhaps, this was simply because it was shortly
after 3 o'clock in the morning. Such was the immediate jolt
that he was out of his bed in an instant and muttering
between breaths each instruction as he performed it.
"Open the front door ... don't panic ... fill up the bath
... don't panic ... turn off the gas ... don't panic ...
fill up the bath .... don't panic ... no, fill up the
washing machine ... hide under the table ... don't panic ...
fill up the bath ... no, crawl under the table ... don't
panic ... don't panic ... don't panic ..."
After Vince had crawled under the kitchen table, he noticed
Connie's legs standing not two feet away from him, one foot
tapping vigorously. He could feel the draft from the open
door, could hear the bath and washing machine filling up.
"I'm not panicking," he explained from beneath the table.
"Vince," Connie bent down and looked straight at him. "the
floor stopped shaking ten minutes ago."
"I think you can come out now, dear. It's over."
Vince reluctantly crawled out from under the table, turned
off the taps and returned to his futon. He didn't sleep at
all for the rest of the morning and was up early to inspect
the damage. The brackets had stayed in place, the cupboards
had stayed closed and he still had 250 undamaged cans of
But Vince had proof. He noticed a long crack in the wall
from ceiling to floor. It was proof that his apartment
wouldn't fall flat on its face during an earthquake. No, it
would break in half down the middle.