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Deadly 1923 Quake Changed Japan Forever

GUY RAZ, host:

September 1st is a date seared into the collective consciousness of the Japanese people. On that day in 1923, a 7.9-scale earthquake leveled Tokyo and killed 140,000 people. And ever since then, each year on September 1st, millions of Japanese take part in disaster prevention drills.

Clayton Jones, who covered Japan for The Christian Science Monitor, wrote an article about how that quake changed Japan forever. And he joins me now.


Mr. CLAYTON JONES (The Christian Science Monitor): Thank you.

RAZ: All right. Describe how that earthquake in 1923 has informed almost every part of Japan's earthquake preparedness since.

Mr. JONES: It really caused three days of fires in Tokyo, 140,000 people died. And ever since then, Japan has been learning again and again what it takes to kind of prepare for both quakes and tsunamis.

So they set up yearly drills, disaster drills. And the main feature of that is a truck that goes around the different neighborhoods. And one side is open and people are invited to sit in this open truck. It looks like a Japanese kitchen. And the truck rocks back and forth. And you're allowed to experience an actual quake. You're taught how to turn off your gas and go under the table. This is something that's very important.

Japan is probably the most active quake zone in the world. It gets about one-fifth of all quakes, and it had two major quakes in the 20th century. There was the 1995 Kobe quake that killed around 6,000 people.

RAZ: They are a way of life there, Clayton. Thirty to 40 significant earthquakes, on average, each year.

Mr. JONES: Yes. And living there, you get used to it, the sway and the buildings are well designed to kind of just sway with the motion. The country is really prepared for a major quake southeast of Tokyo. So this one in the northeast, off coast, was quite a surprise.

RAZ: Why more planning in the south and the southeast rather than in the northeast where this earthquake struck?

Mr. JONES: Well, because of the 1923 earthquake that hit Tokyo, there's a lot of attention on a particular fault line in the southeast. The quake on Friday was at a deep trench in the ocean offshore and officials just weren't looking there as much as the southeast.

RAZ: It seems to me that despite all of the preparation and the earthquake resistant buildings, much of Japan's coastline seems to be vulnerable to tsunamis, and that appears as if that is really what has caused many of the deaths. These are densely populated areas, the coastal areas, aren't they?

Mr. JONES: Yes, by and large. I mean, most people live in the cities, which are slightly inland. But over the years, the government has built giant seawalls and other embankments along the coast to try and keep the tsunami wave away. But as we saw in those pictures on Friday, not every embankment works.

RAZ: Give us a sense of how you think this disaster will impact Japan. I mean, obviously, many of the buildings withstood the initial earthquake. But it was the tsunami that appears to have caused the overwhelming amount of damage.

Mr. JONES: Well, there's obviously the economic damage. The Kobe earthquake caused about $150 billion lost to the economy. This one was up farther north. It only affected one major city, but you do have loss of life and a lot of farmland and so forth.

The significant thing for me is that this is the first major quake where the military was out. A passive nation has decided to let its military to do relief work. That's going to be an interesting thing to see how more and more people accept a larger responsibility for what's called the self-defense forces.

RAZ: That's Clayton Jones. He was Tokyo bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor from 1990 to 1994. He spoke to me from our studios in Washington, D.C.

Clayton Jones, thank you.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

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RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.