Mudsl ides in Japan
Heavy rain in Hiroshima on Wednesday, August 20, 2014 caused mudslides and a death toll that eventually passed seventy victims. Japan seems prone to some extreme weather, and there are a number of traditional natural disasters (“saigai”) featured in Japanese culture and current events:
- Earthquake (jishin)
- flood (kozui)
- volcano (kazan or funka if it is erupting, “funka” is the verb “erupt”)
- fire (kaji).
Japanese jokingly say “jishin, kaminari, kaji, oyaji,” or “earthquake, thunder/lightning, fire, old man.” Mudslide, or “doshasuberi,” is not one of the traditional disasters, but maybe it should be. The word for mud is “doro,” and the verb “to slide” is “suberu” (not to be confused with the car, the Suburu.) Put them together and you get “doshasuberi.” Incidentally, a children’s playground slide is called a “suberidai,” so maybe you can see the relationship of the words.
Japan is a very mountainous country. The population is crowded into the coastal plains. Whenever there is a typhoon various parts of the country are issued various levels of flood and mudslide warnings. Tokyo and Yokohama are very hilly. A few large rivers flowing into Tokyo Bay sit on large, flat flood plains where you can see how flooding can easily occur. Large river flood plains are commonly used as park land and baseball diamonds, and huge levees separate them from nearby residential neighborhoods. These enormous, open buffer zones make good spots to hold summer time fireworks festivals.
Geographically Tokyo has two main areas, the lowland called Shitamachi (“down town”) in the east, and Yamanote (“hill town”) in the west. The main inner city commuter train, a big loop around the inner city, is called the Yamanote Line. Where I live in Nakano Ward, west of Shinjuku where the Tokyo City Hall is, is in the elevated part of the city. My local subway station (Nakanofujimicho Station on the Marunouchi Line) is 29 meters above sea level. I know because there is a sign at the entrance of it saying so. And I live at the top of a local hill, so I guess my apartment building is more like 50 or 60 meters above sea level. Because of the geography of Tokyo Bay it is nearly impossible for Tokyo to face a tsunami like what came ashore on the Pacific coast after the March 2011 earthquake, killing almost 20,000 people. But the low elevation of Tokyo still makes large sections of it - especially eastern sections - liable to flooding. And as March 11, 2011 taught us, large sections of Tokyo waterfront, consisting of reclaimed land/landfill are subject to soil liquefaction.
I live in inner Tokyo, of course. But suburban western Tokyo - places like Tachikawa and Hachioji - is positively almost rural and it’s very hilly there, featuring bamboo woods, small farms, and suburban housing.
On Thursday, August 28, 2014 there was a story in the Japan Times English-language newspaper of a familiar phenomenon. Every time there is a natural disaster here there is a rise in rumours - that’s all they are - of foreign crime: burglary, looting, fraud, etc. It happened after the January 1995 Kobe earthquake, and the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and like clockwork it happened in Hiroshima Prefecture following this mudslide incident. The most notorious example of rumours like these is the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, after which suspicion that Korean residents (Korea was a Japanese colony at the time) were poisoning drinking water wells led to the massacre of up to 10,000 Koreans in Tokyo. In the old days rumours spread by word of mouth, but these days they spread on social networks, on internet pages run by xenophobic, ultra-right nationalist groups. The August 28th newspaper story reported that police deny any rise in foreign crime and that they warne people against false reporting. The fantasy of the dangerous foreign criminal is one of the chronic fetishes in Japan, maybe somewhat comparable to the Caucasian American fantasy of the dangerous young black male, or the illegal immigrant. I think the evidence is obviously that the Japanese are far more dangerous than foreigners. They are very emotional people prone to group-think, lacking a tradition of adversarial jurisprudence and critical journalism.