Fully Ready But Not Fully Prepared, by Expat D. in Japan

Where We Were
In Kogoshima, in the southern part of Japan, residents know that when the active Sakurajima volcano finally erupts with its full force, they will most likely be killed. Some of them even know that it will be the quaking and the toxic pyroclastic flows that kill them rather than flowing lava.

Similarly, living just 15 miles from the heart of Tokyo, we have always been aware that Tokyo is past due for a major earthquake. When it hits, it will cause suffering on a scale that will make Kobe and Mexico City seem as if they got off easy. Yet, when the ground shakes, as it does fairly often, we’ve become complacent. Guessing how strong a quake was before the official report appears on television is one of our family games.

In Japan, you see, it’s very easy to become nonchalant about disaster.

We lost our nonchalant attitude on March 11, 2011 at 2:46 p.m. Despite some intense shaking that drove my family outside for several minutes, we were, and remain, relatively untouched. Our problems are mere annoyances compared to the survivors in the northeast, but those annoyances exposed huge gaps in our disaster preparation and planning.

A few years ago, a major earthquake hit the Chuetsu region of Niigata Prefecture near where my wife is from. It caused substantial damage and shook radioactive water out of the spent-fuel storage pools at the nuclear plant in Kashiwazaki. As a result, we bought a survival kit consisting of a silver backpack, some food, some water, some non-stormproof matches, a first aid kit, a water carry bag and a small cutlery set. We added a bit more food, a bit more water, and some towels. Yet, when we ran outside during the quake, none of us thought about grabbing the emergency kit until the shaking was almost done. This was probably for the best as, although not even a single book was knocked off our apartment’s shelves, the emergency kit was pre-buried under the detritus of life and school. In fact, I wasn’t even sure at the time if it was in the closet or on the floor in front of the closet. If our complex had collapsed, I probably would have been caught in our first floor apartment looking for our emergency kit.

As a result, as we stood in the parking lot, we had no spare clothes, no money, no food, no way to make fire and no water. We didn’t even have the keys to our car, which were hanging on the door. All we had in hand were our cellphones, which proved to be useless. During the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe, and just a few weeks ago in Christchurch, cellphones had been a literal lifesaver for some people. Yet, in Tokyo they became, as described in Rawles Precept #3, like cars stuck in traffic as everyone tried to contact their loved ones. This meant we also didn’t have any means of communication.

After we went back inside, we heard news about the tsunami and the reactors at Fukushima Number 1. I tried to assess our situation. We had a couple Maglite flashlights but few spare batteries. I had two Swiss Army knives and a Gerber multi-tool, but they were scattered around and would have been inaccessible after a collapse. We had no form of portable shelter. We had food but it was all old. We had bottles of water, but no way to purify water. We had no spare clothes ready for a quick escape. We had only one way to make fire and no small pans to cook with.

Nonchalance returned, however, and we tried to settle back into a normal life. Two days later, however, with rolling blackouts scheduled, I went online to try to get supplies. Batteries and flashlights were already sold out and I felt the first chill of concern creep up my spine. Also sold out, or delayed, were the Japanese versions of MREs. I tried to order several things, including AMK Spark-Lite firestarters, stormproof matches and a proper utility knife. Oddly, despite Japan’s strange laws about knives (more on that later), the knife (a SOG Trident Tanto) arrived along with a waterproof match case and a roll of faux paracord. The entire rest of the order was cancelled and I was forced to order goods from the United States.

By the time the crisis in Japan was over, I figured, I’d be ready for it.

Where We Are
Two weeks after the quake we are much better prepared for it.

There have been compounding problems: rolling blackouts have forced people to take cars when normally they’d take trains. This and damage to a major refinery have led to fuel shortages. The government continues to issue garbled information about the radiation from the reactors without providing any context, which has led to a run on bottled water. We are fortunate that my wife’s family own a farm and have been able to send us vegetables, rice and other goods. Which means we are also fortunate that the post office and private delivery services are still running. That said, it is still easier to buy steak and vegetables in our area than a flashlight and batteries.

Despite the fact that our neighborhood has not, to this point, suffered a blackout, we haven’t gotten complacent. We have assembled a much more robust survival kit. We have one way to purify water (Sodium chlorite) tablets with one more, Aquamira Frontier Filters, on the way. We have three ways to make fire. We’ve updated our food and water supplies. We have emergency blankets, more flashlights and money and spare car keys hidden away.

Also, after being forced to walk six miles when the trains were abruptly stopped after I got to work, I now have an Everyday Carry (EDC) kit. I carry medicine and bandaids; some of the faux paracord and a couple carabiners; three ways to start a fire; a couple snack bars; water; a flashlight; and a phone card as, after the cellphones crashed, the old-fashioned phone booths were suddenly back in fashion. Just in case, though, I also carry a cellphone charger.

Knife and “Sword” Legalities
I would like to carry a knife; however, this poses some interesting problems. Japan, after a series of knife attacks, expanded its ban on swords to include carrying any non-folding knife with a blade longer than 2.36 inches (6 centimeters) “without a reason”. Going fishing is considered a valid reason to carry a knife but self-defense is not. (In fact, in Japan, people defending themselves against an attack have to be careful of using excessive force or they will get in trouble as well.)  A folding knife can have a blade up to 3.15 inches (8 centimeters) but the entire knife, with the blade extended, cannot be longer than six inches (15 cm). This means my new SOG and my Swiss Army knives are classified as swords and are not street legal. For this reason, I’ve also acquired a Leatherman Squirt PS4 which, nonetheless, has to be carried in a backpack or bag and not in my pocket.

Where We Hope To Be
In the future, our goal is to have a proper G.O.O.D. Kit. To accomplish that, we plan to buy a new and proper backpack for our B.O.B. The current one is not designed for a family of four and is not designed to be carried long distances. Also, it is bright silver with the Japanese words for “Emergency Carry Out Bag” in bright red letters. Although the Japanese have, with a few exceptions, been very calm in this crisis, this is only because in most areas food is still plentiful. I’ve seen the Japanese unleashed a few times, mostly during after New Year’s sales, and it’s best not to have something that attracts attention.

We are looking to acquire another good folding knife, some solar charged flashlights, a portable water filter with a pump, some cooking gear and some American style MREs. Despite the lack of space in our apartment, we also plan to stock a lot more emergency food and water. We still need something to serve as a portable shelter.

More importantly, though, we are slowly developing a bug out plan. We have enough supplies in our emergency kit to get by on, but we don’t yet have a plan for what we will do in the case of another large quake or an evacuation order. What will we do if we have time to gather things before we leave and what will we do if we have less than a minute? We have yet to decide several small details and this puts all our other preparations in jeopardy.

For example, one detail we’ve yet to resolve involves shoes. The Japanese don’t wear shoes inside the house and, because we sleep on the floor on a futon, we can’t put shoes under our bed. The silver bag would be good for carrying shoes in case we can’t get out the front door and have to switch to Plan B. Of course, since we don’t have a Plan A, we need to do some thinking. We also need to make sure our two young daughters know what to do when and if the ground starts shaking again.

Also, as a foreigner, I found myself standing outside without a passport or any other form of identification and with no way to prove my wife was my wife and my children were my children. We now plan to scan all our important documents and keep copies on a thumb drive in the emergency kit.

All in all, we are finally prepared to face a disaster. It’s sad that it took a disaster to get us into a survival mindset. We were fortunate, though, that the disaster didn’t effect us before we were ready.