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Japanese Earthquake Simulators Shake You Out Of Complacency

Big earthquakes happen infrequently enough in the Northwest that people can be lulled into complacency. That’s not the case in Japan.

Most large Japanese cities have at least one disaster training center, where people can learn in realistic simulators what to do in an earthquake, typhoon or fire. Leaders from the Pacific Northwest who have seen these centers say it’s a concept worth copying.

Both the Nankai Trough near Tokyo and the Cascadia subduction zone offshore the Pacific Northwest can dish up magnitude 9.0 quakes. Sitting in an earthquake simulator can give you a taste of how terrifying The Big One could be.

Kenji Hode runs a public training center for the Tokyo Fire Department at a neighborhood fire station in Tokyo. He said memorable simulator experiences and regular drills saved lives during the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011 in northeastern Japan.

Preparing for a big quake

"If you have no knowledge about the threat of the shake and the earthquake, then once it occurs people will obviously panic,” Hode said. “So therefore by getting knowledge about what the threat would be, and how the shake would be and how to protect your own safety, then you can respond."

Every disaster training center in Japan is a little bit different. There are more than 60 scattered across the country in nearly every large city. They vary from veritable disaster theme parks to interactive museum style or serious education centers.

At Hode's facility, a sturdy table rests on a dining room-sized platform that can be programmed to shake in all directions, mimicking any kind of earthquake. When it was my group's turn in the simulator, the first jolt sent everyone at the table to cower underneath. Then disconcertingly, the table giving us shelter started sliding from the extended, violent shaking. Adding to the realism, a soundtrack of crashing objects and projected pictures from the last big rip.

Visitors to Hode's training center can also practice escaping a smoke-filled building and extinguishing household fires. Another location in Tokyo allows visitors to don foul weather gear and experience a simulated typhoon.

Hode said the Tokyo Fire Department operates three of what it calls Life Safety Learning Centers, all of them free and open to the public. His location in the dense Ikebukuro neighborhood receives 70,000-75,000 visitors per year. Hode estimated about one quarter of the annual total are foreigners, often sent for training by the multinational companies they work for in Tokyo. School groups account for about 60 percent of the annual visitation.

‘Japan cannot escape from earthquakes’

In the city of Kobe, visitors immerse themselves in re-created scenes of an actual earthquake. The magnitude 7.3 quake struck the region in 1995, killing 6,434 people. A tour of Kobe's earthquake museum and disaster reduction institute starts with a widescreen movie that shows buildings collapse, an elevated highway topple, and cars and trains crashing. Strobe lights and a soundtrack loud enough to make the floor rumble heighten the sensory assault. Visitors exit the theater into life size dioramas of the destruction followed by a sobering second film about the aftermath and recovery.

A third theater plays a 3-D documentary short about the March 2011 tsunami which struck the Japanese coastline well north of Kobe.

Retiree Nanami Yoshimoto lived through the Kobe quake, officially known as the Great Hanjin-Awaji Earthquake. She said family friends lost their lives. Even though it happened more than 20 years ago, the images and memories still make her choke up.

"It was so strong,” Yoshimoto said with a trembling voice. “At first, I had a headache. I can't endure watching the old film."

Yoshimoto said as many as 2,000-3,000 students a day from all over Japan pass through this center. She said a desire to pass on hard lessons learned drove her to volunteer as a docent and guide.

"Japan cannot escape from earthquakes, so we have to tell our experience to new generations,” Yoshimoto said.

Yoshimoto lingered in a large museum section devoted to preparedness tips. Photos and displays show why it is a good idea to secure furnishings which could tip over and to keep a flashlight and radio near your bed.

Bringing preparedness to the Northwest

Yet another Japanese disaster prevention center wowed Bill Stafford during an international study mission to Fukuoka nearly a decade ago. Stafford directed the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle at the time. He is now retired.

"We look for ideas on these trips that you can borrow -- best practices aren't always in the United States -- and bring home,” Stafford said.

After Stafford saw children dragging their parents on a Sunday to ride Fukuoka's earthquake simulator, practice escaping a smoke filled room and spray a fire extinguisher at a virtual fire, he waxed poetic, or more precisely, quoted the English poet John Keats, "Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced."

During an interview in Seattle this week, Stafford recalled how Puget Sound movers and shakers quickly raised more than $100,000 for a feasibility study to bring the concept to the Pacific Northwest. The study identified a suitable setting at the Pacific Science Center at Seattle Center.

Stafford said a committee thought an experiential home safety center could be "a terrific national demonstration" of how to motivate people to be better prepared.

"So we started pursuing conversations with the Homeland Security people on this,” he said. “But it just could not get traction with them and also then the 2008 recession hit which dampened things locally."

For now, the closest corollaries in the Northwest include a California-based company that makes and rents out mobile earthquake simulators. The "Big Shaker," as it is called, mimics the first 8-15 seconds of a major earthquake in a trailer kitted out to resemble a living room.

The hydraulically-driven ride traveled to Seattle and the University of Washington-Bothell last October in conjunction with the regional ShakeOut earthquake drill.

"These things are booked solid. We have two of them, one in the Bay Area and one based in Southern California," said Tom Woertz, Northwest regional manager for QuakeHold, the preparedness supplies company that operates the Big Shaker. He said the Big Shaker is tentatively slotted to return again to the Pacific Northwest this coming fall.

Separately, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland is currently refurbishing its longstanding "Shake House" display which imparts earthquake info in a playhouse-like structure that rocks.

"It's a mild little rock," OMSI spokesman John Farmer said Thursday. "We're not out to give our guests dizzy spells. Really what we want to do is offer people the opportunity to explore why things happen."

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.