Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Izu Life: A Frank Discussion about Mt. Fuji's Impending Explosion

For many ALTs living in Japan (specifically the areas around Mt. Fuji and the Tokai area), it is common knowledge that we are currently overdue for a giant earthquake and the subsequent eruption of Mt. Fuji on a catastrophic scale. Maybe some of you have seen the figures (5,900 people are expected to die). A lot of information is available online about volcanic eruptions in Japan, the anticipation of the Tokai Earthquake, and predictions of what will happen in the event of a major natural disaster in the Tokai area, however, much of it is scattered and in various languages. I would like to try and bring that information together. What are some of the things you should expect when the eruption happens? What steps can you take to ensure your safety and survival? And what are additional resources you can turn to for help? 

Please join me for this special edition of "The Izu Life" to find out...

Disclaimer: I am not a volcanologist  I do not claim to be an expert on the Tokai Earthquake or the eruption of Mt. Fuji. I am merely trying to bring together a lot of information from many sources into one easy article.

To Flee or Not to Flee

The other day I happened to be talking about volcanoes with my students. I brought up the subject of Mt. Fuji's eruption (with some trepidation) and asked what they thought about it. My students were quite happy with this change of subject and informed me, "Oh, yes. We are all going to die." I thought they were joking so I laughed out loud. "No, really. We will die," one student reiterated. Many of them live in Mishima, a city very close to the foot of Mt. Fuji.  I asked them what they would do to avoid death if Mt. Fuji were to erupt. "I live close to a river," one girl piped up. "I will go to the river to get away from the magma." 

"No good!" another girl chided her. "Magma moves fast! Magma is very hot. You will be killed."

"Oh," the first girl responded, nodded, and smiled, accepting her fate. 

I was admittedly a little gobsmacked by the nonchalance I was witnessing. "Why do you live in Shizuoka if you are in so much danger here?"

Most of them shrugged.

There is a noted attitude in Japanese people that I like to call the "Go Down With The Ship" mentality. Many witnessed it during the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake; many Japanese citizens refused to move out of dangerous areas of Japan (where they were not forced by authorities) or vacate the country during the crisis. Baye McNeil wrote about it in his book 'Hi! I'm a Racist!', a study of race relations in Japan. He discussed with his co-workers if they would flee the city of Yokohama after infrastructure had been affected by blackouts and lack of supplies because of the Tohoku Earthquake. They told him they would stay. Most people would balk at the notion when confronted by someone who would stay-put instead of fleeing a catastrophic disaster. But McNeil says, 

"that wasn't what I saw. It was something else; ...Profound sadness at the prospect of them being forced to leave their homes, families in tow, moving to unfamiliar territories, perhaps even countries, to start again. ...Their best hope was that this thing got resolved or they might as well be dead."
If Japan wasn't strong enough to "resolve" a crisis, "they might as well be dead." During the mass exodus caused by the Tohoku Earthquake, many foreigners were criticized openly by Japanese residents who branded them "Fly-jin" (a play on "gaijin," Japanese for 'foreigner') for fleeing for their lives instead of standing and facing death with quiet humility and stoicism [1]. 

Just because you may observe the people around you behaving calm and unconcerned, even to have accepted their fate, does not mean you should not take the threat natural disaster seriously or that you should not react appropriately and in your own best interests.

The Statistics

In 1976, the Tokai Earthquake Theory emerged, stating that (especially in Shizuoka Prefecture), "It would not be surprising if a huge earthquake happened tomorrow" [2]. Statistically speaking, every 100-150 years, the Tokai area (Shizuoka and Kanagawa Prefectures) experiences a major earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or more. It is believed the next Tokai Earthquake will trigger the eruption of Mt. Fuji. Again, statistically speakingMt. Fuji experiences an eruption every 300 years. The last earthquake in the Tokai region was in 1854. The 1854 Tokai Earthquake caused devastating tsunamis as far away as Chiba Prefecture. Mt. Fuji last erupted in 1707. Given the statistics, we can extrapolate that the Tokai Earthquake and the eruption of Mt. Fuji are due... well, now. 

Image Source:
The table above lists the eruptions of Mt. Fuji over the past 2,000 years. Although the table is in Japanese, the figures to the right show that an eruption in 864 caused 1.4 cubic kilometres of lava and the 1707 eruption caused 0.7. The distance in years between eruptions is noted in red with the kanji "" (denoting "year").

The next Tokai Earthquake could happen any day now. In early 2012, Professor Shinichi Sakai of Tokyo University predicted that the probability of a major earthquake occurring in the next four years was 70%, with a 98% probability of it occurring in the next 30 years [3].

Indonesia Mountain | Thalang

Volcanic eruptions can follow major earthquakes anywhere up to 2 years after being triggered. Chile's Puyehue Volcano erupted two days after a M9.5 earthquake in 1960. Mt. Triden erupted two months after a M9.2 earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska in 1964. A volcano erupted in Thalang, Sumatra four months after a M9.1 earthquake [9]. 

5,900 people are expected to die, 19,000 casualties are expected, and "severely" damaged buildings  are predicted to number in the hundreds of thousands [2]. It could take as many as 3 months for basic infrastructure like gas, water, electricity and transport to be restored. The seaport city of Numazu lies very near to the predicted epicentre of the earthquake, Suruga Bay, and will most likely be completely wiped out by tsunamis. 

Mt. Fuji currently lies on the intersection of three tectonic plates. This makes the Shizuoka region one of the most active geothermic regions (it certainly explains why the area around Mt. Fuji is famous for hot springs).  In September of 2012, an article was published by  the National Research Institute for Earth Sciences and Disaster Prevention in Japan stating that Mt. Fuji is currently at 1.6  units of pressure [4]. 0.1 units is enough to cause an eruption. Many major earthquakes tend to result in a volcanic eruption anywhere up to a few days to two years later. Some are speculating the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 could still trigger the eruption of Mt. Fuji if the Tokai Earthquake doesn't get there first. The Tokai earthquake and eruption of Mt. Fuji is expected to create a 2.5 trillion yen crater in Japan's economy [5].  

What to Expect

What will happen? That is something that is almost impossible to predict but the following videos provide some interesting projections of what it might be like after Mt. Fuji erupts. Those who survive the initial Tokai Earthquake and subsequent after shocks will have to contend with blackened skies from the ash pushed into the atmosphere, damaged infrastructure to trains and highways, and a lack of access to basic supplies. 

In most instances of volcanic eruptions, local areas are usually evacuated and access blocked by authorities as early as possible before an eruption begins. As such, people living the immediate area around Mt. Fuji will likely be evacuated before they lives are placed in serious danger. This  is why it is important to always follow the directions of local authorities. One possibility is the areas around Mt. Fuji may be permanently evacuated and residents will never be able to return [8]. Be prepared for this possibility by packing valuables ready to go in an emergency kit.

Experts agree that the greatest danger will not be lava or magma, but rather the falling ash which will clog engines, lungs and road networks [5,6]. Ash will prevent many from escaping Shizuoka and moving to safer parts of the country and even leaving the country altogether. Local train and shinkansen will likely halt operation. Cars and jet plane internal workings will be destroyed by ash. Flights at Narita and Haneda airports will be grounded because the risk of ash choking the engines will be too great [6]. Houses may collapse under the weight of ash which has settled on the roof. The build up of ash will block roads. The following image shows the expected amount of ash-fall over Shizuoka, Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures...

Projected ash fall stretches across three prefectures. Source:
This last video shows that lava flowed as far as Fuji Five Lakes during an eruption over 800 years ago; a distance of roughly 15 km. It also shows us that during its most recent eruption of 1707, significant lava flow was not confirmed. It is thought that, as a rule of thumb, pyroclastic flow occurs at Mt. Fuji every 1000 years [6]. That being said, some say it will not be surprising to see lava flow as far as the seashore when Mt. Fuji erupts again [7]. 


Maximize Your Chances of Survival  

Seismic activity is currently being closely monitored in the Tokai area to predict the coming of the next major earthquake. This means the likelihood of receiving an earthquake warning in advance is strong. Earthquake warnings are issued by television broadcast, radio and the Japan Meteorological Agency. In the event of an earthquake warning, you should follow the directions of local authorities.

In the event of an eruption and severe ash fall, a wet cloth over the face and goggles are necessary if you need to go outside. It is best to stay indoors. As such, collect as much water as possible for drinking post-earthquake because access to clean water may be compromised. Prepare a well-stocked emergency kit (visit this website for advice about putting together a good emergency kit). Keep your passport and emergency money in your kit. Many pre-made emergency kits do not include (and most people don't think it is important to have) a dust mask like the one featured in the following image but investing in and keeping a simple device like this in your emergency kit could save your lungs and  therefore your life...



Stay informed, stay vigilant and make the best decision for you. Don't let your fate be determined now by lack of preparation, or a lack of regard for this important issue. All Shizuoka prefecture residents must be aware of this issue and remain up to date with their emergency kit and escape plans. If you haven't done so, simple steps towards preparedness could save your life. 

For more information, check the additional resources below. 

Additional Resources



  1. Very interesting post! When I first moved to Shizuoka some other foreigners greeted me with "I don't know why you moved here - the 'big one' is coming and we're all going to die". They were referring to the Tokai earthquake of course, but Fuji was never far from my mind either. I guess in a way though I adopted the 'down with the ship' mentality. I'm certainly not put off going back to Japan despite the natural disasters which are much more likely to happen there than in my own country.

    1. My fear is that a lot of people who live in Shizuoka are not taking the threat seriously. We don't really know what is going to happen but it is best to prepare for the worst. I know so many ALT friends who don't even have an emergency kit! -__-


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