Many Japanese I speak to are astonished when I tell them that the English word for tsunami is … tsunami. But English has been a melting-pot language probably ever since the Angles met the Saxons, and Japanese is a very logical source for disaster vocabulary. Any nation whose best-known symbol is a giant volcano is bound to have disasters in abundance.

Mount Fuji hasn’t blown its top since 1708, but the surrounding area, including Tokyo, has grown a lot more crowded since then, and the last eruption was two months long. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other active volcanoes to worry about. Oshima, a volcanic island within sight of Mt. Fuji, erupted violently in 1986. Yukio Mishim’As novel “Spring Snow” includes a passing reference to the red glow from Oshim’As crater as if it were a standard feature of the view from the mainland.

Mt. Aso, in Kyushu, is a major tourist attraction because it is always belching fumes, but sometimes the billowing steam is accompanied by flying rocks. Sudden rock showers killed twelve tourists in 1958, and three more in 1979. The 1979 victims were standing a kilometer away.

Mt. Unzen killed over 14,000 people when it created a tsunami by collapsing into the sea in 1792. A more recent eruption killed 43 people in 1993, including three volcanologists. The most famous victims, though, where a newspaper photographer and the taxi driver he paid to bring him in for a closer look. The driver’s family sued the newspaper, and just last month (March of 1999) the case ended with the court ruling in the newspaper’s favor.

Even where the land is flat, it can still kill you by jumping out from under your feet. The Kobe (Great Hanshin) Earthquake of 1995 claimed 5,000 lives, and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which leveled Tokyo, had a death toll of over 100,000.

As Sakyo Komatsu puts it, the Japanese are “a people subject to more than their fair share of the natural disasters that afflict humanity as a whole.” Komatsu is a man who has given the subject a lot of thought. He’s the author of a novel called “Japan Sinks” — which is about what it would take to top some of the things that have happened in real life. The book was a best-seller in the 1970s and was re-issued in the wake of the cataclysm in Kobe.

People everywhere love disaster stories, which is part of the reason that Leonardo DiCaprio and Celine Deion are so rich today. But only in Japan have I ever seen a video store that has a whole section permanently devoted to disaster films. West Video, just down the street from my apartment, has an area labeled “PANIC” (in both English and katakana). It is subdivided into Ocean Panic, Sky Panic, Dinosaur Panic, SF Panic, and — largest of all — Natural Disaster Panic.

With so much competition, it’s hard to come up with an original and attention-grabbing approach to the subject. This is a problem not only for film-makers but for the public safety authorities as well. Disaster education and awareness undoubtedly save lives, but how can the public be made to listen?

The Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department has found the ideal solution. They make disasters as entertaining as possible.


At the corner of Shinjuku-dori and Gaein Higashi-dori, Just above the Marunouchi Line’s Yotsuya-sanchome Station, there is a fire house. At first it looks like any other fire house you may have seen. The garage doors stand perpetually open, and a row of shiny emergency vehicles wait to race out into traffic at a moment’s notice.

But this fire house is a little different in that it has a ten-story building stuck to its side. This is the Fire Museum, which includes five floors of exhibits that are open to the public. The first thing to greet your eye at the entrance is an 1899 horse-drawn fire engine. It’s a steam pumper in mint condition, with its stout smokestack gleaming and its wooden wheels painted bright red. It looks as if it rolled right out of a Currier and Ives engraving.

Running water was not widely available in 1899, so the pumper includes an intake hose with a wicker basket on the end. The basket would filter out debris when the basket was dropped into a river or well near the site of a fire.

This century-old machine is just one of ten vintage fire vehicles on display. The others range from a rickety wooden forerunner of a hook and ladder to a pair of 1960s fire department helicopters. One of the helicopters is displayed outdoors, hanging slightly over the edge of a fifth-floor balcony. It has a bubble cockpit that seats seven, and visitors are welcome to climb inside. As you gaze at the Shinjuku skyline or glance down at the traffic five floors below, it is possible to get the sensation that you really are flying.

The trucks include a 1929 pumper whose exposed driver’s bench resembles an elegant sofa. Nearby, a 1955 aerial ladder is still leaking motor oil after 44 years. Someone has put a plastic bucket under it to protect the museum’s brick floor. It’s interesting to note that two of the three US-built trucks on display are right-hand drive.

In contrast to the antique vehicles, the informational exhibits are dazzlingly high-tech. Some of them employ moving holographs. Others take the form of video games. On the third floor, a large diorama of a town demonstrates how the fire department and ordinary citizens must cooperate to put out fires.

The diorama tells a story in which a fire breaks out in a private home and the neighbors call in an alarm, but not before the flames have spread to some nearby apartments and trapped a screaming child on a high balcony. The action is depicted by model fire trucks that race among the buildings on a track, dolls that pop up from behind the shrubbery, and video screens on the front of each building that show animated cartoons of what is happening inside. There’s also a narrator who appears from time to time on a large video screen in the sky. The show is so realistically detailed that there are even two men in fire-resistant suits who set up a folding table on the sidewalk — and immediately begin filling out paperwork.

Another diorama, on the fifth floor, depicts a town from the Edo period. The video narrator of this exhibit is a traditional bunraku puppet who sings much of his story to the accompaniment of shamisen and musical wooden blocks. Edo-period firefighting was an especially rough business that consisted of rapidly demolishing buildings in the fire’s path to keep it from spreading to the rest of the town.

Firefighters of the day organized themselves into competing bands who would race to destroy the most buildings in the shortest time. When a group of them arrived at a doomed house, they would claim it by planting their standard on the roof. The standard, called a matoi, was not a flag but a geometrical sculpture such as a cube, a sphere, or interlocking rings. It was held aloft on a pole that was decorated with streaming ribbons that would show wind direction.

A large number of matoi are on display at the museum, along with firemen’s uniforms from the Edo era to the present. Many of the uniforms seem more ornamental than practical, covered with tassels and fine embroidery. From 1880 until 1945, the Tokyo Fire Department uniform included a sword.

Some of the more modern tools on display include a hand-held circular saw that can slice through a steel door. It sends out such a shower of sparks that the man using it must have a partner hose him down throughout the procedure. There’s also an object resembling Blackbeard’s pistol that can shoot a rope to the top of a building. One surprising item was a mechanical CPR piston that looks like it wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Even in such a well-stocked museum, there may come a time when the visitor is tired of merely looking. In that case, the Tokyo Fire Department runs safety awareness facilities a various locations where you can test your reaction to simulated disasters. There are smoke-filled mazes and earthquake simulation rooms, as well as a vibrating 3-D theater. There is even a rain room where those who are so inclined can be pelted with water driven by typhoon-force winds.

In a country where disasters so often strike unexpectedly, it’s nice to know that you can also have a disaster whenever you want one.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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