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Editorial: Massive north Japan quake death toll estimates a warning to prepare now

The Japanese government has finalized its damage estimate for a major earthquake striking off the coast of northern Japan, from the Tohoku region to Hokkaido.

    Specifically, the government's projections are for magnitude 9 temblors along the Chishima and Japan trenches, stretching from the waters off Iwate Prefecture up to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. In the worst case, some 190,000 people in Japan could be killed in a Chishima quake, and around 100,000 in a Japan Trench quake, mostly by tsunami.

    These high estimates are for nighttime temblors during the winter, when it would take more time to evacuate, and were based on the condition that just 20% of people in the danger zone would be able to flee immediately.

    The projected death tolls far exceed the approximately 22,000 people estimated to have died directly and indirectly due to the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake disaster. However, the government has also calculated that fatalities could be reduced by some 80% if proper advance preparations are made.

    Most important is that every resident be made more aware of the danger, so they are ready to evacuate speedily. Local governments, meanwhile, have a duty to steadily implement quake disaster countermeasures, such as building tsunami evacuation towers and earthquake-proofing their buildings.

    Local geographic and environmental conditions must be considered when implementing such countermeasures. For example, the winters in Hokkaido and Tohoku are cold. Snow buildup can block roads, and many people live a long way from official evacuation centers. It seems likely that a lot of residents will flee to nearby parks or high ground in the event of a disaster. If those people run outside in just the clothes they are wearing, and they are stuck out there for a long time, they could get hypothermia. If cold weather gear is kept in store houses in these places, it will save lives.

    Properly preparing evacuation roads is also urgent. High ground along Hokkaido's east coast is rare. So there needs to be plans made based on the assumption that there will be a lot of people evacuating by car.

    Another factor is regional Japan's aging population. There absolutely needs to be local cooperation and effective rescue and assistance by public bodies to prevent the most vulnerable people in a disaster from being left behind.

    From this year on, municipalities have been required to put together individually tailored plans for the evacuation of the elderly, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable residents. This means designating specific staff to support such evacuees, making sure to confirm evacuation routes and destinations for each person. We would like to see residents and local governments come together to protect the people most vulnerable to natural catastrophes across communities.

    Japan, the meeting point for four continental plates, could be called an earthquake breeding ground. There are also worries of devastating quakes erupting from the Nankai Trough south and east of Japan's Pacific coast, and even right under Tokyo. We do not know when or where the next major temblor will be. We must not turn away from the fact that we live with the ever-present risk of the earth shifting beneath our feet, and would like to press forward with disaster prevention and mitigation measures.

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