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Otaku Disaster Cult Worship

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“When sleeping soundly means saying your bedtime prayers to the deities of Japanese Safety Engineering.”


I used to wake with my heart tap-dancing on my ribcage, whenever a minor earthquake would strike. Recently however, I just sleep right through, even for the bigger ones. And its not for want of frequency. Japan is well known as the most earthquake-prone place on the planet. But between the volcanoes, tsunamis, and close proximity to a majorly cranky section of the Earth’s crust, I still sleep like a baby. How? Well, it’s embarrassing really. I’ve become the disaster-prevention-spotting equivalent of a Train Otaku.


The sheer scale and ingenuity of Japanese flood and quake prevention projects, allows them to easily become an article of Otaku faith. Because, if your house starts gyrating like Vegas Elvis, or, your not keen on rafting from the second floor of your apartment building, then you must pay your respects to the labours of Japan’s Gods of Disaster Prevention Engineering.


My conversion to the Safety Engineering Otaku faith began at the housing factory. With a goofy balloon wrapped around my head, and a gutful of free Yaki-tori, I watched a display version of my house-frame, being dropped from a four-story high crane. But the moment when I truly saw the light, came after the Hanshin-Awaji (Kobe) earthquake simulation (7.2 Shindo, 6.9 Richter) and still, not a single dent in the structure. I had to be dragged away, bowing deeply and raving: “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!”


But its not only at home, as I’m feverishly Googling through Japan Meteorological Agency reports, snug inside my flexi-steel framework, that I worship Japanese safety engineering. I do it everywhere. I’m even starting to speak like an Otaku, as I excitedly point out structural details to my ever-shrinking number of, “normal” friends. My pathetic delight, in the massive steel columns of some partially completed Tokyo buildings, cannot be overstated. And more often than not, I’m behind the telephoto camera lens, like some lone architectural weirdo, drooling over “base isolation vibration control systems,” (foundation springs and rubber stoppers etc.) and “seismic dampers.” (counter-balancing systems, like pendulums or water tanks) And don’t get me started on those Sci-fi looking Tokyo structures, that may be more about distributing, “seismic loading,” (points of contact with the earth during a quake) and less about looking cool, than you may think.


And if you’re inclined to consider the safety of the Tokyo Metropolitan Underground Railway, (the world’s second largest in terms of usage) an often-cited piece of Otaku trivia, will be reassuring. Here, the most advanced “seismic shockwave mitigating” (quake-shake reducing) techniques, combined with the fact, that seismic shockwaves move slower in compressed soil, than they do near the surface, makes The Metro, one of the safest places to be, even during an epic rock and roll extravaganza.


So too, can reverence be found in underground systems like the Azabu-Hibiya Common Utility Duct, one of a number of projects under the “Geo-sites” promotional logo, that is designed to protect vital public utilities during Tokyo’s next major crust-buster. The Duct is a rarely-glimpsed aspect of Japan`s ever-present concern for increased disaster preparedness. Such measures are driven largely by the lessons learned from the Hanshin-Awaji (Kobe) earthquake, and the subsequent establishment of a Central Disaster Management Council (CDMC) in 2001. As a focus of central government reform, the CDMC significantly redefined local, regional and national disaster management practices. It was formed on the basis of The Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act, originally drafted in 1961, as a response to Japan’s worst typhoon disaster ever, Typhoon Isewan, (Vera) in 1959. This Basic Act, shifted Japan’s disaster management outlook, from one of response, to one focused heavily upon prevention. 


Post Isewan measures included, “storm surge mitigation infrastructure,” like levees and floodgates, which were installed around the entire country. However, a more recent Otaku-tastic example, can be seen in the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel (“G-cans”) below Kasukabe, in Saitama. Built in 1992, the G-cans project, was created to prevent major river overflow during rain and Typhoon seasons. The system includes the world’s largest, underground storm-water tank, and has been the setting for a number of Japanese movies and commercials. Indeed, this stunning example of  disaster prevention engineering, conjures a slew of Otaku fantasies. Everything from the caverns of Moria, in the movie, Lord of The Rings: Fellowship of The Ring [exchange the goblins for Tsunami surfing Kappas] to scenes from cult PC games, like Myst. And for public works Otakus, it gets even better, because, as part of a Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport campaign to improve the image of public works spending in Japan, there are guided tours to both G-cans and the Utility Duct.


My Otaku faith ensures that I keep my structural engineer’s service number by the phone. But despite this, I also accepted my housing company’s free offer, of a Shinto priest to bless the construction site. Because, while my belief in the ability of humans to trump nature with technology is obsessive, it isn’t total. When it comes to nature’s fury, it pays to hedge your bets.


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