Returning to daily life from the Tokyo Disaster Preparedness Manual Photograph: Tokyo metropolitan government
The city is also working to update and improve its infrastructure. Although its international image is one of dizzying modern skyscrapers, experts are worried about the citys traditional fabric: pockets of close-set, wooden houses where fire could spread quickly.
We still have about 13,000 hectares of concentrated wooden houses, which is about 7% of the area of Tokyo prefecture, Nobutada Tominaga, an official from the citys urban development bureau, told an urban resilience forum in Tokyo last month. One recently completed project involved the installation of wide pedestrian zones to help create fire breaks in the older suburb of Nakanobu.
The city also reserves a network of major roads for fire trucks and rescue vehicles. These roads are marked with the sign of a large blue catfish, the Namazu the giant creature that causes earthquakes in
The city has chosen 3,000 schools, community centres and other public facilities to operate as evacuation centres in the event of a major disaster, and there are about 1,200 centres for people who need special care.
Faced with the prospect of 5.2 million stranded people in a major quake, the Tokyo metropolitan government wants to avoid mass movements of workers returning home and advises people to stay where they are at their workplace or school if possible.
Accordingly, business operators are used to keep at least three days worth of drinking water, food, and other necessities so that their employees have access to adequate supplies in a disaster. The government has also designated temporary shelters for those people who have nowhere to go, where similar supplies will be available.
Meanwhile, more than 50 sites across Tokyo have been designated as
disaster prevention parks. In normal times, theyre used for picnics and other leisure activities, and resemble standard parks in every way except for a grid of manholes in a fenced-off area. After a disaster, the manhole covers are removed and special seats and privacy tents are placed over them, turning them into emergency toilets. The park benches, meanwhile, can be converted into cooking stoves. Emergency response would be coordinated from the Tokyo Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park, a 13.2 hectare site to the north-west of Tokyo Bay.
Best known are Tokyos shake-proof buildings. The epicentre of the 2011 quake was about 230 miles (370km) away from Tokyo, but the city still
felt strong, extended shaking, captured in striking footage that showed skyscrapers swaying like trees in a breeze.
While alarming to those inside, these buildings were doing exactly what they were designed to do: bend and flex instead of snap.
The national building law standards mean there should be little damage in a middle-sized earthquake, and that a building is not to be susceptible to collapse in the event of a major earthquake of the kind that occurs once in hundreds of years, according to a Tokyo Metropolitan government spokesperson.
Skyscrapers are both the most advanced and get the greatest scrutiny. Buildings over 60 metres must undergo advanced structural analysis as part of more stringent approval processes. Newer skyscrapers in Tokyo feature a range of anti-seismic devices, including large dampers
to act as a pendulum and counter the earthquake waves, like shock absorbers. The swaying is aided by rubber pads or fluid-filled bases.
The country has also learned from past disasters. In the 1995 Kobe earthquake, most of the collapsed structures had been built before tougher standards were introduced in 1981. Nearly nine in 10 buildings in Tokyo match modern anti-seismic standards,
according to a University of Tokyo study.
The city also rolled out projects to reduce risks from other natural hazards, such as floods and storm surges. These include floodgates and levees to protect the eastern lowlands, and improved river and diversion channels in the central area. Where Typhoon Kitty in August 1949 caused a storm surge of 3.15 metres and flooded 137,878 houses, Typhoon Lan, in October 2017, caused a storm surge of 2.98 metres yet not a single house was flooded.
One of the most remarkable infrastructure projects is
known as G-Cans, a 17-year construction project completed in 2009 at a reported cost of 230 billion yen (1.7bn). G-Cans involves a series of five silos, each 65 metres high, that can collect excess water to prevent flooding. These silos connect to a 6.5km-long tunnel that allows water to flow into a huge underground storage tank. In the particularly rainy August of 2008, when G-Cans was not yet completed, the system still spared damage to local communities by displacing 11.72m cubic metres of flood water.
G-Cans underground water flood control project. It is the largest underground flood water facility in the world. Photograph: John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images
An Olympic challenge
While the threat of disasters is not a new phenomenon for Japan, the increase in tourism, the steady growth in the number of overseas-born residents, and next years
Olympic Games pose new challenges because visitors may not be aware of what to do when a quake hits.
Masa Takaya, a spokesperson for Tokyo 2020, says all venues will comply with Japans strict building standards, but organisers are also considering how we ensure that spectators will act in a safe manner if a major earthquake were to occur.
To help deal with any emergencies, we are preparing evacuation plans for each venue, and are considering the offer of multilingual support to facilitate prompt and smooth evacuation, Takaya says.
The city government has deployed multilingual mobile phone apps to help its growing ranks of international residents understand what to do, and Tokyo municipalities have started inviting foreign-born residents to attend hands-on training.
Lewis, the disaster preparedness specialist, says that given the size and the complexity of this city, the government is doing a good job of preparing its citizens for a big quake. But there are still gaps and challenges.
There hasnt been a big earthquake here for several years, and the general level of preparedness at a household level could be higher, he says.
A lot will come down to the magnitude of the quake and exactly where it strikes. And no matter how prepared Tokyo thinks it might be, it is hard to formally plan for chaos. After the huge earthquake that struck modern, supposedly quake-proof Kobe in 1995, killing 6,434 people and destroying nearly 400,000 buildings including the elevated Hanshin Expressway, which collapsed
about four in five people requiring rescue were helped by other members of the public rather than the citys official disaster responders.
When X Day finally arrives, it may be the people of Tokyo themselves who will be called upon to save their own city.
Guardian Cities is live in Tokyo for a special week of in-depth reporting. Share your experiences of the city in the comments below, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using #GuardianTokyo, or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org