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ready for big one

Come hell or high water -- she’s actually expecting both -- Nobue Kunizaki will be ready when the dreaded Tokai earthquake finally hits central Japan, whether in the next month or years from now.

She’s anticipating a temblor that’s already got a name as well as estimates on when and where and how mightily it might strike, a guessing game that has rattled even this earthquake-prone nation.

But no one, perhaps, is shakier than the petite 39-year-old. She’s built a new “Ninja house” with high-tech gadgets and design improvements that she hopes will withstand the force of the next earthquake for at least long enough for her family to escape.

Go ahead and call her Japan’s Chicken Little, the Earthquake Lady or Calamity Queen; others here in this suburban community just outside Tokyo already do.

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But Kunizaki is bettering her chances on an archipelago perched upon a precarious confluence of shifting continental plates that each day causes 1,000 quakes strong enough to be felt and scores of temblors annually that are magnitude 5.5 or greater.

Her $600,000 home is connected to Japan’s vaunted earthquake early-warning system, which senses the first shaking of a temblor and can give up to half a minute or more of notice before a major earth movement reaches a particular location. There are also secret fall-away doors, emergency lights, indoor sprinklers and other sensors.

“I don’t think I’m paranoid,” she says. “Tokai is imminent. The earth is going to move in a big way. Now that I’m prepared, I feel I can try to live a normal life.”

Kunizaki is illustrative of what experts call Japan’s evolving approach to earthquake preparedness. For decades, scientists here focused on technology that could accurately predict an earthquake -- its size, location and time.

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Now the government has shifted its approach, acknowledging criticism -- both at home and abroad -- that such formidable natural occurrences cannot be predicted with such certainty.

Instead, Japan has shifted much of its emphasis to instructing people on how to react once a temblor hits.

A nationwide education campaign features drills conducted at centers with quake simulators. Seminars on emergency medical treatment, fire extinguishing and finding one’s way out of a smoke-filled building have attracted hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Recently, two Tokyo schoolteachers clutched the legs of a fastened-down table as a simulator stage shook for nearly a minute with the force of a 6.9 temblor, jolting the test room like a malevolent thrill ride.

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“Everyone here is surprised at the violence of the movement and how long it lasts,” said Toshio Seki, a former firefighter and instructor at Life Safety Learning Center in Tokyo. “They say, ‘I didn’t know the earth moved so vigorously.’ And I tell them that this is just a test. The real one is much worse, much more emotionally terrible.”

The Tokai region, centered 100 miles south of Tokyo, is the anticipated ground zero for Japan’s next Big One, which researchers say could reach a colossal magnitude 8.0. Southern California’s most powerful modern earthquake was the magnitude 7.9 Fort Tejon temblor in 1857.

At Tokai, experts explain, the Philippine Plate is sliding under the Eurasia Plate. In a process known as “crustal deformation,” a sharp-edged peninsula that juts into the sea is being pushed down several millimeters a year. The quake would release the pressure, causing the land to leap up several yards and send deadly shock waves across Japan.

The Tokai region was last hit by such an earthquake 154 years ago. With an estimated frequency of 150 years, that means another ground-shaking event here may be just around the corner, Seki said.

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“If the quake hits at 6 p.m. rush hour,” he told one tour group, “more than 60,000 people could die.”

Over the decades, Japanese scientists have spent billions of dollars conducting studies with sensitive equipment they hoped would offer clues to when the Tokai temblor might occur. Then the 1995 Kobe quake hit -- a magnitude 6.9 monster that killed 6,400 people and caused $90 billion in damage.

“Kobe changed everything,” said Teruyuki Kato, a professor at the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo. “People complained that no one had predicted a quake in that region. They said researchers had failed.”

The government responded with an education campaign that included multimillion-dollar earthquake simulators and other efforts to prepare the public for the aftermath of a quake. Although researchers still use seismic probes and other instruments to monitor movement in Earth’s crust, Kato said, the aim no longer is to predict the hour or day or week of the next quake.

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“We tell people not to expect researchers to predict earthquakes with any exactness because we’ve discovered that it’s nearly impossible to do,” Kato said, adding that his opinion is now the expert consensus in Japan and elsewhere. “We’ve started talking in a more holistic way, about how to react when one hits.”

The Kobe quake changed life for Nobue Kunizaki.

She was living in a rented home near Tokyo and saw the images of destruction on TV along with the rest of the nation.

She began reading up on disaster preparedness and found most books written from a male view.

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“Men think it’s enough to escape a second floor with a ladder or rope,” said Kunizaki, who has children ages 13, 10 and 3. “But if you’re a woman with kids, you can’t climb down a rope with a baby.”

With what the homemaker learned about earthquakes, she began a private “disaster management advisor” business, offering safety seminars.

She’s also written two books, “Save Your Child From the Earthquake,” and “The Earthquake Came to My Town,” offering pointers such as preparing an emergency backpack for each child that includes not only disaster essentials but soft, comforting items like stuffed animals to help ease the emotional stress.

Then Kunizaki got the idea to construct her own house to illustrate her safety ideas. She bought land in suburban Tokyo and had the home built.

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Without architectural training, she designed a modern structure in which each room has two doors, balconies for easier escape and lights that are covered in case the bulbs explode.

She argued with her builders, who repeatedly told her that what she wanted couldn’t be built. She also quarreled with her husband, Manubu, an engineer who helped foot the bill. “Her idea became an obsession,” he said. “She’s a bit more worried about earthquakes than the normal person.”

Each bathroom has a push-out wall or door in case someone is trapped.

But the escape hatch in the upstairs bathroom is too small for Manubu to fit through, Kunizaki said. “So we’ve supplied the bathroom with a whistle to call for help and a radio to listen to until it comes.”

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She also conducts regular drills with her two oldest boys.

“My mom is kind of paranoid, but I’m not afraid of earthquakes,” says 10-year-old Yutaka.

“Liar!” his brother Junnichi yells from the next room.

Kunizaki’s house was completed last year. Now she waits for the ground to shake. Manubu teases her about her next project. She laughs and says no, she’s not going to build an asteroid-proof house.

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“I’m ready for the worst,” she said of the Tokai quake. “But even though I’ve prepared this much, I’m still scared.”

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john.glionna@latimes.com


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