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'The Earth Is Humming': How to Prepare a Society for Natural Disaster

A conversation with Garrett Bradley about her new documentary, and what America can learn from Japan.

In January of 2017, the New Orleans-based filmmaker Garrett Bradley spent two weeks in Tokyo doing research on an installation project scheduled for 2019. While visiting 3331 Gallery, an artist-run space in Chiyoda, she told a fellow artist about the project, and the immediate response, as Bradley recalls, was, "Well, you should do it soon because there's an earthquake that's coming within the next 30 years and Tokyo as a city might have to be completely rebuilt."

"At first I wasn't sure if this was just an individual opinion, but it became clear to me throughout my stay that these expectations were pervasive," Bradley says.

Indeed, experts believe that Tokyo is more likely than not to experience a major magnitude-7 earthquake sometime within the next three decades. Japan, which sits above the boundary of four tectonic plates, is one of the most seismically active regions on the planet. Hundreds of quakes rattle the nation every year—mostly minor tremors, but the trench where the Pacific plate is grinding underneath the North American one has produced some mega-quakes as well. The magnitude-9 Tohoku earthquake, for example, which struck the country in 2011, was one of the strongest quakes ever recorded anywhere on Earth.

Japan has done more than perhaps any other nation to prepare for these inevitable, if unpredictable, disasters. "This anticipation had not only been embedded in a philosophical and cultural tone, but also in the infrastructure of the entire country," Bradley says.

In April, Bradley returned to Tokyo, and that anticipation became the subject of her latest documentary short film, The Earth Is Humming.

Bradley takes viewers inside the Ikebukuro Disaster Education Center—one of dozens of facilities across the country where residents can learn how to survive a major earthquake and its aftermath. The opening scenes of the documentary will resonate with anyone who has had to watch one of those hokey safety training videos for work or school: A young woman in a vest and tie guides the viewer through a simulated magnitude-7 quake; an older man leads a fire drill; participants practice yelling "fire!" in unison and emptying fire extinguishers on two-dimensional flames that dance on a screen.

There's an element of comedy to all this, but the film never obscures Japan's history with disasters. The Tohoku earthquake, for example, the strongest in the country's recorded history, shook the island for more than four straight minutes in 2011, and triggered a tsunami that took thousands of lives and inflicted hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of damage. A week after the twin catastrophes, millions of people were still without fresh water and electricity, and government resources were stretched thin by the ensuing meltdown of the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor. It's exactly the kind of worst-case scenario that officials envision when they encourage Japanese citizens to be prepared to survive for at least three days without government assistance after disasters of this magnitude, and for several weeks without water and electricity.

As we see in The Earth Is Humming, Tokyo's residents seem to have almost universally embraced the messaging around self-sufficiency and survival—a fact that surprised the American director.

"What fascinated me was that there was a unanimous belief system and protocol that exists in the Tokyo region, which is not something we have in the United States," Bradley says. "In the states, you could talk to any random group of people on the street and they will all likely give you a very different answer, not only about climate change or environmentalism, but also about how to best prepare yourself for disaster. There is no common belief system that we live under."

Bradley's film highlights the fine line between preparation and fear-mongering in disaster messaging, one that feels urgent in the U.S. these days, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency has ongoing problems providing information and services before, during, and after natural disasters, and politicians are capitalizing on Americans' growing fears of everything from climate change to crime and terrorism. Meanwhile, Japan appears to have better navigated that line in its preparations for the next big one.

"Everyone that we encountered approached the topic from a place of 'being prepared.' It wasn’t particularly emotional. It was quite practical. There wasn’t a generalized, vague sense of fear," Bradley says. "That generalized experience of fear is something that plagues the U.S. and allows us to understand Japan as a useful mirror to our own tendencies in our relationship to the environment."

"When we look at ourselves we have to ask, 'Are the things that we're reading in the news there to make us afraid and passive, or are they there to empower us and [help us] be proactive?" she says.

Another question The Earth Is Humming raises is what role consumerism can (or should) play in preparation. While disaster prep in the U.S. is still more of a subculture than a mainstream mandate, the disaster industry in Tokyo is pervasive and growing. We see boutiques like Sei Shop, which specializes in selling disaster-preparation products like freeze-dried foods, and tablets that disinfect and deodorize human waste when toilets stop working. Then there's the non-profit teaming up with a rubber corporation to design boots for women that are both sturdy for navigating rubble after a disaster, and fashionable the rest of the time.

Of course, no degree of preparation can offset the dangers associated with living in one of the most earthquake-prone places on the planet. A magnitude-6.1 quake that struck Osaka this week killed three and injured dozens more. (It's worth noting that the Richter scale is logarithmic, which means a magnitude-7 earthquake would be 10 times stronger than a magnitude-6.)

But the scale of any disaster is not determined exclusively by the strength of the earthquake; how people respond to it matters just as much.

The most lasting damage from major disasters in the U.S.—like Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria, to name a few—often stems from human decisions that lead to inadequate preparation, a misallocation of resources, and a failure to rebuild with the next disaster in mind. Bradley's documentary is particularly timely given that California, like Tokyo, is overdue for a large, magnitude-7 quake.

"For me, earthquake is just a natural phenomenon, it's not disaster," seismologist Satoko Oki says in The Earth Is Humming. "Our lack of preparedness is the source of disaster."