‘ShakeOut’ quake drills spreading in Japan

JAPAN - "ShakeOut" earthquake drills, which originated in the United States, have rapidly spread across the nation.

It takes only about a minute for participants to practice safeguarding themselves according to the slogan "Drop, Cover and Hold On." Since the method was introduced in Japan last year, about 600,000 people are said to have participated in drills. They practiced the simple actions at locations of their choice in response to alerts issued through e-mail and disaster management public address systems as if an actual earthquake had occurred.

A number of local governments plan to conduct the drills Sunday, which is known as the nation's annual Disaster Prevention Day.

The method is said to have been invented in 2008 by emergency management experts and others in the United States. Participants perform three basic protective actions as they "drop" to the ground, take "cover" by getting under a sturdy desk or table and "hold on" to it until the shaking stops.

"It's an earthquake. Be on guard for strong shaking."

On the morning of Aug. 25, as soon as the announcement was made through a disaster management public address system, homemaker Mayumi Yamamoto, 44, rushed to take cover under a desk in the living room of her home in Kofu, together with her second and third daughters, 11-year-old Sena and 7-year-old Moka.

The three participated in the ShakeOut drill, which was organised by the city government for the first time and lasted about a minute.

Afterward, Yamamoto said: "Even if I do receive an emergency earthquake alert, I might panic when the occasion arises and just freeze. The drill gave me a chance to check if there are any items around that may fall."

The Great Japan ShakeOut, an organisation promoting the drills in Japan, said the first such drill in the nation was held in March last year in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, under the direction of Prof. Haruo Hayashi of Kyoto University's Disaster Prevention Research Institute.

That year, five local governments, including the cities of Nagoya and Chiba, held the drills, with more than 150,000 people participating.

This year, as of Friday, 15 local governments had followed suit with more than 440,000 participants. Starting in September, 14 local governments plan to conduct the drills, according to the Tokyo-based organisation.

In contrast, disaster drills are usually conducted with participants gathering at designated locations. Jiro Sawano, 55, chairman of the organisation promoting the ShakeOut drills, pointed out the advantages and diadvantages of conventional drills.

"[Conventional drills] are instrumental in providing specialised and detailed expertise on things like evacuation and rescue procedures, but the number of participants is limited due to time and space constraints," he said.

In Hokkkaido, conventional drills had been held in rotation at 12 regional sites, with about 500 to 1,000 participants at each drill. Last year, however, Hokkaido organised a ShakeOut drill in August following the one held in Chiyoda Ward. The organizer asked primary and middle schools as well as businesses to register their participation in advance. As a result, about 120,000 people joined the drill.

An official in charge at the Hokkaido prefectural government said, "It's possible to hold drills concurrently across Hokkaido, and the best part is that anybody can participate on the spot."

The Nishinomiya municipal government of Hyogo Prefecture organised a ShakeOut drill prior to its tsunami evacuation drill in January. An official in charge of disaster prevention praised this year's drills, saying, "The drills became more practical because we could practice protecting ourselves from the shock of an earthquake."

Sawano said: "A lot of people probably conducted drills at school when they were children, but have already forgotten how to respond quickly. In the event of an earthquake, the first thing to do is to protect yourself from falling furniture and other household items."