In Japan disaster education centers have theme park-like lines. They rate well on TripAdvisor, too.

In addition to earthquakes and typhoons, Japan's disaster education centers also teach citizens to deal with more common emergencies, like fires and flooding. Here, a visitor strains to open a door that simulates the resistance created by standing water.
In addition to earthquakes and typhoons, Japan's disaster education centers also teach citizens to deal with more common emergencies, like fires and flooding. Here, a visitor strains to open a door that simulates the resistance created by standing water. TNS

Somehow, it’s not surprising that the country that gave us Godzilla and elevated fake food to a fine art has also found a way to make earthquake preparedness entertaining.

Guided by the philosophy that experience is the best teacher, Japan wants its citizens to know what it will feel like when the ground under their feet starts to heave – and how to protect themselves. So cities across the country have constructed disaster education centers that combine theme-park-style simulations with sober lessons in survival.

Many of the more than 60 centers feature large shake tables where visitors can ride out fake quakes as powerful as the real thing. In some centers, visitors navigate life-size dioramas of crushed cars and teetering power poles while being quizzed on the best response to dangerous situations. Typhoons, floods and fires get hands-on treatment as well.

The centers even earn high marks from tourists on travel sites like TripAdvisor.

Now retired, Bill Stafford was director of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle a decade ago when he visited a disaster learning center in southern Japan and was stunned to see a line of kids and parents stretching across the parking lot.

Stafford assumed the adults were dragging their kids to an educational outing, but it turned out to be the other way around.

“Every year, every student in the schools has to visit – and they bring their parents,” Stafford said.

Like many of Japan’s disaster parks and centers, Kobe’s relies on video to immerse visitors in the experience of an earthquake and its aftermath.

The tour starts with a film that chillingly recreates scenes from the 1995 quake that devastated the city, toppling elevated roadways and killing more than 6,000 people. Visitors exit the theater into a nightmarish model of an urban block with buildings tilting on their foundations and fires flaring in the distance.

Volunteer docent Nanami Yoshimoto lived through the quake, but lost family friends. At first, just watching the film at the museum was so traumatic it gave her a headache. But like many older Japanese people, she feels a responsibility to keep the memories alive and share lessons learned.

“We can’t escape from quakes in Japan,” she said. “Have to hand it down … to the next generation.”

But there’s nothing fatalistic in the centers’ messages. The emphasis is on personal responsibility and action: how to make your way safely through wreckage, how to find the closest shelter.

“If you have no knowledge about what to expect (from an earthquake), once it occurs people will panic,” said Kenji Hode, chief of the Ikebukuro Life Safety Learning Center, one of three operated by the Tokyo Fire Department. “If people experience a realistic disaster here, then they will be equipped with knowledge about how to handle the situation.”

‘Terrifying’ simulation

About 70,000 people visit his center every year, Hode said. Most are school kids, but many companies send their employees – including foreigners who may not be aware that Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries on Earth.

The quake simulator is the star attraction here. Visitors sit around a dining-room table while a staff member dials up quakes that range from mild temblors to tooth-rattling monsters. Earlier this spring, a group of visitors took their seats to experience a magnitude-9 subduction zone quake, like the one that spawned the deadly 2011 Tohoku tsunami and which is expected someday off the Washington coast.

When the shaking began, the visitors dived under the table. Images of destruction from the 2011 quake flashed across wide screens that mimicked picture windows. A roaring din filled the room. Instead of diminishing, the shaking intensified until the table itself started dancing across the floor.

“That was terrifying,” said one participant.

Across town, Tokyo’s Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park offers the closest thing to a Universal Studios-type experience. Visitors enter what looks like a department-store elevator. As the car descends, a violent tremor causes it to lurch side to side. The doors open onto a darkened labyrinth of corridors.

Visitors grope their way to an exit, which leads to a scene of mayhem. Sirens wail. Severed power lines spark. Air-conditioning units two stories up look as if the next aftershock will send them tumbling to the street.

Visitors are guided by Nintendo consoles dangling from straps around their necks. At each stop, the consoles pose questions: Should you try to rescue that person calling from under a pile of rubble or go for help? What’s the best way to shut off a gas meter?

When they’ve finished the immersive experience, visitors can wander through exhibits on plate tectonics, past earthquakes and personal preparedness. One display includes a half-dozen types of emergency toilets, ranging from a bucket filled with cat litter to a tented cabana with a holding tank.

Most of the centers also offer hands-on experience using fire extinguishers to douse simulated fires. Tokyo’s third center, Honjo Disaster Learning Center, boasts the city’s only typhoon room. Visitors don slickers and hang onto safety bars before being lashed by hurricane-force winds and rain.

The hands-on centers are just part of Japan’s disaster education efforts, which also include flamboyant public drills. The city of Tokyo offers a wildly popular, 323-page survival manual with tips on how to bandage a head wound with tights and make an emergency stove from foil and cooking oil. The country’s goal is to reduce casualties and damage from natural disasters by half.

Not much in Pacific Northwest

It’s hard to quantify the impact of the disaster education centers, said Kevin Ronan, a psychologist at the University of Australia who specializes in hazards and disasters. But several studies of disaster education programs for children suggest that Japan’s approach is promising, particularly if children are actively engaged in solving challenges and sharing the information with their families, he said in an email.

Turkish officials were so impressed with Japan’s disaster centers that they built one in the capital city of Ankara.

But there’s nothing like it in the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon’s Museum of Science and Industry has a small shake room, currently being revamped, where visitors experience a tame version of a fake quake. The California Academy of Science’s shake room simulator is similar, but is part of a large exhibit on earthquakes and plate tectonics.

Seattle’s Pacific Science Center doesn’t have an exhibit dedicated to earthquakes. A large sphere can be used to display recent quakes and teach about seismic forces, and a foot-square shake table allows kids to build basic structures and see how they respond to shaking, said Diana Johns, vice president of exhibits.