On the morning of Tuesday, 17 January 1995, shortly before 6 o’clock, the city of Kobe was hit by the largest earthquake to strike Japan since 1923. During the twenty seconds of shaking that followed, more than five thousand people died, tens of thousands were injured and three hundred thousand were made homeless. At least £100 billion of damage was caused. Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most popular living novelist, whose parents’ house was destroyed in the earthquake, wasn’t in the city. He had left the country in the late 1980s, uncomfortable with the fame that accompanied the huge success of Norwegian Wood (1987), and gone to the United States. The protagonist of each of the six stories collected in After the Quake is someone who wasn’t there, but whose life has been profoundly affected by the event, and by their absence from it.
In ‘UFO in Kushiro’, the opening story, a woman watches TV coverage of the disaster continously for five days before leaving her husband, without saying a word. In her letter of explanation, she writes: ‘You have nothing inside you that you can give me. Living with you is like living with a chunk of air.’ They divorce, and after signing the papers Komura (the husband) takes a week off work. A colleague suggests he go on holiday to Kushiro, in the north, and offers to pay if Komura will deliver a package for him, to his sister. Komura is met at the airport by the sister and a friend, Shimao. Komura and Shimao end up in bed together, but ‘after several failed attempts to have sex with Shimao, Komura gave up. This had never happened to him before.’ The package he brought with him turns out to have been empty or, rather, to have contained the ‘something’ – i.e. nothing – ‘that was inside’ him. He feels as if he’s ‘come a very long way’. Many of the motifs in the story – the disappearing wife, the mysterious box with nothing in it, the sexually pliant young woman – will be familiar to readers of Murakami’s previous work. Echoes and uncanny recurrences feature prominently in his writing, so this shouldn’t be surprising, but the story still feels a little tired, as if Murakami himself is tired of reworking the same old themes.
The rest of the collection is better, however, and ‘Landscape with Flatiron’ is perhaps the best of all. Mr Miyake’s obsession is bonfires. He left his wife and children in Kobe to move to a ‘dead-end’ town on the Pacific coast, north of Tokyo, ‘because this place gets more driftwood than any other beach I know’. Junko is a teenage girl who has also run away: ‘She was sick to death of school and couldn’t stand the sight of her father.’ (‘Most Japanese novelists,’ Murakami said in an interview in 1991, ‘are addicted to the beauty of the language. I’d like to change that. Who knows about the beauty? Language is a kind of tool, an instrument to communicate.’ His flat style, which in translation often verges on cliché, is apparently much more remarkable in Japanese, because the flatness itself is more striking.) Junko has a boyfriend, who she’s moved in with, and a job in a convenience store. Miyake visits the shop at least three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and supper. Eventually Junko asks him why he doesn’t shop less often and stock up his fridge. He doesn’t have a fridge, he replies; he doesn’t like them. This is an in-joke of sorts: Murakami’s always telling us what his characters have in the fridge. Miyake and Junko become friends (a platonic relationship between a middle-aged man and a teenage girl is much less rare in Murakami’s work than a man without a fridge) when she finds him one evening making a bonfire on the beach. ‘Whenever she had the chance after that, Junko would join Miyake for his bonfires . . . Sometimes he would make two a week, and sometimes he would go a month without one. His pace was determined by the amount of driftwood that washed ashore.’ His careful technique is carefully described:
Miyake had done a skilful job of interlacing the bigger logs and smaller scraps . . . Stepping back a few paces, he would examine in detail the form he had constructed, adjust some of the pieces, then circle around to the other side for another look, repeating the process several times. As always. All he had to do was look at the way the pieces of wood were combined to begin having mental images of the subtlest movement of the rising flames, the way a sculptor can imagine the pose of a figure hidden in a lump of stone.
And when it’s lit, it follows a precise, gradual, steady pattern of burning, just as Miyake planned. His bonfire is like a well-made story, and represents the opposite of the earthquake: man in control of a destructive force of nature (but not tyrannically so; Miyake is subject to the laws of flotsam). Earthquakes, by contrast, demonstrate ‘what a fragile condition the intense collectivity known as “city” really is’, as Katagiri, the protagonist of ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’, is told by the frog. They are also an affront to language, making a mockery of such phrases as ‘down to earth’, as a character in ‘Thailand’ observes. Their power cannot be channelled or checked.
Murakami isn’t interested (or if he is, he doesn’t show it in his fiction) in what earthquakes actually are, or in what causes them. He’s more concerned with this particular quake’s effects, and especially its emotional effects on people who experienced it at one remove. Satsuki, the protagonist of ‘Thailand’, has for thirty years hated a former lover who persuaded her to have an abortion which left her incapable of having children. ‘She had hoped that he would die in agony. In order to bring that about, she had gone so far as to wish in the depths of her heart for an earthquake. In a sense, she told herself, I am the one who caused that earthquake.’ The thing from which the frog (whose name is ‘Frog’, but not ‘Mr Frog’, as Katagiri can’t help calling him) saves Tokyo is a ‘gigantic worm’ (called ‘Worm’) who lives underground. ‘When he gets angry, he causes earthquakes.’ But he doesn’t cause all earthquakes, since ‘last month’s Kobe earthquake shook him out of the deep sleep he was enjoying.’ The antecedents aren’t to be found so much in geology as in Godzilla – though it’s not as crude as that. Only Katagiri can see Frog, and the battle between the giant beasts takes place while Katagiri is in a coma. He comes round in hospital, where Frog pays him a visit to tell him he was a great help and encouragement, though he doesn’t remember being at the fight. He tells a nurse what happened. ‘“That’s nice,” the nurse said, replacing his near-empty intravenous feeding bottle with a new one.’ It’s not quite that Katagiri wakes up and realises it was all a dream, because in Murakami’s fiction the boundaries between worlds, between dreaming and waking, are porous (as are those between stories: ‘Super-Frog’ is the nickname given by a girlfriend to Yoshiya, the protagonist of ‘All God’s Children Can Dance’, because he can’t). Still, the idea that an earthquake could be accurately foreseen, and averted, by a giant frog and a bank clerk’s force of will, is Katagiri’s – and Murakami’s – response to the unpredicted and unpredictable devastation in Kobe.
There aren’t any frogs or worms in Susan Elizabeth Hough’s fascinating and clearly written Earthshaking Science. One of the most conceptually striking things Hough points out is that, from a seismologist’s point of view, what most people call an earthquake, the quaking of the earth, is known as ‘ground motion’. And ‘ground motion is not an earthquake . . . an earthquake is what happens on a fault, not the resultant shaking.’ So what is a fault, and what happens on one to cause the ground to shake?
Modern earthquake science can be understood only within the framework of the theory of plate tectonics. The idea that the continents might once have been joined together is not a new one. Francis Bacon remarked on the correspondence between the coastlines of Africa and the Americas; and it’s hard to look at a map without noticing how neatly the continents would slot together. In 1912, Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist, found evidence that tropical plants had once grown in Greenland, and that there had been glaciers in places that are now near to the equator. Continental drift was his explanation for these phenomena, though he wasn’t able to give a satisfactory account of how it might occur. If Africa and South America had once been joined, how had they been separated?
Harry Hammond Hess was a geologist at Princeton who, during World War Two, was put in command of a US Navy assault transport ship. He took advantage of this position to measure, in the course of his duty, the depth of the sea floor across the Pacific Ocean. ‘Marine geophysics is an expensive science,’ Hough writes, ‘primarily because of the high cost of operating oceanic research vessels. There is no telling how long it might have taken the geophysical community to amass the volume of sea-floor topography data that Hess collected while he happened to be in the neighbourhood.’ (This wasn’t the last time the advancement of the science came about as a by-product of military activity: ‘Seismology’s contribution to the critical issue of nuclear-test-ban-treaty verification has resulted in substantial support for seismological research and monitoring that would not otherwise have been available.’) In 1962 Hess published a paper, ‘History of Ocean Basins’, in which he proposed that magma rises from within the earth to its surface along mid-ocean ridges, where it cools and is pushed aside by more magma rising beneath it. Over the course of millions of years the crust spreads until it sinks back into the mantle in trenches along the ocean’s rim. By the end of the 1960s it was established that the lithosphere, the upper layer of the earth (the actual crust, strictly speaking, is the uppermost layer of the lithosphere) consists of rigid plates that move more or less independently on the surface of the aesthenosphere, the plastic (deformable) layer below.
Most earthquakes occur where plates meet (though faults, ‘pre-existing zones of weakness in the earth’s crust’, are also found within plates; Hough begins her book with a description of the earthquake that hit Charleston, South Carolina, hundreds of miles from any plate boundary, in 1886). There are three kinds of boundary: spreading zones, such as the mid-ocean ridges; zones of convergence, where oceanic crust subducts beneath a continent, or where two continental plates collide, creating mountains; and transform faults, where plates rub against one another without any creation or subduction of crust (the San Andreas and North Anatolian Faults are of this last kind). But the plates do not move steadily and smoothly past or under one another. Most of the time most faults are locked by friction; eventually the stress becomes too great and the fault slips. This, broadly speaking, is an earthquake.
The epicentre (that much abused word) is the point on the earth’s surface directly above the point at which the fault first ruptures, which is known as the hypocentre. The rupture propagates along the fault, sometimes in both directions but more usually only in one, until it reaches a place where the fault has ruptured too recently to be sufficiently stressed to rupture again, or an asperity which is too tough to slip. Earthquakes, Hough makes plain, ‘represent the slip of an extended fault surface, not a process that occurs at a point’, even though ‘rupture initiates at a point that can be identified rather accurately.’ The size of the earthquake is a function of the total area of the fault that slips.
The Richter scale is, like ‘epicentre’, applied to lots of things it shouldn’t be. In the 1930s, Charles Richter, a seismologist at Caltech, came up with a way of classifying the relative sizes of Californian earthquakes, devising an equation that would transform a seismometer reading into a number on a scale from zero, for the smallest recordable tremors, through three for the smallest earthquakes that can be felt, to values between five and seven for the largest earthquakes that Southern Californians might experience. The trouble with the Richter scale is that above 5.5 ‘calculated Richter magnitudes fail to rise proportionately as the earthquake size increases.’ In the late 1970s, Tom Hanks and Hiroo Kanamori worked out a new logarithmic reckoning that is consistent with the Richter scale between magnitudes two and five, but more useful at higher values. On Hanks and Kanamori’s scale, which has become the standard, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake had a magnitude of between 7.7 and 7.9. The Kobe earthquake was M7.1.
The destructive power of an earthquake, however, and the human experience of it, depend on more than the magnitude of the rupture. The seismic waves it creates, the waves which cause ground motions, alter as they ripple away from their source. Most simply, they decrease in size as they travel further from the rupture, like the wake of a boat. But they also change according to the kind of ground they are moving through: waves passing from harder to softer rock increase in amplitude. This is bad news for cities built, as most cities are, on softer sedimentary rock along riverbanks. When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck during afternoon rush hour on 17 October 1989, the sections of the Nimitz Freeway in San Francisco built on estuarine mud collapsed, killing 41, while the parts of the road built on firmer rock survived. (The death toll would have been higher had a World Series game not been about to start: many commuters were already home in front of the TV.)
Buildings are only at risk from seismic waves close to their own resonant frequency: higher frequency shaking will rattle the furniture; lower frequencies will cause the building to move, fairly safely, as a whole. Things can be done to make buildings more resistant, however, and such engineering has improved significantly in recent decades. In Kobe, for example, half of the buildings constructed before World War Two were ‘rendered unusable’, whereas fewer than 10 per cent of structures put up since 1971 were similarly affected. (More modern technology isn’t always better: in Cuzco, colonial churches tended to collapse in earthquakes, only to reveal the intact walls of the Inca temples on which they’d been superimposed. The Incas built earthquake-resistant structures out of huge multi-faceted stones, and didn’t use mortar.) This points up the important difference between hazard and risk: hazard is the probability that an earthquake will affect a given area; risk ‘reflects the exposure of structures, lifelines and populations to existing hazard’. Risk, unsurprisingly, tends to be considerably higher in areas of infrequent seismic activity. There are a number of faults that ‘slice diagonally through Manhattan’, and ‘damaging ground motions’, Hough says, can be ‘expected on average every thousand years or so’ – but New York City is much less well prepared than San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Hazard can be calculated because earthquakes, though individually impossible to predict, conform collectively to certain patterns. ‘The magnitude, time and spatial distribution of aftershocks,’ for example, ‘generally adhere to established empirical laws.’ And the relative frequency of different magnitudes in a given region is the same almost everywhere. If there are a thousand noticeable events a year, roughly nine hundred will be M2s, ninety will be M3s, nine will be M4s, and there’ll be maybe one M5. Seismic hazard assessment ‘involves not the prediction of any one earthquake but rather the evaluation of the average long-term hazard faced by a region as a result of all faults whose earthquakes stand to affect that region’. The timescale under consideration varies according to the site: in cities the forecast period is usually fifty years, an adult lifetime; when considering possible locations for the disposal of nuclear waste, you have to worry about tens of thousands of years.
A ‘frustration shared by virtually all earth scientists’, Hough writes, is the tiny ‘sliver of time for which we have data’. Twenty years ago, the seismic potential of the Pacific Northwest was unclear. There is no historical record of any large events off the coasts of Oregon and Washington State. But in the early 1980s, evidence was discovered that the zone is capable of producing earthquakes of M8.5 or higher. The long period of quiet was no longer a good sign: the longer a fault goes without a major rupture, the more stress accumulates, the greater the event when at last it occurs. There is a Native American legend of the earth shaking and the sea roiling on a winter’s night long ago, but direct subjective accounts tend to be treated with scepticism by seismologists. During the 1980s, however, geological research found evidence of two large earthquakes in the region, one approximately three hundred years ago, the other some time between 100 and 600 AD. And then, in the mid-1990s, a Japanese seismologist studying tide-gauge records came across reports of a tsunami that struck Japan on 26 January 1700. It turned out that the wave could only have been caused by an earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. It was even possible to calculate the approximate time of the event – 9 p.m. (‘long ago’, as Hough points out, ‘on a winter night’) – because tsunamis travel at predictable speeds (they take five hours to get from California to Hawaii).
If only similar calculations could be made for earthquakes that are yet to occur. One of the reasons it’s impossible to predict individual events is that, although seismologists understand what goes on during an earthquake, nobody knows why it happens, what sets it off. (Hough is conscientiously, and admirably, insistent on the parenthesis in her subtitle.) The ways in which earthquakes interact are particularly mysterious: it shouldn’t be surprising that a disturbance in the earth should initiate (or defer) other disturbances, but the mechanisms remain unknown.
You can see why this might appeal to Murakami’s imagination. His work displays a preoccupation with profound and mysterious underground connections, of both literal and metaphorical kinds. The hero of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, his heftiest novel, takes to meditating at the bottom of a dried-up well in the garden of an abandoned house, inspired by the example of an elderly man who, as a lieutenant in the Japanese Army during the Second World War, spent several days (involuntarily) at the bottom of a well in Mongolia, in almost constant darkness punctuated by only a few minutes of searing light each day as the sun passed directly overhead. It’s powerfully told.
The Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack on the Tokyo subway took place just two months after the Kobe earthquake. That autumn Murakami returned to Japan, to interview members of the cult and the people who were on the underground that morning. In the resulting book, Underground, he proposed that the attack provided an insight into the Japanese psyche: Ian Hacking (LRB, 19 October 2000) was convincingly unconvinced. More recently, as his translator Jay Rubin says in his critical biography, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, he has come to see the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway attack as ‘twin manifestations of a violence lying just beneath the surface of Japanese life’ – a connection more promising as something to be explored in fiction than as fact. (‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’ acquires a menacing extra dimension in this light.)
Hough tells a story, which wouldn’t be out of place in Murakami’s fiction, about a little boy who lived in San Francisco (her own son, perhaps). On a warm autumn afternoon – 17 October 1989, to be precise – he discovered a new game: turning the garden sprinkler on and watching the spray. It wasn’t a game that his mother approved of, though maybe he mistook her turning the tap off for joining in (he was only two). Eventually she’d had enough, and took him inside. Not long afterwards, the ground began to tremble violently. The mother rushed inside, to her terrified child. He was unharmed, but remained very quiet, uncharacteristically so, until his father got home from work. ‘Daddy,’ he said, ‘don’t turn on the sprinkler.’