Last July, in Tokyo, I heard a woman call out to me from beneath a pile of rubble. Tasukete, came her thin, reedy voice. Help me. A wrecked car idled nearby. The traffic lights were all dead. I raised the Nintendo DS hanging from a lanyard around my neck. The screen showed two options: I could A) try to rescue her; or B) go find help. I chose A.
Right answer, the DS told me. No other help would be coming. If I didn’t get the woman out of the rubble, she would probably die. But I doubted I could actually do it. “I don’t think I can lift that,” I said to my tour guide, pointing at the remains of what once might have been a house.
“Well, it’s just a simulation,” he replied with a placid smile.
At the Tokyo Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park, originally commissioned in 2001 and finally finished in 2008, visitors—myself included—go through an “experience learning facility” where they’re taught how to survive in the immediate aftermath of a major natural disaster. It’s fun, but also terrifying—like a haunted house, but instead of avoiding ghosts and axe murderers you learn how to jerry rig survival necessities from common household items.
You begin your adventure in an elevator descending from the 10th floor of a skyscraper. About halfway down, the elevator starts to shake, then the lights go out. Pitch blackness, more shaking, and the far-distant sound of sirens follow. You’re spared the necessity of prying open the doors and finding a way down the open elevator shaft—a few seconds after the first shocks, the doors slide open on a labyrinth of hallways meant to simulate the interior of a lightless office building. Following a string of exit signs, you make it out onto the street.
Smoke from dry ice wafts across your field of vision. Sirens wail somewhere in the distance. A telephone pole past its tipping point lolls against the side of a ruined convenience store. You make your way from Point A to B, guided by the ambient glow of your Nintendo DS, learning basic survival techniques, from the obvious (don’t walk under that air conditioner drunkenly tottering on a windowsill because it might fall and crush you) to the surprising and genuinely useful (how to MacGyver common household items like a water bottle and cotton balls into a water filter).
Of all the things you learn, the most important is this: no help is coming for 72 hours. Three days is how long it takes for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to get things in motion, so it’s up to you to survive on your own until then. Three days is also the length of time you can survive without water. That may seem harsh, but for a city the size of Tokyo (the greater metro area is home to 38 million people) and a bureaucracy as fond of red tape as Japan’s, 72 hours is actually pretty speedy.
And Japan takes its disasters seriously. As early as kindergarten, Japanese students are regularly put through earthquake drills. Since 1960, every September 1—the anniversary of the Great Kantō Quake, which nearly leveled Tokyo in 1923—the country has undergone Disaster Prevention Day, in which people across the country participate in drills. After the 2011 Tōhoku quake, the Tokyo metropolitan government printed a 340-page guide called “Disaster Preparedness Tokyo (Let’s Get Prepared!).” Among other things, the guide shows readers how to make baby diapers from plastic shopping bags; how to convert AA batteries into C batteries with cloth and cellophane tape; and how to make an emergency stove out of aluminum cans, aluminum foil, string, toothpicks, scissors, and vegetable oil. The 7.5 million copies of the guide the government distributed for free were quickly snatched up, causing a run on the book; copies later popped up for sale online.
Sometime in the next half-century, Japanese seismologists are certain a magnitude eight or nine quake will come rumbling out of the Nankai Trough off Japan’s southern coast. The trough sits atop a fault line called the Nankai Megathrust, which slides along Japan’s industrial heartland and is divided into three sections (from west to east): Nankai, Tōnankai, and Tōkai. Historically, at least one section of the megathrust has experienced a major quake every 150 years. The first two were last hit in 1946. The third, which hasn’t felt anything for 158 years, is overdue. If all three sections go off at once, it would be a world-historic disaster. Japan might lose 40% of its GDP, according to the Financial Times. A major inland quake centered beneath Tokyo could kill 23,000 people, destroy 412,000 buildings and leave 8 million people stranded, the government estimates.
Which is why disaster preparedness is so important. And there’s evidence that experience learning, like the kind that happens at the Tokyo Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park, is better than traditional classroom learning, especially when it comes to high-stress situations like disasters.
“There’s certainly a long history of using simulation for high-stress training, particularly in the flight world,” says Dr. Craig Goolsby, deputy director of the US National Center for Disaster Medicine & Public Health. For example, commercial and military pilots use simulations to train for nearly every disaster scenario imaginable: engine failure, brake failure, even losing a wing. Because it allows pilots to experience a wide range of wind and weather conditions without actually having to fly through them, simulation training is considered essential experience.
“Additionally, we know in medicine that there’s advantages to simulation training. It can improve patient safety and there’s evidence to support that,” Goolsby says.
Simulations are especially useful for training first responders, says Dr. Charles Beadling, associate professor of military and emergency medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. “Adult learning is enhanced by participative activities and problem solving. Simulation exercises provide those qualities,” he says. In a well-designed simulation, participants are presented with a scenario that requires them to act out existing disaster prevention plans. Then, they’re thrown a curveball—what simulation designers call an “inject”—that requires creative problem solving. This trains responders to expect the unexpected, an essential quality in a disaster scenario.
The Tokyo Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park doesn’t really do that; it’s less a simulation than a an experiential classroom where your substitute teacher is a Nintendo DS. But as I’m leaving, a class of Japanese tweens is coming out of the experience learning facility, and some of them look genuinely shaken. So maybe, at the very least, this haunted house-style teaching method scares kids enough to take earthquakes seriously.