Children don protective hats in a disaster drill.
(Tokyo Metropolitan Government)
Many homes are busy preparing lunch at 11:58 a.m., and in a lot of kitchens, it's not unusual for people to be using a flame to cook food. This was the moment on September 1, 1923, that the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo, Yokohama, and surrounding regions. Measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, the quake not only devastated homes and office buildings but claimed the lives of 140,000 people - many of them being engulfed in the fires that broke out after the temblor.
The date of the big tragedy - September 1 - was designated Disaster Prevention Day in 1960 in order to remind all of us to be prepared for any contingency.
Another reason for choosing September 1 is that the date has been considered for centuries to be particularly prone to typhoons. It's roughly 210 days from risshun, or the start of spring on the traditional calendar, and was thus called nihyaku-toka, or literally, 210 days. Farmers were especially worried about typhoons since they could wipe out the year's crop if they came just before harvest.
Japan is very prone to earthquakes. You probably still remember the Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit Kobe and its environs on January 17, 1995. The quake took more than 5,500 lives. In March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated a wide area of eastern Japan, with the earthquake and ensuing tsunami taking about 19,000 lives.
On Disaster Prevention Day emergency drills organized by local governments are held throughout the country. Some of these drills consist of ducking under desks to escape falling objects and evacuating from buildings. At many elementary and middle schools, September 1 is the first day of school after summer vacation. So a lot of schools carry out an evacuation drill as part of the back-to-school ceremony.