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NIPPONIA No.33 June 15, 2005

Living in Japan
Earthquakes and Our Own Future: Predictable or Not?
Alex Smith
Written by Takahashi Hidemine
Photos by Akagi Koichi

Alex Smith with his wife, skiing in Hokkaido.
He says he prefers wide open spaces to crowded cities.

"Have you got everything you need to survive a major earthquake? Japan has more earthquakes than most parts of the world, so anyone living here needs to keep emergency rations and drinking water ready — enough for three days!"
Alex Smith smiles when he gives this advice, but he is serious. He is in his third year as a researcher at the Center for Deep Earth Exploration, an institute run by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. He sits for hours in front of a computer there, studying earthquakes and making simulation models of seismic waves and the mechanisms that cause tremblors. He is playing his part in Japan's efforts to prepare for the next "Big One."
"Japan has a network of seismographs covering the whole country, and the data is gathered and analyzed on a continual basis. So I'm actually in the best place in the world to study earthquakes."
Smith was born 32 years ago in Canada, in the small town of Comox, a place that faces the sea and also experiences many earthquakes. Growing up there stimulated his interest in the earth's structure, even when he was very young. He received his bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Victoria, and then went to graduate school hoping to become a researcher. While there, something happened that led him to Japan.
"My younger brother was working as a carpenter in Canada, and after the deadly earthquake in the Kobe region in 1995 he went to Japan to lend a hand, reconstructing houses that had collapsed."
His brother said he found Japan very interesting, so Alex ended up going there, too. He went as a tourist, but became fascinated and wanted to stay. "Japanese houses are built to stand up to natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons. That really surprised me. And the people are so keen to welcome you, and that made a big impression on me."
When he ordered a meal at a tavern it would be prepared in front of him. In some restaurants, a friendly waitress or waiter would help him cook his meal over a heater set in the table. This was all entirely new for him, so different from a Canadian restaurant where a cooked meal would be set before him as if he were part of some production line. It was experiences like this that gave him the idea of living in Japan. That was when he heard about the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. Right away, he applied to work there as a researcher. The Agency takes on researchers regardless of nationality, and he ended up joining a group with members from the United States, the Republic of Korea and Myanmar.
"I was really keen to work here, especially because the Center operates the deep crust drilling vessel, Chikyu, and because they operate Earth Simulator, the world's third fastest computer system."
When not doing research, he studied Japanese and went to a martial arts dojo to practice jujutsu. He met a Japanese woman there and married her in 2004.
He grins, "Everyone here, including my wife, is kind enough to talk to me in English. The downside, though, is that I've learned very little Japanese."
The two of them live in a condo in Yokohama. On their days off they may play tennis or go jogging.
"I don't know what I'll be doing in the future. Five years ago I would never have thought I'd be living and working in Japan like this. Everyone makes plans, but things don't necessarily go as we hope — there are always new discoveries to make down the road."
In other words, life is unpredictable. He says it is more important to deal properly with what life throws our way, rather than try to predict the future. The same applies to earthquakes, he adds.

Smith's home is a 20-minute walk from the Center for Deep Earth Exploration. His work day there is from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and he often works overtime as well.

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