Japan from the inside out

Steam rising in Sakurajima

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 23, 2011

AFTER enjoying a visit to Kagoshima City in the southern prefecture of Kagoshima shortly after I got married, I asked my wife (who didn’t go on the trip) what she thought about moving there. She wouldn’t hear of it, for a sensible reason. The active volcano of Sakurajima in Kagoshima Bay means that the residents have to live with the semi-constant presence of volcanic ash. As she put it, “It’s impossible to hang laundry outside.”

She wasn’t exaggerating, either.

The volcano erupted twice yesterday, bringing to 550 the number of eruptions so far this year. That’s already the second-highest total recorded since the Kagoshima Meteorological Observatory began keeping track in October 1955, when the volcano became more active. The record is 896 times set last year, when 550 eruptions were recorded by 20 June.

Kyoto University maintains the Sakurajima Volcano Research Center as part of its Disaster Prevention Research Institute. Said Prof. Iguchi Masato:

The ground deformation that accompanies the magma influx has been slight, but a large amount of magma has accumulated underneath the Aira caldera (where Sakurajima is located). We must closely monitor trends in the future.

Indeed they should. Sakurajima blew its top in 1914 after lying dormant for more than 100 years, and it was the largest volcanic eruption in the country in the 20th century. There was so much lava flow the island of Sakurajima became linked to the city by land, turning itself into the tip of a small peninsula. The number of fatalities was limited because several large earthquakes had preceded the eruption, and most Kagoshimanians deemed it best to go somewhere else for a while. Here’s a post-eruption photo that ran in the London Illustrated News.

The eruption was also the inspiration for The Wrath of the Gods, a silent movie made the same year with a young Sessue Hayakawa.

It will be more difficult now for the 600,000+ city residents to evacuate than it was almost a century ago, but the municipal government does hold evacuation drills and has built shelters.

One of the common themes of the books I read about Japan when I became interested in the country is that the Japanese have a more highly developed awareness of natural disasters than do people elsewhere. As we’ve seen already this year, there’s a good reason for that.


The folks in Kagoshima prefer shochu to sake when they want to work up a head of steam, and people outside the prefecture associate the Shiranami brand with the area. It’s only anecdote and not data, but every time I’ve been to Kagoshima I’ve seen more people drinking a brand called Sakurajima. People who live in Japan and are capable of navigating in Japanese can order it online.

Here’s a Japanese TV report from three years ago on the volcano and the local attitude toward the eruptions. The two older women and the uniformed man in the interview say it doesn’t bother them a bit. They’re followed by a younger man who explains that people have been living with it for 50 years. He adds that roofs are built over graves to prevent the ash from falling on the gravestones. (Regular washing of gravestones is part of the culture.) There’s also an excerpt from a local weather report that includes the wind direction in the area near the volcano.

And here are excerpts from the film The Wrath of the Gods, demonstrating that Hollywood ain’t changed a whit from a century ago.

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