News Overflow: Japan-based freelance writer clogs the news drain

I live in Osaka, Japan and write about food and agriculture, stocks, travel and whatever strikes my fickle fancy. This is a grab-bag of on-site photos and observations, along with my very expert opinion. Frankly, this is where I put what my editors don't use. When I clog the news drain, this is where the mess lands.

Friday, October 24, 2008

If an earthquake occurs in the forest…

Are you familiar with the philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?”

A person at the website WikiAnswers tried to answer this by saying that everything that vibrates the air creates the potential for sound, regardless of who is there to perceive it. If nobody is there to perceive it, then it would not exist as sound, only vibration.

In Japan, particularly in the Kansai area, which includes Kobe, there is much discussion of earthquakes. I often encounter translations about the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and earthquake preparedness. You can also find this earthquake called the “Hyogo-ken Nanbu Earthquake”.

[“Hyogo-ken Nanbu” means southern Hyogo Prefecture, and “Hanshin” is the area between Kobe and Osaka, inclusive]

There are a few funny tales about the quake. A Japanese friend in Kobe reported that seconds before the big shaking started he heard a sound like a sonic boom. But he assumed his aged mother had clogged the upstairs toilet again, and that she had probably finally broken it!

A Canadian friend flew into the Osaka Airport in Itami on the day and found it deserted. No immigration, no customs…all evacuated.

I was in the US at the time with my wife, while her parents were living in the quake zone. We couldn’t reach them for three days because the lines were overloaded. But finally we did reach them. They picked up the upstairs phone, except now it was the downstairs phone. The first floor had folded like a house of cards, while the second landed intact on top of it!

Americans probably know the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake simply as the “Kobe Earthquake”, and at first it seemed like that is what it would be called in Japan too, but then people from the nearby cities and towns, like Nishinomiya City and Awaji Island pointed out that their towns were also flattened and they’d like to be mentioned too.

For example, in Nishinomiya City, where I once lived, the following damages occurred from the 1995 quake:
Deaths 1,104
Damaged homes 61,238
Evacuees 44,351
Fires 41

[There are some excellent damage photos here.]

As a proofreader, I generally prefer a short word to a long one, but I don’t mind giving the poor folks in Nishinomiya and Awaji and other local towns their due. They suffered enough to deserve the mention. So, I can go along with the wordier name.

But when I get translations to proofread about this event, I often feel the wording of the translations is odd, because the text discusses both the “Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake” itself, and the subsequent “Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Disaster”.

I find myself thinking, “An earthquake is a disaster.” We even call it a “natural disaster”, so why separate the two? And now this “Kobe Earthquake” has grown to a five-word label!

Are the Japanese translators correct in adding “disaster”, and in separating the earthquake event from the following disaster? To answer that, we must come back to the philosophical question, slightly revised: If an earthquake occurs and nothing is damaged, is it a disaster?

The answer is similar: If nothing is there to be damaged, then it would not exist as a disaster, only as a vibration. The translators are correct in separating the two.

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