From 14 Hours in the Future: Duck!

Japan is the most dangerous country in the world.

I come to you today with a very important public service. Forget what the State Department tells you with their travel warnings, or what Ralph Nader has to say about the dangers of American consumer products. I’m here to tell you what I have seen firsthand: Japan is the most dangerous place in the entire world.

Seriously.

Sure, you may think it seems harmless enough; how bad could the place that spawned Hello Kitty and Kirby really be? Granted, Japan is a land of cuteness beyond compare, but behind that facade of starry-eyed puffballs lurks dangers around every bend.

To begin, when I first went to Japan just over three years ago, I was greeted by a warning on the Tokyo News that there was a potential nuclear meltdown in process. As you may imagine, this is not what you want to hear when you’re in a country where you can’t tell the difference between the symbol for “bathroom” and the symbol for “plague ward.”

Fortunately, there were some people who understood Japanese much better than myself available, and we were able to figure out that the area being evacuated was a good two hours north of where we were.

It was, however, still a little rattling. The problem turned out to be not as serious as first thought, and there was only one serious case of radiation exposure by a plant worker. The real kicker, though, is that the meltdown was taking place at a facility that didn’t even have a nuclear reactor. In fact, no nuclear reactions of any sort were supposed to be taking place there. It was a factory that processed heavy chemicals for use in reactors, and what happened is that someone accidentally misread their daily instructions and added the wrong amount of Chemical A with the wrong amount of Chemical B, and ka-blam: critical mass.

I can say in all honesty that I don’t like the idea of places without nuclear reactors being able to achieve critical mass in big open vats. I think most of you will agree with me in that sense. It starts to make one a little leery of chemical plants, which in Japan are thoughtfully sprinkled throughout residential neighborhoods. In fact, as I write this, there is one about 300 yards from my apartment. They claim to manufacture ink there, but it’s best to stay vigilant …

Now, of course, that is kind of an extreme example. But it did set the stage for many things that I learned later, which in turn caused me to label Japan the “World’s Most Dangerous Nation.” These newer, more insidious dangers are everyday occurrences that could strike at any time. Allow me to evaluate each in detail:

Plastic Bottles

Plastic bottles, which the Japanese call “pet bottles” for some reason unknown to me, are an item familiar to us all. You get water in them, you get soda in them. In Japan, you get beverages made from every fruit on Earth in them. In general, they tend to be clear, bereft of any sharp edges or piercing protrusions, and essentially harmless. They can be recycled, or you can put new liquids in them and use them over and over again! They are a wonder of modern technology, to be sure.

In Japan, however, they are a decided public hazard. People here have a habit of refilling the bottles, once empty, and placing them outside. They put them near their trash pick-ups, or along their fences, or on their balconies. They do this to keep cats and birds away. Apparently, something about the light reflecting off of them scares these animals away. Judging from the number of crows I have seen at the trash piles, this is a completely flawed theory.

These numerous outdoor bottles pose a dual threat to the world at large. First, it was recently discovered that certain styles of these bottles, when filled with water, have the delightful property of acting like a big magnifying glass. Now, for those of you who remember their elementary school physics, when sunlight is shone through a magnifying glass, it tends to focus itself into a searing beam, akin to a tiny Death Star.

So if one of these bottles catches the afternoon sunlight in the right way, and happens to be sitting near something combustible, then I think you can deduce the inevitable outcome.

The friendly science reporter on the news showed how one of these bottles set a log on fire after five minutes in the noon sun. It also showed how one of these bottles burned down a substantial portion of a man’s apartment after it set fire to the bamboo shades on his veranda. That was what triggered the report in the first place.

The danger does not end there, however: there is still the matter of the bottles self-detonating. As you may imagine, the bottles sitting out in the sun filled with water tend to get pretty well heated. So, add in the magnifying glass factor, as well as the possibility of a tightly sealed cap, and you have a container of steaming liquid with no way to vent.

As the science reporter again demonstrated, after 15 minutes of heating, the bottle expanded, began to shake, and then burst in a shower of twisted plastic shards. To give you an idea of the force of the explosion, it put a hole through the wooden card table the bottle was sitting on.

So, to sum up, I think that if the crows really want the garbage, maybe the people of Japan should really just let them have it. The risks of doing otherwise are far too great.

Earthquakes

Yes, I know, earthquakes are inherently dangerous, and they happen in most of the world. However, as my guide to staying safe in Japanese earthquakes tells me, “Many casualties occur from falling bricks and stones. This is because the walls are poorly constructed.”

The walls they are referring to, as the picture shows, are the stone barricade fences that exist around almost every single home in Japan. With such tight living spaces, people here enjoy the sense of extra confinement of surrounding their homes with gray slab walls. It is almost impossible to find a street that is not lined with these walls.

So basically, if you’re stuck outside during an earthquake in a residential area, you’re screwed. Running to the center of the street won’t help; the roads are far too narrow to avoid it.

Oh, and then there are the tsunamis. The book helpfully suggests that you get to higher ground, which might be a problem for anyone around the Tokyo metropolitan area since the entire region is a giant, flat coastal plain and the nearest high ground is an hour away. And, as the book says, “Tsunami may strike the shore before the authorities have time to issue a warning. Therefore, evacuate quickly.” So, it might be best to invest in some scuba gear. That will also help for #3.

The Eventual Submersion of Tokyo

This is less of a Japan item in general, and more specific to the Tokyo area. Many years ago, the Japanese people decided to build their glorious megalopolis on the shores of the Tokyo Bay. They paved, they tunneled, they flattened. So, when all was said and done, the largest uninterrupted stretch of urban build-up runs for over a hundred miles along the coastal plain of Kanto.

Now, those environmentalists out there know that one of the consequences of urban development is that the heavy paving causes terrible drainage problems. On top of that, the Tokyo area has meticulously eliminated any trace of natural river banks, replacing them all with much more visually appealing concrete. And, on top of that, add an almost continuous series of connected train tunnels and underground development that allows water to get underground and resurface anywhere it damn well feels like.

In late 1999, there was a fairly serious typhoon that hit Tokyo. During that time, these problems all came into focus as there was some really serious flooding in many different places. It wasn’t just confined to coastal areas, inland areas as well suffered from overflow from overloaded streams and submerged tunnels. Train stations were filling with water, and property damage in general was tremendous.

Now, as a recent study indicated, if there were ever a really serious typhoon, or extended period of rain, a pretty hefty portion of Tokyo would be completely underwater. Under a lot of water. If I could show you the computer simulation they did, I would. And it could happen at any time.

I think it’s vital that they start working now to barricade Tokyo Disneyland, so that when a new, amphibious race of Tokyoites emerges from the sea, they can at least enjoy Space Mountain.

Giant Bugs

I talk about this a lot to people. All those monster bugs you see in movies and anime really do exist, and they wander the streets and fly through the skies. They have pincers, goring horns, poisonous tendrils, and massive webs. And they all want to eat your flesh.

Manhole Cover Geysers

Imagine that you are walking down the street, enjoying your mango-grape-soy soda, when suddenly the manhole cover next to you launches itself a good distance into the air, then comes crashing down through a nearby roof.

Now, this one did happen in Washington D.C. last summer, but it’s becoming a large problem here, apparently. From what the news indicated, there have been several instances in the past week. I am still not quite clear on how it occurs, but basically gas builds up beneath the manholes until it reaches a breaking point, at which time the cover takes off like an oil executive in his private jet, heading for D.C. with his bag of bribe mon … er, campaign contributions. (As your president, I will work tirelessly to stop this from happening.)

When a heavy metal object is sent on a parabolic arc through the air, it tends to come down with some force behind it. These suckers plow through wooden roofs like butter, and don’t even get me started on glass. Fortunately, no one has been injured by one yet.

In fact, it might even be kind of a thrill if you happen to be standing on one when it decides to take off. Sort of like a “whoa belly” amusement park ride, except without the interference of pesky safety restraints to prevent you from turning into a pancake upon landing. But, despite that, it is still clearly another danger on the list. If you’re lucky, one might come down on one of the giant beetles chasing after you. Of course, that might just make it angrier …

Having your Brain Parboiled

I’m not going to mince any words here: Japan is really, really hot during the summer. I’m talking like 34-35 degrees Celsius on your average day, with humidity hovering around 98 percent.

(For everyone not used to Metric, 34 degrees Celsius works out to … something pretty damn hot in Fahrenheit. I don’t know exactly what; I’m an American. I’ve been raised to spit on Metric.)

It is virtually impossible to walk outside for more than 15 seconds without breaking into a sweat. I have had days when I have gone outside just long enough to check my mail and have had to peel my clothes from my body to prevent them from fusing with my skin. Again, I know that heat is not a Japan-specific problem, and that even in America we’ve had some pretty bad scorchers this summer.

Where the problem comes into play is in the realm of air conditioning. The Japanese don’t use central air; when you live in a one- or two-room apartment, why would you? Even freestanding houses don’t have central air units; usually just one or two rooms are air-conditioned. But home air conditioning isn’t the problem either; the real issue is heat in public buildings. More specifically, schools.

Now, I know that many schools in America, at least in the Northeast, aren’t air conditioned. This usually isn’t a problem, since we don’t go to school during the summer. Schools in Japan also lack air conditioning, but they have the joy of year-round school.

To give you some sense of the severity of the problem, let me tell you about my first day as a teacher in a Japanese junior high school. It was the beginning of the second semester, September 2, and the students were gathered in the auditorium for the semester opening ceremonies. The thermometer was hovering around a sultry 33 degrees, and the humidity was actually visible floating past.

The students were all standing in orderly lines, facing the stage, and the teachers were scattered around them, standing and keeping watch. It was about 20 minutes into the ceremony, at which point the vice principal was handing out awards for sports, when I suddenly heard a loud thump.

I hear strange noises often, so it didn’t raise too much concern. However, seconds later, I noticed that all of the teachers were rushing through the crowd toward the center. Then, a moment or two after that, one of them emerged carrying a young girl who looked barely conscious.

She was taken outside and was given some water as they fanned her off. And just as she looked to be recovering, what should come echoing through the gym but another fleshy thump.

Followed by another, followed by another.

By the end of the 40-minute ceremony, six students had collapsed and been carried out. Thoughtfully, after victim number six, the principal let the students sit down.

Things get no better in the classrooms. In fact, I daresay they get a little worse. Confined spaces and heat do not mix well. It’s hard to instruct your students when you are constantly wiping burning sweat out of your eyes.

Though for the students, it makes a great excuse for not paying attention anymore: just flop your head onto your desk and play unconscious. Of course, you run the risk of your forehead and desk top melding together, and that would just be embarrassing.

But if that happened, you could pretty easily get a television program on Japanese TV, so maybe that’s not so bad after all. They’d call it “Desk-head Man,” and he’d fight crime and aliens and stuff with his desk-based powers. And he could pull anything he needed from the desk, and maybe even catch monsters in it, and he’d have to have a sidekick, something like a cute little monkey with a rice-cooker jammed on its back, but it’d be magic, so sometimes it would shoot rainbow beams instead of rice … hold on, I need to write this down …

Miso Soup

Okay, this is potentially the most dangerous of all of the items I’ve talked about thus far. And that’s saying a lot. Sure, many of you may be familiar with miso soup as the slightly salty broth with tofu and seaweed that comes with your sushi, but there’s a dark side to it that you may not be aware of.

As with most soups, save perhaps gazpacho, miso requires that it be thoroughly heated before it is served. With your instant miso soup mixes, that isn’t so hard; you just pop some powder into a bowl, top it off with plenty of water, then give it a few moments’ microwave exposure, and voila.

However, if you actually possess the ability and desire to create your own miso from scratch, the process is a little more in-depth. There is much slicing and mixing involved, and an awful lot of boiling. It’s with the boiling that things start to become a little more deadly.

Picture for a moment a peaceful Japanese apartment. Like most, it is two rooms, with the kitchen sort of inserted on the side of one of them. There is a gas stove, two burners, atop which sits a fresh-made pot of miso soup, heated at a rolling boil in preparation for eventual consumption.

This particular pot of soup, however, has been left unwatched, boiling away for upward of 15 minutes without any outside attention. As you watch, the liquid in the pot starts to bulge — slowly at first, but expanding rapidly thereafter.

A few moments pass, and the bulge begins to pulsate in a most foreboding manner. It is at this point that you decide to watch the ensuing events from behind the bathroom door.

A few more moments pass, and then with the force of a small volcano, the soup erupts in a shower of boiling droplets, and the force of the ejected mass actually manages to knock a wall-hung shelf completely off of its moorings, dropping it onto the stove where it will likely catch fire.

But the soup isn’t done yet; no, no, it quickly forms another bulge, a more powerful bulge, and very shortly it will erupt again, with even more force behind it this time. It is at this point that you quickly nip out the front door and head down to the corner convenience store for some cartoon porn to try and take your mind off of all things soup-related.

This scenario, of course, sounds ridiculous. Scoff if you will, though, for it is the truth. I have seen the photographic evidence of the apartment in shambles, of soup splattered everywhere, of debris blown through sliding glass doors and through car windows ten stories below. I have seen the scientific diagrams that show how the unique properties of miso soup make it so explosive if left unattended for too long.

(Please don’t ask me to actually explain these unique properties; I do not understand Japanese enough to comprehend the chemical attributes of soup.)

The deadly nature of miso soup has been revealed to me, and I have cowered in horror at it.

My point, of course, is that you should not leave things cooking unattended. Furthermore, you should probably never try to cook anything at all. Just eat out, if you can. Try to avoid hamburgers if you’re in Japan, though; they just had five cases of Mad Cow Disease in the last three weeks (if you’d like, you can think of that as item #8 on our list).

Conclusion

The facts speak for themselves, people. If you do not accept that Japan is the most dangerous place in the world, there is nothing more I could tell you to change your mind. If soul-eating bugs and pyrotechnic soup are not enough to instill a sense of fear in you, then I applaud your bravery. I will also applaud you at your funeral, you mindless twit.

Japan may try to sway you into a false sense of security with their peaceful Zen philosophies and codes of honor, but no amount of glossing over can hide the terrible truth. It is a veritable minefield of potential lethality. If you want danger, forget about extreme sports or Bush foreign policy; just catch the next flight to Tokyo. If you make it out in one piece, be sure to bring back some manga porn; you can sell that crap to lonely fanboys here for a small fortune.

Good luck.

Article © 2002 by Joel Haddock