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TOKYO – One year after the disastrous Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the northwest coast, wiping out villages, killing an estimated 20,000 people and precipitating multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the people of Tokyo are getting a severe case of earthquake jitters.

The nervousness, in part, may stem from memories of the March 11, 2011 shaking, reinforced by numerous one-year-ago newspaper and television images of the still stricken region, but it is also reinforced by new studies from respected institutions predicting that another “Big One” could strike the Tokyo area in four or five years.

These predictions from a University of Tokyo study have provided plenty of grist for doomsday newspaper stories, not to mention plenty of news-you-can-use features about how to stock up on canned goods, flashlight batteries and other emergency supplies to tide one over in the event a massive quake hits the capital.

The advertising supplements of Japanese newspapers are full of ads for survival foods, flashlights and attachments to hook cabinets to walls to prevent their toppling over during a shaking. Many supermarkets have reserved whole aisles devoted to these products, some of which are fairly expensive.

Tokyo University based its analysis on the multitude of smaller earthquakes the region has experienced since March 11. During the months of March-April Tokyo experienced an average of one earthquake in the 4-5 Richter Scale range every day, sometimes twice a day. They have tapered off considerably since then, but a shaking is still felt every month or so. 

Naoshi Hirata, one of the involved scientists, explained that the university’s prediction, though centered on Tokyo, covered the entire Kanto Plain area. It could strike, he maintained, as far as 100 km from the downtown or offshore.

One might think that the Great East Japan Earthquake in the Tohoku region and resulting tsunami of which registered 9 on the Richter Scale was the 'Big One' everyone had been waiting for. After all, it was the biggest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history and one of the largest recorded anywhere at any time in the world.

But it happened in the wrong place.

When Japanese refer to the 'Big One,' they mean either a massive earthquake hitting Tokyo, as one did on Sept. 1, 1923, or further south in Suruga Bay. The latter is a place where three giant tectonic plates rub together: The Eurasian plate, the Philippine Sea plate and the Pacific plate.

The last 'Big One' occurred there in 1854, and Japanese records (which are pretty complete going back a thousand years) show that it recurs every 100-150 years; so it's due. Most of the country’s considerable investment in earthquake prediction is directed at predicting this anticipated cataclysm, also known as the Tokai Earthquake.