This is a city that expects, any day now, to see 7,000 people die, nearly 4 million made homeless and a half-million buildings collapse or burn.
Tokyo's residents expect the Big Quake--a magnitude 7 temblor that will devastate the city, much like the one in 1923. And they don't just expect it sometime; they expect it soon.
"Oh, yes, I think there will be a big earthquake shortly. I'm very worried about it," said Misa Kurosawa, escorting her 9-year-old daughter through an earthquake preparedness course.
The shudder of large earthquakes through Turkey and Taiwan, and smaller temblors in Greece and California in the past three months, have pricked the nerves of this city's residents. With so much movement in the geological plates, the Japanese figure it won't be long before their world starts shaking. A recent government study came up with somber casualty estimates.
"Japan will not be beaten here," Haruo Otsuka, a guide at one of three Tokyo Fire Department earthquake instruction centers, said wryly. "We will be number one in earthquakes, too."
His audience of mothers, daughters and visiting municipal officials peered through 3-D glasses at a graphic movie of what could happen to Tokyo in a major quake. The visitors ducked and flinched as concrete blocks and shards of glass seemed to fly toward them. Sparking utility poles crashed downward; cars careened across the screen.
Later, the visitors stood in a simulator, decorated as a kitchen, as the floor bucked and heaved as it would during a quake with a magnitude of 6, the level at which it becomes difficult to stand. They were invited to try to turn off a burner on the stove.
"It was scary," said fourth grader Kana Kurosawa. What did she learn at the center? "I learned that I may die," she said.
Earthquakes are serious business here. Schoolchildren routinely practice drills in which they tie oven-mitt-like cushions on their heads (to protect them from small falling objects, said one official), duck under desks and evacuate to parks.
Tokyo has an aggressive program of disaster preparedness. A control center with huge electronic displays has geared up to tally the casualties and damage in each ward after any earthquake, and a two-story video screen is supposed to display live images from helicopter-mounted cameras. City officials are acutely aware that the public believes authorities reacted dismally to the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that killed 6,000 people in Kobe in 1995.
But all the emergency reaction drills cannot change the fact that Tokyo, despite its long intimacy with quakes, is intensely vulnerable.
"In terms of emergency and medical-service preparedness, I would give Tokyo a grade of 80 out of 100," said Osamu Koide, a professor of urban engineering at the University of Tokyo and a leading expert in the field. "In terms of the structure of the city, I would say it is almost untouched, totally unprepared."
The first earthquake standards for new construction were instituted in 1974 and strengthened in 1981. Officials say those later standards are tough enough, and Japan pioneered construction techniques such as putting buildings on rollers and installing long counterweights to offset shaking.
"What was proven in Kobe was that the buildings built after 1981 basically had no damage," said Koide.
But 2 million of Tokyo's 2.6 million structures, including many mid-rise concrete apartments, were erected earlier, mostly in the mad rush to rebuild the bomb-ravaged city when rural residents streamed in after World War II.
Most of those buildings would collapse in a 7.2-magnitude quake, the size of the quake for which the city plans, according to Takuji Shiina, head of earthquake preparedness for the city.
Kobe left the nation with searing images of collapsed buildings and overturned freeways. Tokyo, too, has many elevated freeways rising above congested housing. The national and local governments are busily strengthening public buildings and the supports of highway overpasses. About 90 percent of the critical highway pillars in Tokyo have been bolstered with steel and concrete, according to Hisashi Hashimoto of the city's highway agency. But work is only now starting to strengthen the joints on roadbeds to keep whole sections from dropping.
But city planners say most victims of a major Tokyo earthquake would not be crushed, they would burn to death. The thousands of frame houses built in the first few decades after the war are firetraps. The metropolitan government last year identified areas with large concentrations of wooden structures and is making plans to move people into new high-rise apartments and configure neighborhoods to provide broad avenues and open spaces as fire lines.
But "it's not so easy to start transforming and rebuilding the city," said Shiina. "It has to do with money, and it doesn't happen easily."
Nor does the city have the time for those huge changes, if the various predictions are to be believed.
As for the likely date of the big quake, there are plenty of guesses. Experts studying the history of quakes in these unstable islands have tried to detect patterns long before the Great Kanto Quake off Tokyo's shoreline in 1923. That awesome, 7.9-magnitude quake, and the tsunamis and fires that followed, killed 99,300 people.
"Every 10 years somewhere in Japan there is an earthquake of sizable magnitude," said Koide. "Kobe was five years ago." Another pattern indicates that a major earthquake has occurred in the Tokyo area an average of every 69 years, and is seven years overdue. In 1992, a disaster planning agency of the national government predicted that another quake in south Kanto, which includes Tokyo, is "imminent."
After the recent series of quakes around the world, the fire department says visitors to its earthquake centers have increased, and its mobile quake simulator--a truck with a moving interior--is booked solid at schools and companies.
"Our school is very anxious," said Kumi Chitani, who came with other mothers and their daughters to the earthquake center on a school holiday. "All the other earthquakes lately make me nervous. I definitely think Tokyo will be hit next."
Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this report.