Photo/Illutration“Evacuees” prepare a meal outdoors during a disaster drill in Kitami, Hokkaido, in January 2015. The drill was organized by the Japanese Red Cross Hokkaido College of Nursing. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The high probability of a mega-earthquake striking off Hokkaido made headlines in late December.

In Japanese mythology, earthquakes were believed to occur when a giant "namazu" (catfish) acted up.

Because this creature is ready for mischief all year round, I wondered what it would be like to survive a disaster in the dead of winter.

So, I participated in a recent disaster drill organized by the Japanese Red Cross Hokkaido College of Nursing in Kitami, Hokkaido, and spent a night in a local gym that served as a mock shelter.

Outside, the lowest temperature registered a bone-chilling 10 degrees below zero.

I lay on the gym's floor and huddled under a pink blanket like everyone else--a familiar post-disaster sight at shelters around the nation. Well, I felt like a "hakusai" (napa cabbage) stored in a fridge. I could not sleep.

To prevent health damage caused by dust from footwear, shelters require everyone to remove their shoes, in principle. The soles of my stocking feet went numb from standing on the icy floor.

Some of the temporary lavatories, installed outside, had Western-style toilet seats for the benefit of seniors. Removing layers of clothing in the cramped space was quite a challenge, and I almost jumped when my buttocks touched the frigid seat.

Rather than stick to tradition, I believe the most important thing is to ensure that nobody's dignity will suffer while living in a shelter.

Jan. 17 marks the 23rd anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, survivors came to shelters with nothing but the clothes on their backs, longing for a steaming hot meal.

A poem by Mariko Kamio goes to this effect: "Picking up a piece of debris from my destroyed home for which I'm still paying the mortgage/ I try to keep warm in the snow flurry."

Unfortunately, situations at shelters have not changed much since that time.

Even though partial improvements have been made, things are back to square one when another catastrophe strikes elsewhere, resulting in tragic deaths from disaster-related causes.

I believe it is time to rethink the traditional "axiom" that evacuees are meant to sleep together on the gym floor, and that nobody should complain about their substandard conditions in times of emergency.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 16

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.