DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Japan, consumer spending has been on the rise for most of the last quarter. That's good news in a country still recovering from a tragedy - last year's devastating earthquake and tsunami. As Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo, memories of those events are a big reason people are out shopping.
LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: Walk into any large Japanese retailer nowadays, and you might think Japan had become a nation of survivalists. Aeon store, a Wal-Mart-like national chain, devotes a sizable chunk of floor space to something called bosai-yohin, or disaster-protection gear.
Manager Naoto Higashi demonstrates some of their bestsellers. Flashlights have become the Swiss Army knives of anti-earthquake paraphernalia.
NAOTO HIGASHI: (Through translator) This light, it doesn't need batteries. It's very compact. You just wind it up. These slippers have steel soles. They protect your feet from broken glass.
CRAFT: In fact, the assortment of disaster goods - meant to keep you and your family alive for several days - is frankly mind-boggling. There are chemical packs for warming up food, and other chemicals packed in drink-size bottles that can be thrown into fires to extinguish them.
Aeon sells specially sealed biscuits, rice and even beef curry, good until the year 2017. There are helmets that fold up, protection supplies for pets. There are fully stocked kits tucked into backpacks and designed to be stored right under bed, but so popular, there's a waiting list.
Housewife Nao Mita has already stockpiled emergency rations and a portable toilet, but is prowling the aisles for more.
NAO MITA: (Through translator) We're not getting as many quakes now, but whenever one hits, I get nervous and think: I need to get supplies ready.
CRAFT: She's in good company. Ever since last year's disaster, a steady drumbeat of warnings from seismologists predict the worst is yet to come. Tokyo University says there's a 70 percent chance of a major earthquake hitting the nation's capital in the next few years. And recently, scientists announced a confluence of quakes south of Tokyo could unleash enough force to knock down city skyscrapers.
A recent survey showed two-thirds of Japanese have armed themselves with some kind of disaster gear. Rie Sakakibara, who works for a health services firm in Tokyo, is among them.
This is a blanket to keep you warm.
RIE SAKAKIBARA: Yeah, blanket. Yes. And then this one comes next. And then I have a flashlight.
CRAFT: Do you always wear that around your neck?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SAKAKIBARA: And then my cell phone, smartphone, and then my extra phones.
CRAFT: You have five extra cell phones.
SAKAKIBARA: Oh, yeah.
CRAFT: And lots of batteries, and in this bag you have...
In fact, her emergency grab-bag easily weighs 20 pounds. Traumatized by last year's disasters and the panicky aftermath, Sakakibara has forsworn high heels and fashion in favor of flats and comfortable clothes - in case the trains stop again and she ends up stranded.
But not everyone buys into the buying craze. In fact, at least one survivor of the deadly Kobe earthquake of 1995 says the obsession with stockpiling supplies is a waste of money for urban residents, who are never more than a day away from help.
Instead of investing in helmets and dried food, he told readers of his website that city dwellers should focus on how to keep their furniture from crushing them alive when, and if, the big one hits.
For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft, in Tokyo.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.