The cause of the foul odor is unknown, but when does anything good cause a foul odor?

At about 8:40 in the morning of 21 August, the Yokosuka Fire Department in Kanagawa Prefecture received 40 calls to their 119 emergency number all reporting a “smell of gas” in the area over the course of an hour.

Aside from the unpleasant smell, no one reported feeling ill from it either to the Fire Department or local hospitals.

▼ A news report about the mystery smell

This spate of reports is currently being looked into, but most are expecting the cause to be unknown. This is because the exact same situation has happened there twice before in as many months. In the early hours of 17 July emergency calls flooded in from Yokosuka and neighboring Miura City, and in the evening of 4 June about 260 calls were made to Fire and Police hotlines, all saying “it smells like gas.”

Since the hazards of a potential gas leak are nothing to take lightly, a thorough investigation was conducted following each round of reports, but no gas lines were found to be damaged, and the cause was officially unknown.

Readers of the news were also at a loss to pinpoint the cause of what’s happening in the area.

“It’s happening every month, and they still can’t figure it out?”
“What is it? Methane?”
“That unsettling. Maybe there’s a natural gas field around there.”
“I remember experiencing a strange smell like that when walking to school. One day I discovered it was a pile of rotting onions. I wonder if the bad weather had made some farmers abandon their crops.”
“This is like in disaster movies when strange phenomenon begins before the real bad stuff starts.”
“I live across the harbor from Yokosuka and never smelled anything. But I’m sure people are going to start saying this is a sign of an earthquake.”

Turns out, seismologist Manabu Takahashi at Ritsumeikan University was way ahead of that last comment and issued his warning right after the first smell incident. For a long time he has been studying the relationship between odors and earthquakes, based on research that found a distinct smell was created by rocks just before they break under stress.

Takahashi explains that large earthquakes don’t occur suddenly, rather they build up gradually over months, with the grinding tectonic plates slowly peeling away at each other before the main shock occurs. The professor worries that this process is what’s generating the widespread smells in the Yokosuka area.

▼ Yokosuka is located near the convergence of the Nankai Trough, Sagami Trough, and Suruga Trough fault lines (those three really big lines in the ocean).

Prior to the 2010 Christchurch Earthquake in New Zealand and 1995 Hanshin Earthquake there had also been reports of unusual smells that were hard to describe but often compared to sulfur or burning rubber.

However, echoing the cynicism of the last comment, warnings that “the big one” is about to hit parts of Japan generally come about once a week, so this too should probably be taken with a grain of salt. After all, there’s no shortage of things in the world that create offensive odors, such as Tokyo Bay, which has recently come under fire for its high levels of fecal matter and bacteria, and is located right next to Yokosuka.

But it’s always a good idea to be prepared for natural disasters when living in Japan, no matter where you are or how it smells on any given day. So we’d all do well to take this particular weirdness as a reminder to keep our emergency kits stocked and evacuation locations in mind.

Source: Asahi Shimbun, NCBI, Yahoo! News/News Post Seven, Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
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