Updated: Jun 21, 2022
Natural disasters and extreme weather can occur almost anywhere on Earth. Japan is certainly no exception. It's geographic location not only brings the country a rainy season, but also sees it hit by typhoons from time to time. Since the country sits on top of several major fault lines, it is very prone to earthquakes too. And of course, since Japan is a smaller country surrounded by water, the country is vulnerable to tsunami as well. With all this and an occasional landslide, Japan can seem a little dangerous to some people. I wont deny that there are dangers, but this can be the case anywhere you go. Often these events are low in scale and low in frequency. If you think that Japan is dangerous because of this, then by all means America is far worse. Wherever you live, its always a good idea to be prepared for things that might affect you one day. That being said, let's take a look at some of the most common natural disasters in Japan and how you can be ready for when they happen.
The most common type of natural disaster associated with Japan are earthquakes. They are frequent and widespread amongst the country. Japan is actually located within the region where earthquakes and volcanoes are the most active in the world. Which is also the reason Japan has so many amazing onsen (hot springs). However, often these earthquakes can be tiny tremors that are hardly felt by anyone. But sometimes they are massive shakes that can be felt in almost half the country. Some of the more recent and large earthquakes are quite well known for the destruction and disaster that followed. Extreme examples would be the Kumamoto earthquakes in 2016 that destroyed many parts of Kumamoto Castle, or the 2011 earthquake in Fukushima that brought a large tsunami and caused a meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear reactors. Both of which the areas are still recovering from. And both are no indicative of the norm when it comes to earthquakes in Japan.
How Japan prepares
There is always a risk of earthquakes in Japan. As a matter of fact, the big talking point at the time of writing this is that experts with the Japanese government are saying there is a high probability of a large scale earthquake to hit Tokyo within the next 30 Years. And just this morning (June 18th 2018), there was a magnitude 6 quake near Osaka that was felt far and wide. That being said, it never hurts to be prepared. And that is something Japan does fairly well.
Japan has a vast system in place to detect earthquakes. Within seconds this system can relay messages to everyone from the government, to the trains, to your cellphone and TV. Early warning systems allow trains and Shinkansen come to a stop in the event of a large quake. This help to prevent accidents and derailment from the trains during an event. This early warning system also helps to alert the people in an affected area about possible tsunami resulting from the quake. In any disaster, information is key. The faster you get relevant and up to date information, the better you are to be able to make the best decisions.
Other ways the country prepares for these disasters include some standard protocols as well as some pretty innovative things. Standard protocols include things like designated evacuation shelters, emergency preparedness drills, and for those areas affected by tsunami, designated high ground evacuation locations that may include rooftops of more sturdy buildings or a nearby hillside. More innovative preparedness features are things like how some vending machines, which are overabundant in Japan, are designed to be switched over during an emergency to dispense water and drinks to those in need. While not implemented everywhere, its still pretty cool. Japan can also push alerts and messages to your TV and phones. Even if your phone is on silent, it can still receive the alert and information and play an audible tone to notify you.
Japan has also enforced stricter building codes in recent years. This includes requiring all new buildings and houses to receive earthquake proofing enhancements. These systems vary based on size of the building and where you build, but they can really make a difference and keep buildings from just coming down on top of you. They wont prevents stuff from falling of the shelves either, so its still a good idea to find cover. But they are the reason that most new buildings will survive a larger shake with minimal to no damage.
Earlier I mentioned that there was an earthquake with a magnitude of 6 today, but I should mention that this is the magnitude based on the Japanese system for measuring earthquakes and not the system you are likely more familiar with. While the US uses the Richter Scale and the Mercalli Scale, Japan uses the Japan Meteorological Agency Seismic Intensity Scale (JMA scale) or Shindo scale. If you are interested, its worth reading about to better understand what those numbers and intensities actually mean.
Its always a good idea to talk to your employer or visit your local city office to obtain more information on evaluation shelters and other necessary information. If your Japanese is not up to par, talk to a friend. If you just moved to an area and your Japanese isn't that great, there are apps and websites that can help you. That being said, lets look at how you should prepare next.
How you should prepare
It is important to know about the types of disasters that might affect your area. Obviously if you live further inland, you probably don't have to worry about tsunami, but maybe you have to be careful of rockslides or mudslides. When I went to Hiroshima University, the school was located in Saijo, Hiroshima. We were about an hour away from Hiroshima City by train and in the mountains. This meant no worries of tsunami and even earthquakes weren't that big of a threat due to the area being on pretty solid ground. In one year there I felt one small quake. When your Japanese skill isn't that good, you cant always rely on getting information from the local city hall. There are some useful tools out there though.
Pocket Shelter phone app - a great app for non-Japanese speakers.
This app will provide you with early warnings of earthquakes and tell you if there is a possibility of tsunami after the quake. It also can provide you with offline maps to help you find a shelter or evacuation point even if the network goes down. This app also provides an optional service to send out emails to friends and family automatically to notify them of your status. The maps give you a detailed look at the intensity felt around the earthquake too. This can help you to know when you need to check in with friends or family in certain areas.
You countries Embassy
Often you can find some basic information on the embassy website, but don't be afraid to ask them for help too.
Seriously, but download the database so that you can use the camera live translate feature offline.
A solar powered pocket sized battery for your phone
I got mine for about $20 several years back. The solar is slow to charge the internal battery, but when the power is out it's great for the little extra push. I use mine as my normal pocket battery to charge my phone on the go.
Emergency phone numbers - 119 for Fire and Ambulance, 110 for Police
Other ways to prepare include having an emergency kit that includes non-perishable food, water, cash and anything that might prove useful like candles, a lighter or matches, and so on. Sometimes you need to bunker down and sometimes you need to grab a bag (if time allows) and go. It all depends. Whatever the case, it's also a good idea to have a method for letting family and friends know you are OK. Sometimes the phone networks will be down or simply overloaded. If its just overloaded, you might be able to send a text or use a messaging app. Know your options.
While I have mentioned it a little before, tsunami are another thing to worry about if you live closer to the coast. Much of the same advise applies as before too, such as knowing your evacuation shelters. But I will also mention this. Before some tsunami, the water can often pull out, as if the oceans were being drained. DO NOT stand around and take pictures. DO NOT explore where the water was. Get to an evacuation shelter or high ground as quickly as you can. When it comes, it will rush in quickly and unpredictably. If you hesitate, you could find your path cutoff in the blink of an eye. It only takes ankle deep water to knock you down and sweep you off your feet. Listen to the warning systems, pay attention, and make your best judgment call. It never hurts to start heading to higher ground earlier.
Lastly I will mention typhoons. If you grew up on the coast or in an area prone to hurricanes like I did, then you know exactly what to expect. High winds and heavy rain. Hurricanes and typhoons are essentially the same thing. If you have not experienced them before, then there are a few key precautions. Stay inside. I know it can look like a lot of fun to stand in such strong winds, but it is very dangerous. The winds are strong and sustained and can rip a roof off a building if they are strong enough. Keep some flashlights with good batteries just in case. Check for updates. There are sources for news updates to be accessed in English. Find one that includes information about your area. If it is strong enough, they may instruct people to go to an evacuation shelter, but most likely you will just need to stay home and inside. Check for flash flooding too. Otherwise they typically aren't that strong and you can just enjoy a nice time inside with a nice hum of the wind and rain from outside.
The truth is that big devastating natural disasters don't really happen that often. They are not something to worry about on a daily basis. If you move somewhere in America, you might expect the possible or probable earthquake, hurricane, or tornado. While you should consider your safety, I wouldn't let this be a big factor in my decision to visit or live in Japan. In the same way we were always told to have an emergency plan for fire or whatnot, I would say do the same when you come here. Have a plan, be prepared, know your options, and know where to get your information. Being prepared will help you have a peace of mind and hopefully quell one more worry you might have about coming to Japan. In my time here in Japan, I have experienced three earthquakes. One while I was at Hiroshima university that was very small and very brief. Two while living in Okayama prefecture. One was small and I almost didn't notice it until students stopped the class to point it out. I thought it was a truck or construction nearby. The second was the first and only larger scale quake I have felt. It had a magnitude of 4 and lasted a lot longer. Seconds seemed to be minutes. Aftershocks came as well. While I count myself lucky to not have experienced worse, I realize there is always a risk. But isn't that the same risk of getting in an accident and getting hurt or worse? Neither of them are things you can control. So do what you can and then get out there and enjoy the many wonders Japan has to offer.
Tell us your thoughts and experiences in the comments below! How would you advise people to prepare for an emergency in Japan?