Earthquake Safety in Japan
As natural disasters are not uncommon occurrences in Japan, disaster preparedness is a normal part of life when you live in Japan. From a young age, kids learn what to do if an earthquake hits when they are in school, and nearly every Japanese household has ready-to-use disaster kits in their home that include emergency food and water, a first aid kit, a flashlight, and protective clothing. Also if you are a traveler, even though the chance you would be caught up in a natural disaster is very small, it is always a good idea to learn what to do just in case a disaster hits.
Earthquake Safety Responses
While typhoons are the most common natural disaster in Japan, damage from a typhoon if you are a tourist is quite easy to avoid. You have to make sure to follow the news to know when it hits, and just make sure to stay indoors on the day the typhoon hits the area you are staying at. As long as you are in a well-built hotel you will not have any issues besides having to re-route your trip a bit. If you travel through a travel agency like us, you will get all the help you need to change your plans.
Earthquakes are different, by far most earthquakes that hit Japan every day are very small or at most give you a bit of a scare but don’t do any damage. Once every few years, a larger one hits Japan, mostly in different areas. They are hard to predict, but there is an alarm system in place that will sometimes give you a warning a few seconds in advance. So what would be your first responses once a larger earthquake hits?
- Seek cover under a table or other sturdy surface. Stay away from large objects like refrigerators and closets that could fall. If you are outside, stay away from buildings as much as you can, and squad down with a bag or anything you can find to cover your head.
- Be aware of aftershocks, and follow the instructions of the hotel staff. They are trained to deal with this situation. If you are outside, try to walk back to your hotel or if you are far away from the nearest emergency evacuation area. These areas are usually in parks and near schools.
- Hotels, travel agents, and/or government officials will deal with your evacuation back to your home country if the damage would be large.
Also when the earthquake is small, it is a good idea to turn on the TV to see if the quake was more serious elsewhere and whether a tsunami might have been triggered. In case of an earthquake of any size that is noticeable, it will be announced on TV with only white letters on top of the screen if the earthquake is unlikely to have done any kind of damage, and with a map of the area where the earthquake was felt showing the intensity per region if it was a larger earthquake. If there would be any tsunami danger, there will be a map of the area where the tsunami could hit with a prediction of wave heights. If you would be near the ocean, it is important to seek higher ground as soon as possible in the event of a tsunami warning.
The Japanese Earthquake Measurement System
While in Japan we also use the Richter scale to assess the magnitude of an earthquake, a second earthquake measurement system is also widely used in Japan. The magnitude of the Richter scale says how strong the earthquake was at the epicenter itself. The amount of damage that is done on the ground, however, depends on several factors like the depth of the earthquake, the direction of the earthquake (sideways shaking is less damaging than an up-and-down motion), and the location of the epicenter.
This is why the Shindo scale is used to assess the actual effect of the earthquake on the ground. The scale runs from 1 to 7, with 1 being the lightest earthquake and 7 being the most damaging category. This is what the different numbers of the Shindo scale mean:
- If you are in a very quiet room, you might feel a small shake. This intensity is not felt by most people.
- Many people who are indoor will feel this shake, and objects that are suspended will swing lightly. There is no damage with this intensity.
- Most people who are indoor will feel this shake, and objects swing a bit harder. Dishes in the cupboard may rattle a bit as well. This intensity also doesn’t do any damage.
- You will definitely feel this quake when you are indoor, and you have to be careful with things that have not been secured that could fall. Some people who are outside might feel this quake. Besides small things falling down, there will not be much damage done by this intensity.
- Intensity 5 is subdivided into 5 lower and 5 upper. 5 lower means that heavier furniture will move and things will start falling off the shelves. Windows that have not been reinforced can shatter, so you have to be careful and definitely hide under a table to protect yourself from falling things. 5 upper means that heavy furniture often topples over unless it is secured with special poles, and that car drivers will have trouble steering straight. From this intensity, earthquakes become damaging for homes and dangerous for people who are not hiding under a table.
- Intensity 6 is subdivided into 6 lower and 6 upper. 6 lower means that it is hard to keep standing, tiles, and windows will easily shatter, and doors can be damaged. This is why it is best to not close the doors when there is an earthquake so there will be a way out. Buildings that have not been built according to earthquake-proof standards can be extensively damaged and even collapse completely. 6 upper means that you won’t be able to stand up at all and can only crawl around. Heavy furniture goes all over the place. Even more buildings that weren’t built well collapse.
- This is the maximum intensity, and you won’t be able to control your own movements anymore at all. Cracks could appear in the ground and landslides can happen. Buildings that were built according to the standards of 1981 should be able to not collapse if an earthquake with an intensity of 7 happens once. Buildings that were built according to a later standard or were built specifically to be earthquake-proof should be able to withstand an earthquake with this intensity more than once. It is best to not risk being there when there are large aftershocks, and looking for the nearest emergency shelter is a good idea.
Thankfully, earthquakes with intensities of 6 or 7 are rare, and if they do happen, nowadays most buildings can withstand even the largest earthquakes without sustaining unrepairable damage. There are laws that are regulating the building of earthquake-proof houses and buildings.
In the late 1970s, there was an earthquake in Miyagi prefecture that was especially damaging to buildings. This event led to more stringent building codes for new buildings, which means that all buildings that were built after 1981 have to be able to withstand at least one earthquake with a Shindo intensity of 7. Before that time, buildings were only required to be able to withstand a quake with an intensity of up to 5 upper.
The need for this kind of building code became painfully obvious when a large earthquake hit Kobe in 1995. It was thought that Kobe wasn’t at a large risk for being hit by a quake of that magnitude, so many of the homes were built to withstand typhoons with heavier roofs and lighter walls, but this also meant that they were completely unable to withstand a large earthquake. In the aftermath of the quake, it was plain for everyone to see that whole neighborhoods with homes that were built before the 1980s had been completely wiped off the map while newer buildings still stood and were undamaged.
There are 3 ways of reinforcing buildings; vibration control, base isolation, or basic earthquake resistance. All 3 of these types are visualized in the picture above. For those who buy a house in Japan, looking into the earthquake-proofing of the building is always a good idea.
As a tourist, you won’t need to worry about getting together a complete emergency pack, but it is still a good idea to always have enough water and a bit of ’emergency food’ with you for unforeseen circumstances that can range from arriving late in a small village with a few restaurants that all close at 6.30 pm to getting caught up in a disaster. But what else can you do to be prepared?
Another way to be prepared for an earthquake for residents is to visit one of Japan’s earthquake simulators. There is one in Ikebukuro in Tokyo, it is called the Ikebukuro Life Safety Learning Center and it is also free for tourists to visit. The most interesting activity is the earthquake simulator where you will sit around a table on a platform that is made to look like a living room, and then they turn on the simulator to let you feel what a quake with a magnitude of 6 or 7 would feel like. You can also practice with a fire extinguisher, and there is a movie about the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.
We recommend everyone to download an app for help in other languages than Japanese in case of emergencies before you travel to Japan. The name of the app is Safety tips and it is free. And of course, if you book a tour through us, in the unlikely and unlucky event that a natural disaster would happen during your stay here, we will help you in the best way possible.
Your Japan Tour
As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour including support in case of emergencies and non-emergencies. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!