Tips for Tourists: Earthquake Preparedness when Traveling in Japan (Part 1)

WaNavi Japan provides Earthquake Preparedness session for travelers with AirBnB as part of their “Social Impact Experiences” in Tokyo. We look forward to welcoming people from around the globe to share the knowledge of personal preparedness and introduce many unique disaster-related products only available in Japan.

Japan is an earthquake-prone country, and natural disasters won’t take a vacation just because you are. Since you can’t predict when or where an earthquake will occur, it’s easy to think that all you can do is to leave it to luck. But by understanding the unique way that Japanese society prepares and educates citizens to respond to earthquakes, you’ll also understand the practical strategies to minimize risks and how to prepare yourself even while traveling.

What if there is a major earthquake while I’m traveling in Japan?
Your first step, if there is a major earthquake while you are traveling in Japan: stay safe during the earthquake itself. Find a safe spot to duck down into a low position so you don’t fall over, and protect your head with your arms or a bag.
If you are near the ocean, there might be risk of tsunami. If you are in a more historical area with old wooden buildings, there might be a fire risk. Aftershocks might also result in additional damage after the initial quake. Public transit systems including the subway could shut down, and lifeline services (gas, electricity, water, sewage etc.) as well as phone and internet connections could be down.

With all these possibilities, depending on where the earthquake occurs, how strong it is, and where you are, it’s important for you to plan how to:

  1. collect accurate information
  2. evacuate to a safe place
  3. get in touch with your loved ones, and
  4. ensure your physical (and emotional) well-being until you can completely leave the affected area.

In this post we will cover parts 1 & 2; see our follow-up post for more details on 3 & 4.

1. How do I collect accurate information about an earthquake when traveling in Japan?

Japan has a nationwide system called the “Earthquake Early Warning” system which sends you a warning a few seconds before a significant shake hits your registered location. Many Japanese telephones have this function already built into the phone and whenever people hear the alarm, they take cover at the safest place possible. For travelers, there are apps available called Yurekuru Call (iPhone or Android) and Safety Tips (iPhone or Android) that give you the warning with an English explanation. We recommend you download these apps and customize to the area you are staying.

Once you have gotten through the initial earthquake and aftershocks safely, you will want to collect accurate information about the earthquake (epicenter, magnitude, intensity scale, tsunami risk, etc.) and the extent of damage caused. The Japan Meteorological Agency analyzes a national network of seismometers and delivers information about earthquakes almost instantly, see the link below. In addition, you can access several local media sources in English for disaster-related information:

  • Radio NHK No.2 693kHz Inter FM 89.7MHz (Tokyo)
  • TV NHK Channel 1 (Tokyo) *For English, press the bilingual button on your remote, which looks like “音声切替.” If internet is available, NHK World TV App will deliver the same disaster-related information with simultaneous English interpretation. (Available for iPhone or Android.)

Please note that the frequencies and Channel number will vary according to region.

2. How do I evacuate to a safe place after an earthquake while traveling in Japan?

Although it may feel counter-intuitive, people in Japan are often told to stay inside rather than to run outside during an earthquake. Buildings constructed after 1981 follow strict building codes and are designed to withstand even the highest intensity earthquakes. The newer the better, as a few amendments were made to the code in 2000 after analysis of the damage caused by the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Every municipality in Japan has a carefully planned system of evacuation in case of earthquake, tsunami, or other disaster. Evacuation facilities are designated according to the assessed natural disaster risks in each region.
Familiarizing yourself with these landmarks will help you know where to go and what’s available in every emergency situation.

In case of tsunami, look for the following signs:
Tsunami evacuation sites / buildings (津波緊急避難場所 Tsunami Kinkyū Hinan-basho / 津波避難ビル Tsunami Hinan-biru)

In case of large-scale fire, look for the following:
Evacuation areas (normally large parks, 緊急避難場所 Kinkyū Hinan-basho / 広域避難場所 Kōiki Hinan-basho). There are zones called “stay-in areas“ (地区内残留地区 Chiikinai Zanryū Chiku), which are fireproofed commercial districts.

In case of building collapse:
Take shelter at designated emergency shelters (normally local elementary and junior high schools, 避難所 Hinan-jo).

You will be provided with food, water, a place to rest, toilets, public telephones and essential goods at these designated emergency shelters. The shelters initially work as first aid bases, and later become a hub for information related to safety confirmation, goods distribution and volunteer coordination.

Maps like the following are installed at every station and on major streets.
Please use these to identify the nearest evacuations sites at any stage of your trip.

By making these simple preparations as part of your travel planning and ensuring you check maps for emergency locations and information as much as sightseeing spots, you can ensure you are prepared and ready in the event of an earthquake or other disaster.

Next, see our post on what to do after the immediate disaster has passed. When you want to get in touch with friends and family outside the affected area to let them know you are okay and how to take care of yourself and ensure your well-being until you are able to return home.

Knowing what to do ahead of time will make your travels safe and stress-free, even in the event of a disaster in an unfamiliar country. As the old Japanese saying goes: Sonae-Areba-Urei-Nashi 備えあれば憂いなし – If you are prepared, you can let go of fear.

Be prepared and enjoy discovering Japan!


Earthquake Preparedness Helpcard for Tourists

Emergency Supply Checklist

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