Japan is no stranger to natural disasters. Living here means that feeling a tremor every once in a while is as normal as your occasional health check-up (and no less scary). Last year the Japanese word sai (災), or disaster, was chosen as the kanji of the year due to the numerous landslides, torrential rains, typhoons and earthquakes that wreaked havoc on the country in 2018.
While living in Japan, being aware of just what to do when the next calamity hits (big or small) has never been more urgent. This is especially true if your command of Japanese is less than stellar, as most local disaster information will be relayed in Japanese only.
Here are some basic ways to help yourself be prepared if — or should we say when — the next catastrophe occurs.
Know your surroundings
Where you’ll be when disaster strikes is anyone’s guess, but you can make mental notes of your surroundings to help you out wherever you are. Evacuation shelters and meeting points, for example, are usually located in schools, gymnasiums and certain parks (or temple grounds if in Kyoto): if you have one of these facilities near your house, work or accommodation — you know where to go.
Some of these locations are also water collection points, with certain evacuation sites — such as Tokyo’s Komazawa Olympic Park, Osaka’s Castle Park and Sapporo’s City Tower — that even have pop-up toilets hidden beneath manhole covers. Look out for manholes with the katakana characters “トイレ,” or toilet.
Neighborhood maps and signboards will have detailed information on where emergency shelters are located, as well. The characters 避難所 (hinanjo) mean “evacuation center.” The pictograms may differ from place to place, but the standard is a green sign that contains a little running human inside of a building for proper shelters, while it’ll be the human stepping into a circle for a general, outdoor evacuation site (like a park or community center).
Keep an eye out for fire hoses, as they can help you if you’re somewhere you don’t know very well. These red boxes usually have the name of the designated evacuation point for that area written on the side. If your kanji is shaky, at least you can snap a picture of it and show it to someone, asking: “Hinanjo wa doko desu ka? (Where is the evacuation center?).”
If you are close to the sea or at spots where you might not be high enough above sea level in the event of a tsunami, you’ll find signs that display how just many meters above sea level you are. These markers have a yellow triangle with a black wave. There are also special icons for tsunami evacuation sites and centers, showing a person running away from a wave, which will be plastered on building walls and on signs guiding the way to the nearest site.
Making mental notes of these while walking around will help you map out where is safe and where isn’t. If an earthquake hits and you’re close to the sea (or a river flowing into the sea), get yourself to higher ground immediately — don’t wait for a possible tsunami warning. The signs will show you the way.
Know emergency numbers
There are some national numbers you can dial across Japan when you need to get help. Memorize these and/or store them on your phone’s speed dial list.
- Fire department: 119
- Police: 110
- Disaster messaging system: 171
Multilingual news will be broadcast through NHK World, while the Japan Meteorological Agency is where you’ll find all the earthquake and extreme weather information you need (their Earthquake Early Warning system is the standard for information across the country).
Of course, there are some dedicated apps for disaster prevention. These include:
- NHK News and Disaster Updates (iOS/Android): These apps from NHK are in Japanese only, but with enough visuals and accurate, quick notifications for you to get to safety and know what’s going on. For English information, the NHK World TV app does push notifications in English if you turn on breaking news alerts.
- Yurekuru (iOS /Android): English-language earthquake alarm, with some disaster prevention tips included in the free version. (Note: the Android version has a much better rep than the iOS one, as some Apple users report notifications being later than other disaster alarm apps for iPhone.)
- Pocket Shelter (iOS/Android): A multilingual disaster prevention information app. It works offline too if you purchase a premium version. You can find more information about it on GaijinPot here.
It also helps to be registered with the embassy of your home country; they’ll usually reach out to registered nationals to ask if they’re OK after the fact and can assist you in your native language. They can also send updates if there are any changes in travel advisories when severe weather is on its way and more. A list with the contact details of several embassies is below; emergency numbers are often connected to the switchboard of the embassy in Tokyo.
A few of the more active embassies are:
Get your kit together
Putting together a simple kit with items that will get you through the first few days of a disaster will help you in the long run. Preferably, these should be in a “go bag,” ready for you to grab in case of an emergency.
At the bare minimum, it should include ready-to-eat or instant food, plenty of drinking water, plus simple medical supplies or sanitary goods. Other good-to-have items are a flashlight, battery charger, radio, lighter, wet wipes, warm clothing and something to protect yourself while getting out, such as helmets, sturdy gloves or plastic bags to keep things dry. Make sure that you have copies (or originals) of your important personal documents (passports, bank cards, etc.) to make life easier in the aftermath.
When it comes to food, no one likes eating the same stuff for days on end, so try to ready a supply of various items you’d actually eat. Try the recently released Onisi instant onigiri. These work with both cold and hot water, come in different flavors and actually taste pretty good. To keep your spirits up and help avoid and deal with any depression, the company also sells cookies made from rice. These are available in coconut and strawberry flavors and have all been tested for 27 common allergies and dietary requirements.
Participate in a drill
Most, if not all, municipalities or community associations will hold annual disaster drills where local agencies can explain where to go in case of an emergency and demonstrate some valuable life-saving techniques. Some of the bigger events — such as the one organized for foreigners by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in Setagaya in January 2019 (above) — include earthquake simulation vans using virtual reality, first aid training and lots of preparedness kit examples. Larger cities or places with many foreigners will sometimes do annual disaster drills for foreign residents in a mix of English and simple Japanese — check with your local municipality, usually the ward office or city hall.
Local initiatives will likely be held in Japanese only, but it’s definitely worth the effort. The events are often very visual based, meaning you’ll be able to prepare yourself pretty well, it’ll make your neighbors more prepared on how to effectively communicate crucial information in simple language, too.
During the aftermath of the earthquake in Hokkaido, there were reports of foreigners being turned away at shelters as staff couldn’t speak English and were ambivalent about being able to help them. Training with your neighbors should at least give them an idea of what you can or cannot understand. Find information on when and how through your local municipality or on the local signboards by looking for the characters for bousai kunren (防災訓練), or “emergency training.”
Some tips and tricks
If you’re based in Tokyo, you will have received a copy of the bright yellow, Good Design Award-winning Tokyo Bosai guide (complete with images of its rhino mascot, Bosai-kun). It pays to actually flip (or scroll) through it regardless of where you live. Besides information on where to go in case of an emergency, the guide has information on steps you can take to prepare yourself and your family now, before anything happens. It also has many practical tips, such as how to keep warm with newspapers or how to make a working light from the bare minimum of items available.
For those outside of Tokyo, the bosai guide is available online, as well.
They’ve now also turned it into a multilingual — if somewhat clunky — app that you can download through the Apple App or Google Play stores (Japanese). It includes a spoken version, for those in need of audio assistance, plus a help card section with basic questions in Chinese, English, Japanese and Korean to help you communicate at evacuation centers.
Disaster preparation isn’t just about having a go bag waiting at the door; it’s also about being mentally ready and knowing what to expect. Even spending some time familiarizing yourself with your surroundings can help you determine quicker — and safer — escape routes should you ever need one.
Knowing where to look for accurate information may be just the tool you want to have in your bag of tricks if the need arises. Living in Japan is a pretty safe experience overall, but it never hurts to be prepared for the occasional hiccup from Mother Nature.
How prepared are you? Do you have an emergency kit ready? Have you ever participated in an emergency drill? Is there any advice you would give to those who have never experienced a large-scale natural disaster in Japan? Tell us in the comments!