Japan101

Natural Disasters, Accidents and Emergencies

In the unlikely event of an emergency in Japan

Need to know

Located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan sits at the meeting point for many continental and oceanic tectonic plates, causing a high level of seismic activity and making the country prone to big earthquakes, tsunami and volcanoes. On top of this, Japan has high rainfall and incredibly mountainous terrain (about 73% of the mainland) and, being west of the Pacific, is further prone to typhoons and flooding.

Unlike other countries, in Japan there is a different number for fire/ambulance services and police services. If unsure what to do in an emergency, your first contact should be the police — dial 110. In the big cities, some operators are able to speak English as well as other languages. If you call in another language, the operator will transfer you an interpreter and you’ll be on a three-way call.

Earthquakes

If you’re new to Japan, you’ll soon realize that earthquakes are a common occurrence. The mainland has over 1500 per year. While most earthquakes are small, Japan has had some large-scale earthquakes in the past, including the 2011 tragedy in Tohoku.

The most important thing to ensure your safety in an earthquake is to be prepared.

Before an earthquake

  • Pack your survival kit (a bag of essential resources)
  • Make sure large furniture in your home is secured and will not fall
  • Keep your local embassy informed as to where you are (in case support is provided, or family or friends from home want to check if you’re okay)

If indoors when an earthquake hits

  • Hide under something sturdy like a table or other furniture
  • Stay away from glass, windows, light fixtures or anything that can shatter
  • Stay inside until the shaking stops (most injuries occur when people attempt to move around or leave buildings)
  • Do not use elevators
  • If you wake up to an earthquake, stay in bed and protect your head with your pillow (unless you are under a heavy light fixture —in this case, move to safety
  • Check for fire or flames before exiting the building

If outside when an earthquake hits

  • Move away from buildings, trees, street lights, vending machines, or anything that could fall on you
  • Find a safe spot and stay there
  • Be careful of fallen glass, signs or other hazardous objects.
  • If you’re driving, pull over
  • If you’re on public transport, listen to staff instructions

Tsunamis

Tsunami are powerful, high sea waves which can occur as a result of large earthquakes, landslides or volcanic eruption. Areas most affected by tsunami are generally along coastlines, but towns and cities along the Pacific coast of Japan between Kochi and Shizuoka prefectures are at higher risk due to seismic activity.

How to tell if a tsunami is coming

  • If you are in a coastal area and an earthquake occurs
  • If your mobile phone or the local PA systems give warnings
  • If there is a distinguishable rise or fall in the level of the sea
  • If you see the ocean receding rapidly (experts believe this gives people about five minutes’ warning to evacuate)

What to do if you think a tsunami is coming

  • Evacuate immediately (if you experience a large earthquake in a coastal area, you should seek high ground or the upper floors of a tall building)
  • Stay away from rivers or streams that connect to the ocean as tsunami can travel up these.
  • Find a safe place and stay there until the danger is over

Volcanic eruptions

Japan is home to over 100 active volcanoes—more than almost any other country. This is due to the country’s proximity to the Pacific Ring of Fire. Although dangerous eruptions are unlikely, it is important to remain vigilant if you live near an active volcano.

What to do if a volcano erupts near you

  • Stay as far away from the active volcano as possible
  • Pay attention to alerts and safety announcements on the radio or TV
  • Evacuate, if instructed
  • Avoid low-lying areas where lava can travel
  • If you have to go outside, protect yourself by wearing inflammable materials (such as wool or cotton), long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and goggles, and a face mask (or by breathing through a damp cloth)
  • If you cannot evacuate, close your windows and block your chimney to prevent ash or smoke from entering the home

Typhoons and floods

In addition to typhoons, Japan also experiences heavy rainfall and can be prone to flooding.

What to do in case of a typhoon

  • Stay inside
  • Shut all windows and doors, secure all outside furniture and bring your potted plants indoors
  • Pay attention to safety alerts
  • If the typhoon is extreme, stay away from glass windows, take refuge under a table or other sturdy furniture, and do not use elevators
  • Evacuate, if instructed

What to do in case of flooding

  • Fill clean containers with drinkable water
  • Move valuable belongings to higher levels
  • Disconnect electronics and appliances
  • Secure all outside furniture or bring them inside
  • Pay attention to safety alerts
  • Evacuate, if instructed
  • If a flash flooding warning has been issued, immediately climb to safety
English Japanese Romaji
earthquake 地震 jishin
main shock 本震 honshin
aftershock 余震 yoshin
tsunami 津波 tsunami
avalanche 雪崩 nadare
volcanic eruption 噴火 funka
flood 洪水 kouzui
high ground 高台 takadai
typhoon 台風 taifu

Other useful words for natural disasters can be found here.

What to pack in your survival kit

Store the bag somewhere easily accessible so it can be grabbed in a hurry in an emergency. It should contain:

  • Drinking water
  • Non-perishable food
  • Flashlight
  • Radio (with batteries)
  • Mobile phone chargers and power banks
  • Lighter
  • Gloves
  • Underwear and socks
  • Towels
  • Wet tissues
  • Plastic bags
  • Pens and a notepad
  • A photocopy of your passport and residence card

Resources

Accidents and emergencies

Service Number
Fire and ambulance 119
Police 110
Coast Guard 118
Weather Info 177
Japan Helpline (24/7 non-profit assistance for foreigners) 0570 000 911

Police in Japan and Koban

Japan is well known for being one of the safest countries in the world. For the average passport-carrying tourist, police are more than willing to aid you in the event that you’ve lost your way. Some are even willing to lend money if you’ve found yourself in a pinch. However, as a country in which immigration is incredibly strict, police can sometimes be intimidating to foreign residents.

What are Koban (交番)?

Koban —sometimes called police boxes—are generally placed near train stations, banks, government buildings, shopping streets and entertainment districts. There are over 6500 Koban in Japan and more than 800 in Tokyo. These act as facilities for “community policing” which means that they exist both to deter street crime and to offer assistance to the general public. They are most often used to report petty crime, lost or stolen property, or to ask for directions.

Larger stations which are used for more serious crime are called Keisatsu-sho (警察署). These stations are much bigger, employ many more police officers and less frequently placed. Foreign residents and tourists will rarely come into contact with Keisatsu-sho.

How can I locate a Koban?

While not quite as frequent as convenience stores, Koban are generally easy to locate on their own. Sometimes, Koban even have quirky architecture that is in someway informed by the neighborhood in which they are located, making them stand out. Every neighborhood in the main cities and every town in rural Japan will have its own Koban.

English Japanese  Romaji 
I found a wallet 財布を見つけました。 Saifu o mitsukemashita
Could you please tell me how to get to the station? 駅への行き方を教えてください。 Eki e no ikikata o oshie te kudasai
I had an accident 事故に遭いました。 Jiko ni aimashita
I was assaulted 私は暴行を受けました。 Watashi wa boukou o ukemashita
(My bicycle) was stolen (自転車)が盗まれました。 (Jitensha) ga nusumaremashita
I encountered a groper on the train 痴漢に遭いました。 Chikan ni aimashita
Could I please talk to an English speaker? 英語が話せる方いらっしゃいますか? Eigo ga hanaseru kata irasshaimasu ka?
Where is the Koban? 交番はどこにありますか? Koban wa doko ni arimasuka?
violence 暴力 bouryoku
physical assault 暴行 boukou
pickpocket すり suri
groper/pervert 痴漢 chikan

Getting stopped by the police

Precautions to take

  • If you’re a resident, always carry your residence card
  • If you’re a tourist, always carry your passport
  • Be mindful of no smoking signs—many towns and wards prohibit smoking outside of designated areas
  • When buying a bicycle (particularly a second-hand one), make sure that it is registered in your name—stolen bicycles are sometimes resold without updating the old registration —and if you are found with a stolen bicycle you can be arrested
  • Prescription drugs that are legal in your home country could be illegal in Japan so it’s a good idea to carry a prescription with you or a letter from your doctor to help explain the situation

What to do if you’re stopped

There is a chance that during your time in Japan you will be stopped by police and asked for your ID. The likelihood of being carded will differ depending on where you live or stay.

By law, police can stop you for questioning and seize you if you attempt to escape. However, you are not obligated to answer their questions; they cannot force you to go anywhere, unless you are arrested. They can ask you to go to the police station with them but you may refuse.

Police are allowed to search your belongings, however, frisk searches are a gray area; they can sometimes happen, but it is not clear if this is legal or not. If you are uncomfortable, you may ask why the officer wants to see your ID. Also, if you are concerned they are not a police officer, you can ask to see their badge.

Most of the time, after a quick check of your residence card and a couple of simple questions (“Where do you work?” “What visa do you have?” etc.), you’ll be on your way.

Losing something

While Japan has a very low crime-rate—and it is common practice here to leave bags wide open or to use a mobile phone and a wallet to reserve a table at a busy restaurant—sometimes belongings will be lost or stolen. Low crime does not mean no crime.

If this happens:

  1. At a public place, it’s possible (and relatively likely) that your lost item was picked up by a helpful stranger. Be sure to ask the closest lost and found, information desk, tourist center or relevant staff member
  2. If you cannot find the item, report it as lost or stolen to the local Koban
English Japanese Romaji
I lost my (wallet) (財布)を失くしました (Saifu) o nakushimashita
My (passport) was stolen (パスポート)が盗まれました (Pasupoto) ga nusumaremashita
Bag 鞄 or バッグ Kaban or baggu
Phone 電話 Denwa
Camera カメラ Kamera
Laptop パソコン Pasokon
Driver’s license 運転免許証 Unten menkyosho
Residence card 在留カード Zairyu kaado
National Health Insurance Card 国民健康保険のカード Kokumin-Kenko-Hoken no Kaado

Resources

Accidents

Accidents happen. And, when they happen, it’s important to be prepared and know what to do in Japan.

Be Prepared

  • Always carry your residence card
  • Always carry your National Health Insurance card
  • Keep your phone contacts up-to-date

What to do if you’re in a car accident

  1. Call the police (110) and ambulance (119), if needed
  2. Gather relevant information from the other driver such as name, address, phone number, insurance information and license plate number
  3. If it was a big accident, find witnesses and take their details
  4. Record the details of the accident and take pictures
  5. Call your insurance company

Choose an insurance company that has English language services such as Japan Insurance Net if you are not confident in Japanese. If renting a car, understand the company’s policies regarding accidents before you take the vehicle on the road.

In case of injury

  1. If it is serious, call an ambulance (119)
  2. If you’re not sure if the incident qualifies as serious, you can dial (7119) to speak to an operator who will help you determine whether or not you require an ambulance
  3. Follow the usual steps for hospital appointments in Japan

Assault

Although Japan is a very safe country, instances of assault do occur. Here’s what to do if you are assaulted or attacked in Japan.

Assault and battery

  1. If you are still in danger, call the police (110)
  2. If you are seriously injured, call an ambulance (119)
  3. If you are able, go to your closest Koban and report it — it is helpful to report the incident to police located within the same jurisdiction that the crime was committed in
  4. If you are the victim of a serious crime and you require support, or are having trouble filing your police report, contact your local embassy

Sexual assault

The steps to reporting a sexual assault or rape are exactly the same as non-sexual assault or battery. Essentially, make sure you are in no immediate danger and, then, contact the police as soon as possible.

However, sexual assault in Japan can be tricky to deal with; although Japan has a very low crime-rate, sexual assault such as groping on public transport is common, and rape is not always dealt with in the same way as other countries. There have been some instances of police not taking a victim’s account seriously, and it is a known fact that sexual assault goes unreported in many cases.

It is best to contact your local embassy for advice on reporting and recovering from a sexual assault.

Counseling resources

Resource Details Contact
TELL Provides free, confidential counselling services in English 24 hours By chat or phone 24 hours: 03-5774-0992
Counseling Center for Women Offers confidential support (for women only) in Japan in various languages Hotline (10 am – 5 pm): 090-8001-4695
International Mental Health Professionals Japan Helps with finding a therapist in Japan Visit the website for details
Tokyo Rape Crisis Center Primarily telephone counselling services Phone: 03-3207-3692

(Wednesdays 6 to 9 pm.
Saturdays 3 to 6 pm)

References

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