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Everyday Life in Japan

Natural Disasters and Emergencies

Natural Disasters in Japan

Japan’s position on the globe makes it the target of a range of natural disasters.


The Japanese archipelago is between no less than four tectonic plates: The Eurasian plate in the west, the Philippine Sea Plate in the south, the Pacific Plate in the east, and the North American Plate in the north. As a result, the islands are rife with seismic and volcanic activity.

It’s rare for a day to go by without seismographs picking up a quake somewhere in Japan. The good news is that most of them are so small that you won’t even notice them when riding on the train or watching TV at home.

Earthquake Measurement Scales

In addition the international Richter scale, Japan has its own unique measurement scale for earthquake intensity: The shindo scale, reaching from 0 to 7.

While the Richter scale measures the amount of energy released through an earthquake, shindo (震度, seismic intensity) measures the degree of the shaking sensation experienced by humans. Thus, any given earthquake has only one Richter scale number, but several shindo scale numbers attached to it. Generally, shindo numbers are higher the closer you are to the quake’s epicenter.

Most earthquakes in Japan have a seismic intensity between 0 and 2. Below, you can find a list of the different numbers and the earthquake intensity they express.

Seismic Intensity (shindo)



The earthquake is unperceivable to humans.


Very slight shaking can be felt by some people currently resting indoors.


Most people resting indoors notice some slight shaking.


Shaking is felt by the majority of people indoors, including those who aren’t resting. Suspended objects like ceiling lamps sway noticeably.


Most people notice and are startled by the earthquake, regardless of where they are. Suspended objects like ceiling lamps sway strongly.


Most people start to feel panic. Furniture that’s not anchored to the ground strongly shakes and moves around. Objects start falling out of cupboards etc.


It becomes difficult to walk without holding onto something. Most objects fall out of cupboards etc., and unsecured furniture is likely to fall over.


I becomes difficult to stand up. Most unsecured furniture falls over. Windows and roof tiles can become damaged or fall down. Walls of non-earthquake-proof buildings take damage.


Most people can only move around by crawling. Most unsecured furniture moves around or falls over. Non-earthquake-proof wooden buildings take serious damage and start to crumble. Cracks or fissures form in the ground, landslides can occur.


Non-earthquake-proof buildings are likely to collapse. Earthquake-proof wooden buildings can sometimes slant.

How to Stay Safe During an Earthquake

Even though most earthquakes are minor wants that will leave you only with a minor shock, it’s always good to be prepared for bigger quakes. Here’s what you should do to stay safe.

If you’re in your own home, move to a spot where you are safe from falling objects. The most common action is to hide beneath a desk. Once you’ve protected yourself, wait until the shaking has stopped. Hasty actions can easily lead to injuries. If possible, stay inside. After the shaking has stopped, check the stove and turn it off if necessary. Next, open up doors and/or windows to secure escape routes.

In other indoor spaces like shopping malls, supermarkets or museums, protect your head from falling objects and follow the announcements and guidance of the staff. If you’re in an elevator, press all the floor buttons and leave at the first floor the doors open at.

If you’re outside, search for a wide, open area (like plazas or parks). Try your best to stay clear of concrete block walls, billboards etc. that are likely to topple and be wary of falling roof tiles or glass. If you are in an area where debris is likely to fall, shield your head with your bag or other things you have with you.

Most Japanese cities have designated disaster evacuation sites (災害時避難所, saigaiji hinanjo) that have signs pointing to them. If possible, you should stay inside your own home. However, in some cases there might be evacuation orders. Make sure to check the location of your area’s evacuation site in advance. When leaving your house and heading to an evacuation site after an earthquake, make sure to turn off your stove and circuit breaker to reduce the likelihood of a fire.

After you’ve moved to a safe position, try to get some info on the current situation via internet or radio. Don’t leave your cover prematurely – big earthquakes are often accompanied by aftershocks.


Tsunamis are a byproduct of earthquakes happening off the coast and are often more devastating than the earthquake itself.

If you’re living near the seashore or in an area near sea level, check the news as soon as you’ve moved to a safe position. Japanese earthquake reports come with a note on whether or not a tsunami is expected. There are three tiers of tsunami warnings:

Type of Warning

Expected height of tsunami waves



Tsunami Advisory

20 centimeters ~ 1 meter

Leave the water if you’re currently in the sea.

Move away from the shore.


Tsunami Warning

1 meter ~ 3 meters

If you’re near the seashore or a river, immediately head to higher ground and/or an evacuation building.


Major Tsunami Warning

3 meters and higher

If you’re near the seashore or a river, immediately head to higher ground and/or an evacuation building.

To prepare for evacuation in the event of a tsunami, check out maps that shows the sea levels and evacuation spots in your area.

Always evacuate on foot. In cases where you can’t reach higher ground in time, find a building made of reinforced concrete and go up as high as possible.

Typhoons and Landslides

Typhoons are tropical storms that form when wind blows onto warm ocean waters. Typhoon season in Japan falls between the months of July and October, with the biggest storms typically hitting around September.

Strong winds can cause objects like billboards or tree branches to break off and be blown around. Also, heavy rain can cause the soil on hills to become loose. Because of the limited amount of flat land in Japan, it’s not rare to cities to reach right up to hillsides. This makes those areas susceptible to damage from landslides (土砂崩れ dosha-kuzure).

In the event of a typhoon, follow these simple rules to stay safe:

  • Stay inside
  • Avoid staying in underground facilities or other areas below sea level
  • Don’t go near bodies of flowing water
  • Stay clear of steep hillsides

When a typhoon draws near, Japan’s meteorological institute issues warnings for rainfall (大雨, oo-ame), flooding (洪水, kouzui), and strong winds (暴風, boufuu). Much like the tsunami warnings, these are divided into three tiers: Advisories (注意報, chuuihou), warnings (警報, keihou), and major warnings (特別警報, tokubetsu-keihou). Check the warnings for your area regularly and comply with evacuation orders if necessary.

Safety Arrangements

While modern technology allows some natural disasters (for example, strong typhoons) to predicted ahead of time, you can never be a 100% sure. As provision for the worst-case scenario, it’s best to prepare an emergency kit that you can just pick up and leave your house with when necessary.

An emergency kit you keep at home should contain the items listed below.

  • Rucksack
  • Bottled water (at least two to three 500ml bottles per person)
  • Food rations (two to three meals per person)
  • Flashlight
  • Sturdy gloves (best with rubber dots on the palm side)
  • Masks
  • Batteries
  • Insulation sheet
  • Hand warmers
  • Basic hygiene items (toothpaste, toothbrush, towel…)
  • Portable emergency toilet
  • First-aid kit
  • Lighter
  • Candles
  • Local map
  • Whistle
  • Helmet/head protection
  • Portable radio
  • Phone charger
  • Some cash (in small coins)
  • A few extra clothes

In addition to the things listed above, it’s always a good idea to keep some extra water bottles or non-perishable foodstuffs around your house. Even when you don’t have to evacuate, there could be situations where you won’t be able to get food from supermarkets or convenience stores right away. As a rule of thumb, try to save up rations for 2-3 days.

Useful apps and other tools

News sites for weather and disaster updates:

Detailed sources for disaster preparation:

Smartphone apps:

  • Yurekuru Call (Earthquake warning/information) → iOS / Android
  • Tokyo Disaster Preparedness App → iOS / Android