Japan experiences all sorts of natural disasters, from earthquakes to typhoons, tsunamis, and more. So if you want to live here, you need to be prepared for any of them to happen to you one day. In this article, we will talk about everything you need to know about the country’s natural disasters: their types, the risk involved, words and phrases to watch out for in the news, what to do in an emergency, disaster prevention tools, websites and apps to know, and emergency contacts. Learn all of them and ensure a safe life in Japan for yourself.
Table of Contents
- Why Are There So Many Natural Disasters in Japan?
- Japan’s Natural Disasters
- Words and Phrases to Watch Out for During Emergency Broadcasts
- First of All, Don’t Panic! What to Do During a Disaster
- Don’t Forget About Secondary Disasters! Understanding the Risks and Strategies
- Always Be Ready! Things to Prepare and Know
- Check the Hazard Map Before Disaster Strikes!
- How to Stay Informed During a Disaster (Sites and Apps to Know)
- Emergency Phone Numbers
Why Are There So Many Natural Disasters in Japan?
Earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, and other natural phenomena continue to be a problem all around the world, disrupting lives and tragically often ending them. This also includes Japan. The country might be known for its seasonal beauty but behind it all you’ll find a place that’s constantly plagued by natural disasters. Japan actually experiences 20.8% of all earthquakes of magnitude 6 or higher on the planet, is home to 7.0% of all active volcanoes, makes up 0.4% of all global deaths, and counts for 18.3% of financial losses due to natural disasters. That’s a lot for a country barely making up 0.25% of the entire Earth’s surface. It’s no wonder that Japan is sometimes called the disaster capital of the world.
But why Japan? A lot of things are responsible for the number of the country’s natural disasters: its location, topography, geology, climate, and other natural factors and settlement patterns.
Japan is actually located where oceanic and continental plates meet, so when they shift, such as in subduction, it causes earthquakes. Also, Japan is an island nation with a long, complex coastline, which makes it vulnerable to tsunamis.
70% of Japan’s surface is taken up by mountains, making it a country of steep hills, deep valleys, and precipitous cliffs. This sloped, mountainous topography makes it easy for rivers to flow rapidly towards the oceans, which is why flooding is also a big problem in Japan.
Being located in the circum-Pacific volcanic zone (the so-called “Ring of Fire”), Japan is home to 108 active volcanoes, which make up about 7% of all active volcanoes worldwide. On the one hand, this has blessed Japan with natural hot springs, but on the other, it also brings with it eruptions, volcanic ash, and earthquakes.
Most of Japan is located in the Temperate Zone, giving it four distinct seasons. However, Japan also experiences a rainy season (called “tsuyu”) between spring and summer, which brings with it a lot of rainfall. Then, between summer and autumn, the country also has to deal with typhoons, which bring heavy winds and rain.
Japan is a small, mountainous country where a growing population and continuous urbanization have occasionally resulted in the need to cut mountains, build settlements next to mountains and cliffs, or construct cities on reclaimed land. That’s why a lot of Japanese homes are built near rivers, the coast, and even volcanos. Sadly, this puts many people at risk of landslides or soil liquefaction.
Due to all of those factors, Japan sometimes experiences life-threatening natural disasters.
Japan’s Natural Disasters
Natural disasters in Japan can be divided into two categories. Some are caused by climate, like typhoons, torrential rains, and heavy snow, while some are the result of location, like earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Because these all are natural phenomena, it might seem like there’s no way to fully prepare for them, but there are things you can do and keep in mind that might one day save your life. We’ll now summarize the various kinds of natural disasters in Japan and their causes.
Earthquakes are caused by the tectonic plates covering the Earth. As they are compressed, pulled, and uplifted, they cause the ground to shake. Earthquakes can also be caused by the movement of inland active faults or by volcanic activity. The Japanese archipelago is located in the part of the planet where four tectonic plates meet, which is why there are so many earthquakes in the country.
In Japan, earthquakes are measured in magnitude (マグニチュード) and intensity (Shindo 震度). Magnitude describes the scale (energy) of the earthquake, while intensity describes how strong a quake felt in a specific place. The Shindo scale goes from 0 to 7, where higher numbers indicate stronger intensity. You will start to feel shaking around a Shindo level of 2 or 3, and a reading of 4 will startle most people. A reading of 5 or more is very scary — it’s hard to even stand up when a quake of that intensity hits.
Earthquakes are hard to predict, but the Japanese Cabinet Office’s disaster prevention website closely tracks two particular quakes that are very likely to hit in the near future: the Nankai Trough Major earthquake (a Shindo level 7 quake that will be felt from Kanto to Kyushu and will result in tsunamis higher than 10m hitting the coasts) and the Tokyo near-field earthquake (said to most likely hit within the next 30 years).
A typhoon is a tropical cyclone originating in the northwest Pacific Ocean or in the South China Sea, formed around a low-pressure center with maximum winds of 17.2 m/s or higher. While the number varies by year, since 2011, Japan has experienced about 20-30 typhoons a year, usually between July and October. Typhoons bring with them flood tides, storm waves, widespread heavy rains, fierce winds, landslides, and floods. Unlike earthquakes, typhoon courses and their intensity can be somewhat predicted, so people can prepare for them in advance. Some typhoons travel through Japan longitudinally, so make sure you stay up to date on all the available typhoon information, especially between summer and autumn when they tend to land.
Torrential Rains (Including Floods and Landslides)
Japan is a very steep country. 70% of it’s landmass is made up of mountains and hills, meaning that torrential rains can easily lead to flooding and landslides. That’s why Japan is employing anti-flood control countermeasures to lower downstream water levels by building dams, anti-flood ponds, and small and medium-sized river bypasses like the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel. However, according to the Meteorological Agency, the annual number of rains with over 50mm of rain per hour has been rising. Between 2010 and 2019, the average yearly number of such rains was about 327, compared to 226 per year between 1976 and 1985 (an increase of 1.4x). And as the occurrence of torrential rains continues to rise above scientific predictions, so does the number of floods.
Another problem are the roads and residential areas built atop cut-off mountains, which are in danger of landslides caused by heavy rains, typhoons, and earthquakes. These disasters should not be underestimated. A landslide can swallow a house and all the people inside it in an instant.
A tsunami is caused by an underwater landslide or an underwater earthquake that disrupts and displaces the seabed, resulting in the seawater moving in a series of waves. The largest tsunamis, once they reach the coast, have immense destructive power, like the now well-known tsunami that hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.
There currently are 111 active volcanoes in Japan, such as Sakurajima in Kagoshima Prefecture (pictured), which continues to frequently erupt to this day. Some active volcanoes are even popular tourist spots. The biggest dangers of volcanoes include stones ejected during eruptions, high-temperature volcanic ash, pyroclastic flows (lava and volcanic gases running down the slopes), and massive mudflows caused when lava and pyroclastic flows melt mountain snow. The ejected stones, pyroclastic flow, and mudslides in particular, which happen often during eruptions, don’t leave a lot of time to get ready for an evacuation and can be potentially lethal.
Words and Phrases to Watch Out for During Emergency Broadcasts
The Meteorological Agency has various alerts that they use in emergency broadcasts relating to 16 different kinds of weather phenomena like heavy rains, floods, heavy snowfall, and strong winds. The three main ones are the Emergency Warning (Tokubetsu Keiho 特別警報), the Warning (Keiho 警報) and the Advisory (Chuiho 注意報). These are announced on TV, radio, online news, and sometimes directly to your phone through emergency alert messages.
●Emergency Warning (Tokubetsu Keiho 特別警報)
This alert is used for a predictable phenomenon (i.e. not earthquakes) that may bring widespread destruction or is already in the process of doing so. When you see this alert, take actions to protect your life.
There are Emergency Warnings for atmospheric phenomena (kisho 気象), terrestrial phenomena (jimen-gensho 地面現象), storm surges (kocho 高潮), and ocean waves (haro 波浪). Emergency Warnings for atmospheric phenomena include alerts for storms (bofu 暴風), blizzards (bofusetsu 暴風雪), heavy rain (oame 大雨), and heavy snow (oyuki 大雪).
An Emergency Warning may indicate a phenomenon of a scale that occurs once every few decades or that you’ve never experienced before, so trying to evacuate after the Emergency Warning has been issued will be incredibly dangerous.
●Warning (Keiho 警報)
This alert is used with a phenomenon that may potentially cause a lot of damage. There are Warnings for atmospheric phenomena, terrestrial phenomena, storm surges, ocean waves, and floods (shinsui 浸水/kozui 洪水). Warnings for atmospheric phenomena include alerts for storms, blizzards, heavy rain, and heavy snow.
●Advisory (Chuiho 注意報)
This alert is used to advise caution for potentially damaging phenomena. There are Advisories used for atmospheric phenomena, terrestrial phenomena, storm surges, ocean waves, and floods. Advisories for atmospheric phenomena include alerts for snow storms (fusetsu 風雪), strong winds (kyofu 強風), heavy rain, heavy snow, lightning (kaminari 雷), dry conditions (kanso 乾燥), dense fog (nomu 濃霧), fog (kiri 霜), avalanches (nadare なだれ), low temperatures (teion 低温), snow accretion (chakusetsu 着雪), ice accretion (chakuhyo), and snowmelt (yusetsu 融雪).
Besides all of the above, local municipalities may also issue their own evacuation advisories (hinan kankoku 避難勧告), evacuation preparation alerts (hinan junbi 避難準備), and alerts for the evacuation of elderly people (koreisha hinan kaishi 高齢者避難開始). Most of them will be broadcast on TV, the radio, or the internet, but some may even be announced through the local wireless disaster warning system and loudspeakers.
Additionally, there are also Earthquake Early Warning (Kinkyu Jishin Sokuho 緊急地震速報) alerts, which inform people through TV announcements or cellphones about an upcoming earthquake. Most of these warnings come right before an earthquake hits, so there might not be a lot of time to prepare, but as soon as you receive one, you’ll have a few seconds to turn off the gas, secure things that might get damaged, get under a desk, or open the doors and secure an evacuation route if you’re somewhere where you might get trapped. After the earthquake, watch out for follow-up information about tsunamis like Tsunami Advisories (Tsunami Chuiho 津波注意報) or Warnings. Do not let your guard down until you’re sure you’re safe from tsunamis.
First of All, Don’t Panic! What to Do During a Disaster
If you’re ever faced with a natural disaster, you first must try to protect your life. If you live alone, you may want to consider moving to an evacuation shelter. Most of them hand out blankets and food, so they’re great places for people who don’t want to be alone during a time like this.
If a disaster strikes when you’re not at home, first you’ll have to find a green-lit emergency exit sign, then follow it. It wouldn’t hurt if you developed a habit of looking for all the emergency exits at your office or other places that you frequently visit.
Additionally, be prepared for all of public transportation to stop, preventing you from returning home. Sometimes in Tokyo, when public transport starts up again after an emergency, people trying to get home tend to overload it, causing hour-long waiting times. To help avoid that, some gas stations, convenience stores, and karaoke boxes are available to people who can’t get home. Look for this kind of information on your local municipality’s official website/app.
When evacuating, don’t shove, don’t run, don’t speak (so you don’t miss out on important directions), don’t go back or take unnecessary detours (whatever reason you might have, do not go back to the area that you just evacuated). These are rules that schoolchildren in Japan take to heart, and you should as well!
●What to Do During an Earthquake
If you’re indoors when an earthquake hits, get under a desk and protect your head. It’s important to get away from shelves, electronics, and other things that may topple down on you. If you’re outdoors, use something sturdy like a helmet to protect your head and move somewhere where falling objects or toppling vending machines and utility poles etc. aren’t a threat. During an evacuation, be sure to use the stairs, as there’s a chance you might get trapped inside an elevator. Additionally, if an earthquake hits when you’re by the sea, quickly move far away from the coast and find some high ground.
Remember, whenever you feel even a little quake, check the news for up-to-date earthquake information for your area.
●What to Do During a Typhoon
Once you confirm that a typhoon is approaching the area where you live, prepare things like water, food, and a simple gas stove, batteries, and an external cell phone charger in case of a power outage. If there’s a possibility that a typhoon will hit your area directly, consider taking all of the aforementioned emergency supplies and going to an evacuation shelter. Please check if an Emergency Warning or an evacuation order has been issued. If so, you will want to avoid the most dangerous areas, but you also should try to avoid going outside, because there’s a chance that the strong winds will knock you down or hurl debris at you.
●What to Do During Torrential Rains (Including Floods and Landslides)
Much like with typhoons, torrential rain forecasts should be available quite early, giving you a chance to evacuate or prepare some provisions. However, if you notice any early signs of a landslide, like the river waters becoming muddy, a foul earthy smell, small falling rocks, water gushing from cliffs, or fissures in the ground, get somewhere safe as quickly as possible. Check your local municipality’s landslide or flood hazard map to determine the location of dangerous areas and evacuation shelters in your neighborhood.
●What to Do During a Tsunami
If an earthquake hits when you’re by the sea, quickly move far away from the coast and find some high ground. A Tsunami Advisory will typically be issued about three minutes after an earthquake hits. Typically, the announcements will only mention the height of the tsunami if it’s 0.2m or higher, but waves may keep surging over and over again, so even a 0.2-0.3 meter-high tsunami is enough to carry away a human being.
Also, tsunamis don’t just hit once, but are a series of waves. After the first wave, you can have a second and even a third wave, and it’s not unusual for them to keep getting higher. Even after the waves recede, do not try to return home until the emergency alerts stop. Remember, the emergency tsunami alerts only give you a rough estimate of when a tsunami is supposed to hit, so you need to stay in a safe area until the tsunami warning or advisory officially ends.
●What to Do During a Volcanic Eruption
It’s mostly possible to predict a volcanic eruption, so if a volcano is about to blow, the Meteorological Agency will issue an Eruption Warning (Funka Keiho 噴火警報) or an Eruption Alert (Funka Keikai 噴火警戒). Depending on the scale of the disaster, an erupting volcano can shoot volcanic ash hundreds of kilometers away, so please be weary. Volcanic ash is mainly made up of glass and ore, so even small pieces can irritate the eyes or damage your respiratory system if inhaled. If volcanic ash is in the air, things like masks, goggles/glasses, long-sleeve shirts, and long pants are recommended.
As long as volcanic ash is raining down from the sky, you won’t be able to go out, which is why you should have an emergency supply of water and food. Also, if you have any electric appliances that come in contact with the air outside, it would be a good idea to cover them or wrap them in clingfilm.
Don’t Forget About Secondary Disasters! Understanding the Risks and Strategies
When a natural disaster such as an earthquake or torrential rain doesn’t directly cause any damage but instead triggers a later incident, we call that a secondary disaster. Good examples would be losing access to essential utilities or fires after an earthquake, or landslides after torrential rains.
To minimize the threat of secondary disasters, as soon as an earthquake stops and you make sure you’re safe, be sure to turn off/extinguish all fire sources in the house, like your kitchen stove or any lit cigarettes. The latest city gas installations will automatically turn off when they detect a level 5 or higher quake, so you don’t worry about rushing into the kitchen during an earthquake to turn off the gas. however, it is a good idea to take a quick look to make sure there aren’t any fire hazards there. When buying a stove, you should get one with an earthquake-resistant automatic extinguishing system and a tip-over safety device. If you prepare early enough, then you won’t panic when disaster strikes. When evacuating, make sure to turn off the gas manually and shut off the circuit breakers. This will help avoid any accidental explosions in case of a gas leak and an electric discharge from damaged electronics when the power comes back on.
Be careful if you’re indoors during torrential rains and the room starts flooding. If you shut off the circuit breakers then, there’s a chance you might get electrocuted. Either use thick rubber gloves to flip the switch or avoid direct contact by using a stick.
Also, Japan is known for its safety but unfortunately, there have been cases of burglars breaking into evacuated houses, so try and lock as many points of entry as possible if you have the time. However, protecting your life should always be your number one priority.
Always Be Ready! Things to Prepare and Know
You never know when a natural disaster will strike, but you can prepare for them by following the advice below. By doing all of it now, you’ll minimize the damages when an actual disaster does happen.
1. Secure Your Furniture
Go to a home center (or somewhere similar) and buy fall-prevention goods to secure your kitchen shelves, book shelves, and any other high furniture that may topple during a natural disaster. Also, just in case, place your furniture so that even if they topple or their drawers come flying out, they won’t fall on your bed and won’t block your evacuation route. Be especially mindful of the placement of household appliances that use fire, like stoves, during the winter.
2. Stock Up on Food
After a disaster, you might not be able to cook due to power outages, or you might be forced to spend a lot of time in an evacuation shelter. That’s why you should prepare emergency water (2-3L per day per person), ready-made sealed foods with a long expiration date, and plenty of instant meals. It’s recommended you have enough food for about three days. Rather than emergency rations that you may forget about until they go bad, stock up on the kind of food that you normally eat, replacing it as soon as you eat some.
3. Prepare Disaster Prevention Goods
Besides food, water, some cash and valuables, you should also prepare whatever else you’ll need in case the infrastructure goes out. For example, in the event of power outages, you’ll need a flashlight, extra batteries, and an external cell phone charger. In addition to daily necessities like a toothbrush set, tissues, towels, and feminine hygiene products, you should also consider buying emergency products like a gas cartridge stove for cooking and boiling water, an emergency toilet, and bandages. You can get all of these online, at a drugstore, or at a home center.
4. Prepare Tools That You Can Use During a Disaster
Together with food and disaster prevention goods, the most important thing you’ll need during a disaster is information. You should regularly check local hazard maps and useful emergency apps/websites. Also, write and store a few key Japanese phrases that you’ll need during an emergency in your phone.
5. Know the Risk and Share Information
Check the evacuation route and evacuation shelters on a hazard map beforehand, and make sure you share that information with your friends and family. You should also make a plan in case a natural disaster occurs when you’re out. For example, where should you all meet after things calm down? Additionally, you should write down your friends’ and family’s emergency contact information on a piece of paper in case something happens to your phone.
6. Participate in Evacuation Drills
Be sure to actively participate in evacuation drills conducted by your local municipality, workplace, or school. Even if you have all the disaster prevention goods and tools, it won’t matter unless you are able to evacuate safely. These drills will tell you specific things to do after a disaster and teach you the proper evacuation routes. Some municipalities and companies also practice emergency food distribution, so these drills are the perfect chance to let someone know about your dietary restrictions due to allergies or religious reasons. (The Cabinet Office has issued guidelines to try and accommodate these kinds of requests whenever possible.)
7. Get Fire and Earthquake Insurance
Consider getting insurance that will cover any damages to your house, furniture, and possessions sustained during a natural disaster. As a quick summary, fire insurance covers fire damage to buildings and household goods, as well as flood damage. However, it does not cover damage caused by an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or tsunami. Those are covered by earthquake insurance. However, earthquake insurance can’t be purchased separately, rather only alongside fire insurance.
Check the Hazard Map Before Disaster Strikes!
A hazard map is a map of estimated damage areas provided by the government or local municipalities. They list all the potentially dangerous areas that you should be careful of during a natural disaster while also showing all the evacuation routes and evacuation shelters.
There are all kinds of hazard maps, such as flood hazard maps (showing areas around rivers likely to overflow and flood), inland water hazard maps (showing urban areas likely to flood due to overflowing pipes), landslide hazard maps (showing areas likely to experience avalanches and landslides), earthquake hazard maps (showing areas where buildings are likely to become damaged and areas likely to experience soil liquefaction), tsunami hazard maps (showing areas likely to flood during the first wave), and volcanic eruption hazard maps (showing 49 volcanic areas around the country). Some maps are available in more languages than others, but you should check them out on your local municipality’s official websites.
However, when a natural disaster strikes, the emergency apps and websites will experience heavy traffic, so you should order paper maps or print them off the internet and put them in your disaster prevention backpack. Also, don’t be afraid to inquire about hazard maps at you or your family’s school/workplace.
How to Stay Informed During a Disaster (Sites and Apps to Know)
During a disaster, staying properly informed is of the utmost importance. There’s a chance that, in the chaos and confusion of a natural disaster, a lot of wrong information will spread through social media. To avoid falling for rumors, focus on news coming from the TV or from official government institutions. To find emergency information, weather reports, traffic reports, the location of your nearest evacuation shelter, and so on, you can use the following apps and sites with multilingual support.
・Safety tips (available in 14 languages)
An app providing disaster information.
・Japan Official Travel App (English, Korean, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese)
The Japan National Tourism Organization’s app for foreign tourists in Japan. Provides disaster and traffic information.
・NHK WORLD-JAPAN (available in 17 languages)
Provides news and emergency information about earthquakes and tsunamis from NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster.
・The goo Disaster Prevention App (English, Korean, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese)
Provides disaster and disaster-prevention information that you should know beforehand. It also allows you to look up evacuation shelters.
・The Tokyo Disaster Prevention App (English, Korean, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese)
A learning app that provides quizzes and reading materials about basic disaster/disaster-prevention knowledge.
A voice-recognition translation app (recognizes 31 languages)
・Japan Meteorological Agency (available in 11 languages)
・Cabinet Office Disaster Management Website (English)
・Prime Minister’s Office (English, Chinese)
・Stay Safe with NHK WORLD-JAPAN (available in 18 languages)
・Tokyo International Communication Committee’s Information on Disasters and Disaster Prevention (available in 7 languages, more languages available via Google Translate)
・Tokyo Disaster Prevention Website (available in 9 languages)
・The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Flood Control Integrated Information System (English, Chinese, Korean)
・Tokyo Amesh (English, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Korean)
・Tokyo Landslide Warning Area Map (Japanese only)
For more information on evacuations, operating evacuation shelters, and ways of helping those affected by disasters, please consult your local municipality’s official website.
If you press the d button on your remote while watching a digital terrestrial TV broadcast, you’ll get information from your local municipality about evacuation warnings and shelters, as well as weather updates about rainfall, water levels, etc.
Emergency Phone Numbers
During large-scale disasters, the phones and the internet may be down due to everyone trying to use them. However, you should still remember some of the most important Japanese emergency numbers, just in case.
・The Japan Visitor Hotline (Japan National Tourism Organization): 050-3816-2787
This call center offers help to foreign visitors in Japan during emergencies 24/7, 365 days a year, in multiple languages.
・Emergency Number (fire and ambulance): 119
If you’re hurt and can’t move, or have been trapped by a collapsed building, or if there’s a fire, then please call 119.
Even during a disaster, if you spot someone committing burglary or purse-snatching, or if you witness a traffic accident where someone got hurt, you should call the police. Also call 110 if a landslide has blocked the road or if you find a lost child.
・Disaster Emergency Message Dial: 171
In the event of an emergency, if you’re unable to reach the affected area due to network congestion, you can use the Disaster Emergency Message Dial to leave or listen to a voice message. This is available through all phone carriers.
How it Works
STEP 1: Dial 171
STEP 2: Press 1 (Record) or 2 (Play)
STEP 3: Choose the phone number of the person you want to contact (including their area code)
In order to minimize the damage of a natural disaster, you should be ready for it every single day, and know beforehand what to do when it does strike. It’s not like you will keep running into huge natural disasters over and over again in the course of your daily life, but that’s precisely why you should prepare for it now. It may save your life.
Remember, a disaster can strike when you least expect it.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.