The 2019 Global Peace Index considers Japan as the ninth safest country in the world. This means that among 163 independent nations and territories all over the world, Japan has a relatively low rate for safety indicators like crimes, domestic conflicts, or tension among economic classes. However, the country is second in terms of natural Hazards.
Many tourists affirm that Japan is a safe country to visit. However, these tourists still recommend caution when you’re in the country. In this article, I will discuss how safe Japan is and what you should watch out for while you’re there.
How safe is Japan?
Young Japanese students can walk or commute by themselves from home to school
and vice versa with minimal adult supervision. Locals leave their phones and laptops to reserve tables in cafés while they order their food. Lost items are turned over to the proper offices and returned to owners intact. A person can walk alone at night without getting into trouble.
Despite these prime examples of the safety of Japan, crimes still do happen all over the Country.
Last month (from the time of writing this), a man set fire to Kyoto Animation, the studio behind anime hits like K-On, Free, and Clannad. The suspect claimed that the company stole or copied the plot of a novel he had submitted to one of the company’s competitions. The death toll reached 35 employees and dozens were injured.
During the fall Halloween season, places like Shibuya become a hotbed for crime. In recent years it’s become the informal venue of costumed street parties, resulting in the closure of the infamous crossing with police cracking down on riot-like celebrations. Last year, several parties-goers, both local and foreign alike, were arrested for the following:
- Groping and voyeurism (a man groped a woman; several others exposed their naked bodies to the crowd; a man took photographs of women from a low angle and up their skirts);
- Vandalism and damage to property (a group tipped over a truck); and, physical injury (a woman dancing on the hood of a car was yanked off it and slammed to the pavement by the owner; a man punched a policeman).
To escalate the incidents even further, who can forget the magnitude 9.1 earthquake that hit Japan in 2011?
The earthquake itself was devastating, destroying buildings and burying people under rubble. The tsunami waves it triggered were even more damaging. More than 15,000 people died, more than 6,000 were injured, and more than 2,000 are still missing.
The disaster also caused a partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which led to radiation leaks from the reactors. The radiation levels in surrounding areas are supposed to be contained but it’s better to stay away from them for a few more years. Feeling overwhelmed now? Don’t panic. Just keep your eyes open for possible trouble.
What to watch out for when in Japan
Here are situations and issues you might encounter and some tips on how to handle them:
1. Natural Disasters
The 2019 Global Peace Index considers Japan as second only to the Philippines in terms of natural hazards. This means it has a high risk of multiple natural disasters happening in just one year.
Earthquakes happen frequently in Japan. This month alone a magnitude 5.4 earthquake hit Aomori while a magnitude 6.3 rocked Fukushima.
Japan also has a lot of typhoons. The country’s rainy season is announced each year, but it usually happens from May to July. In July last year, around 155 people died and millions were evacuated due to torrential rains, floods, and Landslides. Meanwhile, Northern Japan has snowstorms and avalanches to look out for.
So what should you do?
- Be aware. Japan has a very good weather forecasting system and a system of announcements and warnings. Always keep yourself updated on the weather in your area.
- Learn what to do during an earthquake. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s website is very informative. I highly recommend visiting the English version of the site. It even has a short but very informative manga about what to do when an earthquake happens.
There is a massive endeavor for Japanese people to learn English due to the globalization of its businesses and the Tokyo Olympic Games happening next year. However, the main language of the country is still Japanese (Nihon-go). Many of the locals still find it hard conversing in English. Shop, restaurant, traffic signs are in Japanese.
So what should you do?
- If you want to explore Japan, learn Japanese. Learn some basic words so you don’t get too lost in translation or conned into following a person into a sketchy bar, especially in Kabukicho.
Here are some simple phrases to help you get started:
|Excuse Me / I’m Sorry||Sumimasen|
|Please||Onegaishimasu / Kudasai|
|Do You Speak English?||Eigo Wa Shi~yabemasuka|
|I Don’t Know Japanese||Nihongo Wa Wakarimasen|
|Can You Please Repeat That?||Mou Ichido, Onegaishimasu|
|Thank You||Arigatou Gozaimasu|
|I Am Very Sorry||Gomen Nasai|
|I’m Okay / That’s Okay||Daijobu Desu|
|Asking For Diretions:|
|Where is (……)||(…..) Wa Doko Desu Ka?|
|Where Am I?||Koko Doko Desu Ka?|
|I Want To Go (…..)||(….) e Ikitai Desu|
|Where Is The Train Station?||Eki Wa Doko Desu Ka?|
|Does This Go To….?||Kore (….) Ikimasu Ka?|
|Where Is The Restroom?||Toire Wa Doko Desu Ka?|
|Buying & Eating:|
|How Much Is This?||Ikura Desu Ka?|
|Do You Have (….)?||(….) ga Arimasu-ka?|
|What Is This?||Kore wa Nan Desu Ka?|
|Pervert!||Chikan Desu / Hentai Desu|
|Police Please!||Keisatsu Kudasai|
If you don’t have the time to learn Japanese, then I recommend investing in a gadget that translates languages or install an app that does this. Google Translate was notoriously bad at Japanese translations, however with improvements overtime, Google has made it more usable and reliable to get basic points across.
- Google maps also give pretty good directions you can use to navigate while in an unfamiliar place, but it still helps to know how to ask politely for directions, especially when you might find yourself without a SIM card or WiFi.
3. Money and valuables
Remember that person mentioned earlier that was arrested for theft in Shibuya during Halloween last year? He was a pickpocketer. Although it’s a very rare occurrence, it’s ideal to be 100% aware of where you are at and keep your belongings close.
Here are also some scams that foreigners typically fall for:
- Shopkeepers or restaurant staff pretend to drop your change then switch the money so you are handed less money. If this happens, simply review your receipt and count the money that is handed back to you.
- Beggars who work with pickpockets to scout you out. If you pull out your wallet to give alms to the beggars, their cohorts will know where you keep your wallet. Traditionally, the homeless in Japan never ask for alms or money. If someone specifically walks up to you asking for money, simply ignore them or act like you don’t understand. Chances are, you are being targeted for a scam.
- “It’s me” (Ore-ore da) scam involves con artists pretending to be a relative. If you fall for the scam, you will be asked to withdraw a large amount of money and drop it off or give it to a person. Usually, the con artists will tell you that she/he met an accident and has to pay the hospital fees or the owner of a car that was damaged. This scam is rather an old one, but as a foreigner, you won’t have to worry too much unless you actually have relatives in Japan.
An alternative scam has formed from this where someone claiming to be from a charity will try to get you to donate. People have also gone as far as to dress like a local Buddhist priests to get people to give them money. These scams tend to target gullible foreigners specifically.
This is something that will probably not affect casual tourists. However, if you stay in Japan for a long time, be wary of these scams and don’t fall victim.
So what should you do?
- Cash is still the most widely accepted payment method in Japan, but don’t bring a lot of cash every time you leave your hotel.
- Don’t put all of your money in your wallet. Try to keep them in separate caches or things like anti-theft bags or money belts.
- You are required by Japanese law to carry your passport and other permits at all times. So, keep them in a safe place. Do the same thing for your phone, laptop, camera, and other valuable equipment.
- Do not take your eyes off your belongings. Use common sense and always keep them with, or near you. Japan is notoriously known for people being able to leave their belongings anywhere, and coming back to them without being pilfered through, however there is always the chance of unlawful individuals taking advantage of this.
ATMs are generally 24/7 walk-in banks with camera security, so you’ll be able to complete money transfers and transaction safely.
If you need to use an ATM in a public place like a train station, make sure that no one is looking over your shoulder as you enter your pin. Sometimes it can be busy, but the general rule is that people stand around the corner from the ATM to give privacy.
4. Food and water
Japan has very strict rules on food safety and preparation. This is important especially if you plan on eating raw foods like sushi or sashimi. Some people have expressed concern over ingredients being contaminated by radiation from the Fukushima power plant disaster years ago, however officials claim that there is no contamination to worry about.
Also, Japan’s tap water is considered the safest in the world. Most taps are considered ‘soft water’ here compared to ‘well water’ or ‘hard water’ that we sometimes experience in the United States. In fact, if you ask this question, many people will have no idea what you’re talking about because having soft water is considered the norm in Japan.
What should you do?
- Research the restaurants that you plan to go to so that you will know what to order in advance. This is important if you have food allergies. Chances are the restaurant staff will not know all of the ingredients of a meal so asking them will probably not be helpful.
- Don’t trust the tap water? All types of bottled water are sold nearly everywhere across Japan. If you are on the go, buy from a vending machine or convenience store. Restaurants will always serve a glass of water when you’re seated. You will definitely not go thirsty here.
5. Entertainment and Nightlife
Shibuya and Ikebukuro in Tokyo are considered entertainment areas while Kabukicho and Roppongi contain a lot of clubs and the infamous love hotels. Some tourists have reported the following incidents in these areas:
- Club employees approaching and luring tourists or even forcing them to enter specific clubs where customers are charged exorbitant prices for drinks.
- These clubs and bars in particular would spike drinks or have a large percent of alcohol causing victims to become drunk and compliant resulting in stolen credit cards, passports, or a large sum of money taken from their bank account at an ATM. Victims would then wake up with no memory of the previous night.
- A different version of this is a group of young men or women approaching a tourist and saying they want to practice speaking English. They would then offer to show the tourists around. When they inevitably end up eating, the group would order a lot of food then sneak out of the restaurant, leaving the confused tourist with a very expensive bill.
What should you do?
- Conduct some initial research on the places you want to visit. Make yourself aware of the local area and use common sense if approached by strangers. Alternatively, travel with a friend if you plan on staying out late.
- Follow the rules of any establishment you go to. For example, there are now a lot of places where smoking is prohibited. Restaurants also have a smoking and non-smoking area. If you’re unsure of the rules, ask first before smoking. Otherwise, you might suddenly find yourself paying a fine for disobeying the rules or even kicked out.
- The number one rule anywhere while at a bar, don’t take your eyes off your drink. Don’t leave it in the care of other people, either. Also, know your alcohol limit. Don’t over do it, especially if you’re alone with strangers.
- Don’t accept drinks from strangers if handed to you directly. You may be seen as lame to some Japanese, but it’s definitely not worth the short term fame if your drink ends up spiked.
- Avoid taking or traveling with drugs and marijuanna in Japan. These things are typically hard to find unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and even if you do know, you’ll be in for a very awkward and difficult time. With extreme crackdowns by Police, you’ll definitely not want to be caught with any of these, and if you are, expect to be deported and banned from the country for a number of years.
- Avoid going to seedy, sketchy, unlit, or unfamiliar areas. If you must go to these areas, go there with people you can trust.
- Don’t give your personal information to strangers unless it is necessary, like in hospitals or police stations.
- Don’t worry about propriety if you feel you’re in danger. If you feel like you’re being followed or stalked, quickly make your way to a public area like a convenience store, restaurant, or station. Keep in mind that places like 7-11, Lawson, and Family Mart are open 24/7.
6. Public transportation
The most widespread incident for women and some men in public transportation is a pervert or molester (chikan). A Chikan will grope, sexually assault, or take lewd photos of the victim. This usually happens on a packed train during the morning and afternoon rush hours. As a result, authorities and train companies have dedicated ‘women only’ carts during rush hours.
This issue is a long-standing problem in Japan. Victims are generally too embarrassed or afraid to speak up or continue prosecution. Male and female locals, including police officials, more often than not ignore it or play it down as ‘just’ unwanted touching or picture-taking.
In recent years, it is not just Japanese who molest victims. Foreign molesters have also been reported and recorded in the country.
What should you do?
- Don’t suffer in silence. Cry out for help. Grab the offending hand and hold it up so others will know what is happening. Although many Japanese will probably pretend that nothing’s happening, there could be one or two who will help you. If you can, be sure to pull the accuser to a station attendant at the next stop. Shout “Chikan!” and you’ll definitely get the point across.
- If you’re too afraid to cry out, then get off at the next station, even if it’s not yet your stop. It’s better to be late than to be groped.
- Find a station attendant and report what happened. Even though the case will probably not be pursued, you at least know that you made a step to stop it.
- Share your story so that others will be warned. In April last year, this video of a foreign man molesting a woman was the topic of many discussions.
- Avoid the rush hour. Packed trains usually mean more chances for molesters to grope without being easily identified. If you work in Japan, this may not be an option, however there are women only carts.
- Always make sure you know the train schedule, especially the last train leaving from where you are. The last train leaves the station at 12:30 AM, and services will not resume until 4:00 AM. Be aware that accidents do happen, and trains can be delayed.
- If you do get stranded, taxis are very safe in Japan. You don’t have to haggle with taxi drivers over the price or worry about the meter not being turned on. Even if you’re sloshed, if you can give your address you will be sure that you will arrive at you destination. But be aware, taxis can be very expensive.
Japan has a lot of natural wonders and places to hike. With these natural wonders you get—well, nature. Japan is famous for its feel-good stories involving animals like a deer visiting a restaurant in Hiroshima or police officers shepherding a family of ducks across a road.
On the flip side, there are also news reports of wildlife attacking people. Last year, a man in the suburbs of Fukuoka was attacked by a wild boar. Two people with cars managed to scare the boar away. The victim suffered bites and gouges. Wild animals could unintentionally but quite literally derail your tour in Japan. There have been several recent incidents of animals causing Japan’s very efficient train system to stop or be delayed:
- A turtle was crushed in the train switch mechanism, which stopped the trains for a while.
- A slug managed to squeeze into a locked switch box. The mechanism inside electrocuted it. The resulting blackout on the JR Kagoshima Line in Kyushu affected 26 train routes.
Before you laugh these stories off since you’ll be staying in the cities like Tokyo or Kyoto, read on.
In April last year, two wild boars injured several people and destroyed properties in Kyoto. Two years ago, a wild boar attacked six people in Tokyo. Even relatively tame animals like the famous deer of Nara Park have caused injuries. The administration of Nara Park has issued a warning against tourists teasing the deer. I can definitely attest to this as I have been attacked by deer in Nara last year after regrettably teasing them with biscuits. The number of incidents of deer biting tourists has increased to 209 as of January this year.
So what should you do?
- If you’re hiking in a mountain, stay on the paths. Besides wild boars, Japan has bears, poisonous snakes, and deadly wasps to watch out for. Watch out for warning signs about local animals.
- If you’re in a park or zoo, don’t tease the animals. How would you feel if someone offers you food then takes it away?
8. Solo traveling
Japan is considered a safe country for solo travelers. Then again, given the crimes listed above, you’ll probably want to take precautionary measures.
What should you do?
- Make sure that the hotel, hostel, or ryokan you’ll be staying in has good reviews. For female solo travelers, some hostels offer female-only accommodations.
- Try to meet up with friends or travel buddies you trust.
- Keep your family updated about where you are and what you are doing. Send them pictures and let them know where you plan on going for the day. I’m sure they want to know what you’re up to, even if you don’t want to tell them!
- Join a group tour. With the tourism boom happening in Japan, you shouldn’t have an issue booking a tour online with an English-friendly tour guide.
In case you have an emergency, remember these numbers:
- 110: police
- 119: ambulance, emergency rescue, fire
- 03-3224-5000: Emergency contact number for Tokyo, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Naha, Osaka, and Sapporo
The U.S. Embassy in Japan has a web-page that gives you more tips during Emergencies.
Also, small police boxes (koban) are strategically located in neighborhoods, public areas, etc. Take note of the police box where you will be staying or where you will visit so you know where to go to in case of an emergency. If you are unsure where to find a koban, look near the local train station.
No country is 100% safe. However, that should not stop you from having a good time during your travels. Just remember:
- Do your research.
- Always be aware of your surroundings.
- When in doubt, trust your instincts.
- Ask for help.
These are all my tips for keeping safe in Japan. Many people come to this country with rose tinted goggles, only focusing on what is good in the country, however there are many things that happen that aren’t talked about. I definitely recommend following ‘TokyoReporter’ on twitter for ongoing news translated directly from Japanese to English to get an idea of what goes on here.