How Japan Prepares For Earthquakes – And How To Stay Safe

by Jacob Harris
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According to the United States Geological Survey, about 90% of earthquakes in the world occur in the Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean. Many parts of Japan lie directly over the Ring. Some of its islands sit on top of huge tectonic plates that tend to grind together and produce massive earthquakes.

Japan frequently experiences earthquakes every year. So, the country has learned from its past. It now educates its citizens, implements policies, and encourages innovation to prepare for the next big one.

Let’s explore Japan’s history of earthquakes and what it now does to mitigate the effects of such disasters.


Historical Facts and Figures

When it comes to earthquake magnitudes, many people only know about the Richter magnitude scale. But scientists have discovered better ways to measure the intensity of earthquakes.

Some countries use the Modified Mercalli Intensity (MMI) scale to measure the magnitude of an earthquake. This scale has 9 types of intensities ranging from I (Not felt) to XII (Extreme).

The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) uses a slightly different scale to measure the intensity and magnitude of earthquakes. Here’s what happens at each stage of the scale as explained on their website:

Seismic IntensityHuman Perception & ReactionIndoor SituationOutdoor Situation
0Can’t be felt by people, but recorded on seisomometers
1Felt slightly by some, hardly felt indoors
2Felt by many people, still hardly felt indoors.
May wake up some people
Hanging objects sway
3Felt by most people in buildings.
Felt by some people walking.
Many people are woken up if sleeping
Dishes, shelves, and cupboards may rattleElectrical wires sway slightly
4Most people are startled.
Felt by most people walking.
Everyone is woken up
Hanging objects such as
lamps swing significantly, and dishes in cupboards rattle.
Electric wires swing
significantly.
Those driving vehicles
may notice the tremor.
5 – LowerMany people are frightened and feel the need to hold onto something stableHanging objects such as
lamps swing violently.
Dishes in cupboards
and items on
bookshelves may fall.
Unsecured furniture may
move, and unstable
furniture may topple
over.
In some cases,
windows may break
and fall.
People notice
electricity poles
moving.
Roads may sustain
damage.
5 – UpperMany people find it hard to
move; walking is difficult
without holding onto
something stable.
Dishes in cupboards
and items on
bookshelves are more
likely to fall.
TVs may fall from their
stands, and unsecured
furniture may topple
over.
Windows may break
and fall; unreinforced
concrete-block walls
may collapse.
Poorly installed
vending machines
may topple over.
Automobiles may stop
due to the difficulty of
continued movement.
6 – LowerIt is difficult to remain
standing.
Many unsecured
furniture moves and
may topple over.
Doors may become
wedged shut.
Wall tiles and windows
may sustain damage
and fall.
6 – UpperIt is impossible to remain
standing or move without
crawling.
People may be thrown
through the air.
Most unsecured
furniture moves and is
more likely to topple
over.
Wall tiles and windows
are more likely to
break and fall.
Most unreinforced
concrete-block walls
collapse.
7 +Same as 6 – UpperMost unsecured
furniture moves and
topples over, or may
even be thrown through
the air.
Wall tiles and windows
are even more likely to
break and fall.
Reinforced concrete-
block walls may
collapse.

Source: Japan Meteorological Agency http://www.jma.go.jp/jma/en/Activities/inttable.html

Japan experiences about 1,500 “minor” earthquakes each year. Some areas even experience tremors every day. In the 20 the century alone, it has experienced the following major earthquakes:

NameMagnitudeDateArea affectedDamage
Great Hanshin-Awaji
Earthquake
6.9January
17, 1995
Hyogo Prefecture
(the southern part
of Honshu Island),
primarily Kobe
6,434 people
died, majority
of whom were
from Kobe;
extensive fires
and damage to
structures
Kumamoto Earthquakes6.2-7April 16,
2016
Kumamoto
Prefecture in
Kyushu island (the
southernmost of
the four main
islands of Japan)
At least 50
people died,
about 3,000
were injured;
structures
collapsed and
fire razed
certain areas
Great Kanto Earthquake7.9-8.2September
1, 1923
Kanto region
(where Tokyo is
located) of Honshu
island (the middle
part of Japan; the
largest of the four
main islands of the
country)
142,800 people
died; many
large fires
broke out
because the
quake struck
during
lunchtime when
people were
cooking and
wind from a
typhoon in a
different part of
the country
caused fires to
spread rapidly
Nankai Earthquake8.1-8.4December
21, 1946
Honshu island to
Kyushu island
1,362 people
died; extensive
damage to
structures and
property
Tokachi earthquake8.3May 16,
1968
Hokkaido (the
northernmost main
island of Japan)
and Aomori (the
northernmost city in
Honshu island)
Triggered a
tsunami; 52
people died;
damage to
buildings,
railroads,
highways, and
water pipes
and gas pipes
Sanriku earthquake8.4March 2,
1933
Sanriku coast of
northern Honshu
island
Triggered a
tsunami that
washed away
thousands of
houses; more
than 3,000
people died
Great East Japan
Earthquake
9-9.1March 11,
2011
Honshu islandTriggered a
tsunami which
caused the
Fukushima
nuclear power
plant to have

Japan’s Earthquake Preparations

With such a long history of earthquakes, Japan takes this type of disaster very seriously. The country continuously innovates, educates, invests, and learns from previous earthquakes to make its people and property safer and ready for the next quake.

It has established a culture of preparedness among its citizens, a goal of extensive management in its policies, and a deep sense of efficiency in its science and technology innovations.

1. Education on Earthquakes

Children as young as those in pre-kindergarten are taught what to do when a quake strikes and how to stay safe. They are taught how to duck under tables during the initial shock to avoid falling debris. They learn not to panic, and how to put on protective gear and to calmly form lines in an orderly manner during evacuations.

As they grow older, children are required to participate in regular earthquake drills. Some schools conduct these drills monthly.

They also take part in educational field trips to places like fire departments or museums. These trips reinforce what the children have already learned. For example, they get to try earthquake simulators where they are required to drop and take cover as they experience what an intensity-7 quake feels like.

Meanwhile, the adults, including senior citizens, are encouraged to attend conferences and training programs conducted by government offices and private organizations. In this way, they are kept updated of new procedures and technologies regarding earthquake evacuations.

Just like the programs for children, training programs for adults are practical as well. For example, those in charge of houses like housewives, househusbands, and dorm managers are trained to turn off gas pipelines and electricity (if needed) and open the doors (since these can get stuck if a quake occurs) when a quake warning is issued.

Signs and posters about evacuation procedures are displayed in commercial centers, offices, parks, and other places where a lot of people gather.

Families are encouraged to have their own plans in place in case of emergencies. For example, children are told to stay in their schools until a guardian picks them up. In this way, families are assured that the children are in a safe area.

Even those who have pets are also encouraged to educate themselves on how to evacuate with their dogs and cats.

Search and rescue officials and volunteers also undergo specialized training in order so that they can efficiently do their jobs during disasters.

2. Free Smartphone Apps Made for Disasters

There are several applications that send alerts to smartphones in case of disasters like earthquakes or typhoons.

Generally, the apps are triggered 5 to 10 seconds before an earthquake strikes. This gives people enough time to seek shelter or protection. The apps continue to sound a voice alert that goes: “Jishin desu!” (“It’s an earthquake!”) until the quake stops.

  • Yurekuru Call: Did you know that the namazu (catfish) symbolizes earthquakes in Japan? When you download this app, the catfish icon comes with it so you’ll know right away if an earthquake or strong typhoon is coming.

    According to the creator, the app has more than 5 million users, making it one of the most popular disaster-related apps in Japan.

    It provides early warning alerts and real-time information on maps you can customize for your location. Users can even share real-time updates for their locations to help inform other people. The best thing about this is that there is an English version of this app.
  • Safety Tips: The Japan Tourism Agency created this app for foreign visitors to Japan.

    It sends earthquake and tsunami alerts. It also has an evacuation flowchart which you can follow if a disaster strikes. This is very helpful when you’re panicking and you suddenly forget what to do next. The app also has phrases you can use to get help even if your Japanese is rusty.
  • Pocket Shelter: This app is also very useful to tourists. It has information on more than 100,000 restaurants, tourist spots, restrooms, and other things you would want to know about when you visit Japan.

    But more than that, the app provides info on the evacuation centers nearest you in case an earthquake strikes. It can even be used offline in case your WiFi services get disrupted during an earthquake.

    When a disaster happens, the app displays very important information in several languages. It can even send a confirmation to your family of your Safety.
  • Japan Shelter Guide: This app can help you locate the nearest evacuation center, hospital, and water supply. It also gives updates on disasters like typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis directly from the Japan Weather Association.
  • LINE: This is technically not an app related to disasters. But it is Japan’s number one messaging service. You can’t go to Japan without coming across LINE. It is particularly popular for its stickers.

    This app was actually invented as a result of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. When the quake struck, many families were unable to call loved ones since phone lines were cut off. So, NHN Japan created a service that provides easy communication with free internet calls during emergencies.

    When disaster strikes, this is a very important service to assure family members and friends that you’re safe.
  • Tokyo Disaster Preparedness: The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has a very comprehensive guide on what to do during a disaster. If you’re visiting Japan, it’s a good thing to read through it so that you’ll at least be aware of the basic things to do during a disaster. The app is based on this guide. Besides the tips and reminders for users before, during, and after disasters, the app has maps, simulations, and quizzes. There is also an alarm system that sends notifications about weather conditions, locations of evacuation centers, and news updates in multiple languages.

3. Survival Kits are Always at Hand

Many families stock have survival or emergency kits in their homes.

These kits contain first aid equipment, food rations, bottled water, face masks, gloves, flashlights, wireless radios, portable toilets, and insulation sheets. Food should take into account all the members of the household and should be enough for at least three days. Each person is estimated to need at least 3L per day.

These kits should be in backpacks so that people who carry them can still have their hands free. The kits should be placed in an area where it is easily accessible to all family members.

Offices and schools also have their own emergency kits. But, besides the basic content, these should also have hard hats for employees and students.

Local evacuation centers (usually public school gymnasiums) are also equipped with such kits. Some centers even have partitions tucked away so families so are evacuated can have some privacy.

These kits are checked regularly. Expired food, water, and medicines are thrown away and immediately replaced with new ones.

4. Modern Earthquake-Proof Structures

Houses, schools, office buildings, and even towers should comply with rigorous Japanese standards. But there are two basic requirements for structures that are being built or renovated:

  • These must withstand an earthquake and must not collapse within 100 years.
  • These must not be damaged within 10 years after construction.

Materials used for construction must also follow strict rules.

Japan is famous for its high-rise buildings. Those that have been built in the last decades have made use of technology to withstand earthquakes. Some examples are:

  • Some structures use Teflon, which allows their foundations to slide in the direction of the quake and not against them.
  • Others make use of massive shock absorbers that are rubber or fluid-based.
  • Some have foundations that move almost independently from the rest of the structure, which minimizes the shaking of the rest of the building. This type of technology is called base isolation.
  • Others use architectural designs of structures that have proven to be earthquake-proof through the centuries. For example, Tokyo Skytree is based on the structural architecture and engineering of pagodas.

Older buildings that cannot afford massive anti-earthquake renovations are now looking into the feasibility of tuned mass dampers. This type of technology uses huge springs or pendulums to dampen or reduce the swaying of a building during a quake.

5. Trains Have Earthquake Sensors

Japan is highly dependent on its very efficient train system. But as you’ve probably seen in many action movies, a fast-moving train and an earthquake can only lead to a lot of deaths and damage.

JR East, which manages Japan’s Shinkansen (high-speed bullet trains), has a seismometer along the Pacific coast of the country. The seismometer is connected to sensors installed in all of JR East’s trains. If the seismometer senses an incoming quake, it will send a signal to the sensors, which will automatically stop all moving trains.

This system was proven effective during the 2011 earthquake. About 12-15 seconds before the first shock rocked Japan, the seismometer triggered the emergency brakes of all moving trains. When the big quake hit, no train was derailed. No train was involved in an accident so no injuries or death happened, at least those in the bullet trains.

6. TV Earthquake Coverage

All TV channels in Japan are required to cover disasters the moment one strikes. This ensures that those who still have access to the media will be informed of updates.

But even before the special coverage takes over the airwaves, TV channels are required to broadcast alerts to their viewers. The alerts are preceded by two sets of chimes and then the announcement. For earthquakes, the announcement could be Kinkyū Jishin Sokuhō desu. Tsuyoi yure ni keikai shite kudasai. (This is an Earthquake Early Warning. Please prepare for powerful tremors.). Or it could be Kinkyū Jishin Sokuhō desu. (This is an Earthquake Early Warning.).

The warnings are broadcast in other languages as well as English, Korean, Mandarin, and Portuguese.

7. Government Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Programs

Kobe Earthquake Memorial Park, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995 was a very important point in Japanese history as regards earthquakes. Kobe built a museum to remember those who perished and to create an educational place for future disaster prevention. Building regulations across the country were reassessed. Existing laws were reviewed and new ones were implemented. Studies were conducted on how to improve structures.

Through the years, the Japan Meteorological Agency installed over 200 stations to monitor seismic activity across the country. The Ministry of Disaster Prevention developed 800 stations that created a warning system. Those assigned to the stations can immediately analyze data and determine the scope and magnitude of a quake. In this way, they can give accurate warnings to people.

For Tokyo, one of the most important innovations that the city has built is a water discharge tunnel. This was built underneath a soccer field and park. Flood water from typhoons and tsunamis are collected and distributed them to the Edo River.

This ensures that Tokyo will not be too damaged by a flood or a tsunami. The massive tunnel took 13 years and about $3 Billion to build.

Policies were also changed

After the 2011 earthquake, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government conducted a study and determined that about 5.17 million people will become stranded in the city if a disaster strikes. So, in 2013 it implemented the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Ordinance for Measures for Stranded Persons. This ordinance was enforced so that people do not rush home during a disaster. This could prevent crowded streets (which could delay search and rescue operations) and minimize casualties because workers will stay in their office safe zones.

Osaka and Tokyo have also lifted the ban on cellphones for students in schools. Both cities have deemed cellphones necessary tools during emergencies.

Some Helpful Tips

In my article on what to watch out for in Japan, I listed natural calamities as the first thing to be aware of when you visit the country. You won’t know when a disaster will happen. The only thing you can do is be prepared.

So, if you’re planning to come here long term, here are some tips and recommendations to prepare yourself for any disasters:

  • Don’t panic. The Japanese are already used to earthquakes and typhoons. Look around you and gauge what the locals are doing. If they are going about their normal business, then the quake is still not big. If they seem to be moving in one direction, follow them calmly.
  • Register at your embassy the moment you land in Japan. This way, they’ll know how they can contact you in case disaster strikes. When you register, take note of the emergency numbers of your embassy as well.
  • Since we’re talking about phone numbers, jot down the local emergency numbers too.
  • Take a moment to look at the evacuation procedure of your hotel or apartment (if there is one).
  • During a quake, remember to Drop-Cover-and Hold.

    Drop means to lower your center of gravity so that you will be able to stay stable despite the tremors.

    Cover means to protect your vulnerable parts like your head and neck (from falling debris) or your eyes (from glass shards). If you’re inside, find a table to duck under. If you’re outside, use your bag to protect yourself. Hold means to hold onto something so that a violent shock will not toss you around.
  • If you’re staying in a coastal area, don’t wait for the tsunami alert. Go to an area that is higher than sea level.
  • Use the stairs instead of the elevators, even if you think there are no more aftershocks. It will be better to walk down the long way than to be stuck in an elevator.
  • Download a warning app on your phone so that you can receive alerts just like the locals.

Conclusion

Many reports state that Japan’s efficient procedures and systems helped minimize casualties during the 2011 earthquake.

Of course, the best scenario is zero-casualty and zero-damage. Do you think Japan will be able to achieve this in the future? Share your thoughts with me in the comments section.

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