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Preparing for Earthquake in Japan (Foreigner-friendly Guide)

Photo:Tokyo Metropolitan Government

If you are new to Japan, you may be surprised by how many earthquakes happen. An average of 40 to 50 tremors happen daily in the Pacific Ring of Fire nation. Most of those are small tremors, but still, it is a culture shock to see how local people are so unphased about an earthquake.

Indeed, you should not panic during an earthquake, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't prepare for it. If the earth keeps rocking for more than a few seconds, it's a good idea to take precautions. You must know what to do before, during, and after an earthquake.

Before Earthquake

The reason behind the Japanese chill attitude towards earthquakes is that they are well-prepared. Since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, every school, from elementary to high school, must conduct earthquake drills twice a year. Everyone knows what to do and prepare.

If you are an international resident in Japan with little to no experience of earthquakes, these are what you can do to prepare for an earthquake:

  • First thing first, register yourself at your embassy.

You can do it immediately as soon as you get your Japanese residence card. By reporting, your embassy can quickly identify their citizen and help quickly in case of emergency or evacuation.

  • Know the evacuation routes from places you stay or visit frequently.

At the very least, learn the evacuation routes in your home and office. If you have children, learn the routes in their school too. Remember your neighborhood so you can get around without Google Maps or other apps, as you can't always rely on the internet during natural disasters.

Always look for exit sign in new places you visit (Photo: Unsplash/De an Sun)

  • Prepare emergency kits

Many department stores sell emergency kits, but it's not hard to make it by yourself. Check your emergency kit monthly or quarterly and replace expired or not working goods.

What to put into the emergency kit:

A flashlight, batteries, a portable radio, cash, chargers, a can opener, a first aid kit, blankets, rainwear, and copies of important documents (passports, bank details, etc.)

Also, write down important contacts, including family, friends, and the embassy.

  • Quake-proof your space

Secure furniture that could be dangerous during an earthquake. Straps bookshelves and cabinets to the wall. Put a non-slip mat above furniture before putting other items on it. Don't place heavy objects where they could easily fall. These things could cause harm or block your exit when an earthquake happens.

  • Download an earthquake notification app

All Japanese phones have built-in alarms that go off a few seconds before the earthquake. Some foreign phones also activate this feature automatically when entering Japan. If your phone doesn't have it, you can download an earthquake notification app, such as Yurekuru Call. The warning will give you extra time to protect yourself.

  • Read the government natural disaster preparedness information

The Japanese government took disaster prevention seriously. Local governments have websites to inform the shelter's location, evacuation routes in the city, and many more. Some websites, such as the Tokyo and Osaka government, have multilingual services.

Tokyo Bousai (Available languages: English, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Tagalog, Malay, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Nepali, Burmese, French, Portuguese, Spanish)

Osaka (Available languages: English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese)

  • Familiarize yourself with Japanese earthquake measurement

Japanese media use the Shindo scale in addition to the Ritcher scale. The Richter scale only measures the earthquake magnitude or the energy at the epicenter. The Shindo scale measures the earthquake intensity at a given location.

Here's an example of an earthquake report in Japan.

(Image: NERV Disaster Prevention)

The earthquake's epicenter is offshore Fukushima, with a magnitude of 5.3 (Richter scale). The nearest areas in Miyagi and Fukushima prefecture felt the earthquake intensity of 4 (Shindo scale). The farther areas, such as Ibaraki and Saitama, felt 2 and 1, respectively.

Shindo Scale


It is impossible to remain standing. The quake is likely to result in significant damage and some deaths. Occurs only a few times per decade in Japan.


It is impossible to remain standing. The quake is likely causing considerable damage and possibly some deaths. Occurs about once per year.


It is difficult to remain standing. Damage and injuries occur but are rarely fatal. Occurs about once or twice per year.


Large furniture may topple and cause injuries, but no significant damage to buildings. Occurs about 2-5 times per year.


Things fall off the shelves. Does not usually cause damage or injuries. Occurs about 4-12 times per year.


Hanging ceiling lights swing strongly, and unstable objects may topple. Occurs about twice per month somewhere in Japan.


Felt by most people. Usually occurs every few days somewhere in Japan.


Felt by many people. Usually occurs at least once per day somewhere in Japan.


Not felt by many people. Usually occurs several times per day somewhere in Japan.

During an Earthquake

The earthquake can happen wherever you are, so here's what you must do according to your situation.

If you are inside a building:

When the earthquake happens, immediately do earthquake safety actions: drop, cover, and hold.

Drop to your hands and knees. Lowering your stance will make you more steady.

Cover your head and neck with an arm, pillow, or anything. If possible, go under a sturdy table. If not, stay near the wall, away from the window.

Hold onto it with one hand in a bend-over position under the table or any furniture. You should move along when it shifts due to the shocks. If you aren't under a shelter, bend over and use two hands to cover yourself.

Staying inside the building is safer than trying to go out during the tremors. All facilities in Japan built after 1981 are quake-proof, including tall buildings like skyscrapers and towers. If you feel it swaying, don't panic. Japanese buildings are meant to sway to withstand ground shocks. The building's flexibility keeps it from collapsing.

High buildings in Tokyo (Photo: Wix)

If you're on public transport:

If you are inside a train, stay inside and do the same drill: drop, cover, and hold. Follow instructions from the conductor. The train will most likely stop, but don't try to get out on your own.

If you are in the station, move away from the edge of platforms and dangerous hanging items. Stand near a pillar and wait calmly until the tremor stops.

If you are outdoor:

If the earthquake happens when you are outside, immediately move away from buildings. While Japanese buildings are quake-proof, there is still danger from building hazards. Watch out for windows, signboards, and all hanging items. Get to the nearest open space while covering your head with your hands or bags. Be careful not to bump with other people and fall.

If you're in a car:

If you're driving, pull over as soon as you feel the earthquake. Pick a place away from potential falling hazards, such as trees, buildings, or overpasses. If possible, wait in the car. If not, leave your car and go to the nearest open space. Don't forget to leave your car unlocked and the keys in the ignition. It will help the rescue workers to move your car if it blocks the evacuation route.

After an Earthquake

When the tremors stop, you must stay calm and do the following:

  • Find accurate information

If the tremors were not big enough, you can look for the epicenter, check how far it was to your area, potential aftershocks, and if there's a tsunami warning. If it was a powerful earthquake, immediately prepare for evacuation. If you live in a coastal area, immediately go to higher ground and find the information later.

  • Evacuate on foot

Go to the nearest open space or evacuation sites. If you are in your home, turn off your stove and check your surroundings before evacuating. Make sure nothing hinders your way out and that the door is not stuck. Grab your emergency kit and evacuate the building by stairs. Before leaving, turn off the circuit breaker.

If you are inside buildings other than your house, head to the exit sign or emergency stairs calmly. Do not rush or take the elevator. Also, only bring essential items with you.

Evacuation site (Photo: Sanwa Sanko)

  • Check up with your family and friends

After ensuring your safety, contact your family and friends to notify each other's conditions. If you can't reach them by phone call, try to use the internet and social media.

Now you know what to do before, during, and after an earthquake. It is encouraged to practice drills in your home so you (and your family) will be prepared. What makes a natural disaster fatal is the lack of preparation and knowledge when encountering it.


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