How to Protect Yourself from an Entire Island: Disaster Preparedness in Japan

On June 18, 2018, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck Osaka. This was one of the strongest quakes to directly hit that region of Japan in decades, and is being compared to the 1995 earthquake in nearby Kobe, which had a magnitude of 7.3. That means that the Kobe quake was roughly 33 times as strong. Its death count was over 6,000. So why have there only been 3 confirmed deaths due to the quake in Osaka?

Japan is a disaster-prone island. As summer advances, the rainy season begins in earnest, bringing relentless rain and causing landslides and floods all across the country. Some storms intensify into typhoons, beating cities with rain and intense wind, and splashing debris from lakes and oceans onto shore. Add that to the constant risk of earthquakes and tsunamis and the fact that Japan is home to 10% of the world’s active volcanoes, and it starts to feel like the island wants you gone.

sky tree
Is this city out to get you?

Before people understood what causes natural disasters, they believed that the bountiful land of Japan came with a price. Nature gave generously, but could take it all away at any second. People felt helpless against huge crises like earthquakes and tsunamis. The good news is that we aren’t.

As one of the countries with the highest number of disasters a year, Japan is now one of the best prepared. People expect disasters, rather than just hoping they won’t happen, and know how to take care of themselves. Cities are constructed to keep destruction to a minimum. Even the massive 2011 Tohoku Earthquake caused less damage and fewer casualties than a quake of the same size could have caused in another country. That’s also why the recent Osaka earthquake had so few casualties.

If you are going to be travelling to Japan, even for a short while, it’s a good idea to know what to do in the event of an emergency. Whether you’re in Tokyo or little Hikone, there are things you should be aware of.

The most common natural disasters in Japan are earthquakes. This is because Japan is situated in the intersection of about four tectonic plates, an unusually high number. The islands are crisscrossed by thousands of smaller faults, as well, which are sometimes visible on maps from the way they displace roads when they shift.

In the case of an earthquake, protect yourself by putting your head and shoulders under a table and bracing yourself against a leg, in the same way practiced in American schools. Since space heaters and gas stoves are common in Japan (at the JCMU dorms as well), you also need to make sure those are turned off to prevent a fire before you evacuate. Japanese engineering might help you here though, as some stoves will turn off and some cabinets will lock if the room starts to shake.

The last thing to watch out for is the building’s construction. New buildings in Japan are intentionally designed to stand up to shaking, and have a good chance of remaining intact. The Tokyo Sky Tree, above, was specifically built to withstand quakes, which keeps it safe despite being one of the world’s tallest buildings. Old traditional homes, however, are built with paper, plaster, and single wooden pillars in the corners, and are prone to “pancake” down under their heavy roofs. JCMU buildings, luckily, are built much sturdier than that!

earthquake
Destruction like this is becoming rare in Japan.

It’s not a concern in Hikone, even with Lake Biwa so close, but ocean-side towns may be struck with tsunamis after an earthquake. This can sometimes cause more damage, because it’s hard to stop a strong wave more than ten feet high. So, you should know the local tsunami evacuation spot, and go there as soon as you hear a warning.

Typhoons are also frequent visitors to Japan. From May to October, the country is at a higher risk for them, so right now is prime season! Watch out for heavy rain accompanied by strong winds. Don’t go outside if it gets too bad, and make sure your windows and doors are shut tight. In extreme cases, you may want to stuff rags around the frames to keep water out. However, very few of the typhoons that hit Japan will be that extreme. Many of them just look like bad rainstorms, and everyone will just let their umbrellas blow inside out and carry on as usual. Again, pay attention to warnings and the recommendations of your Japanese friends, because they can judge the storm’s intensity better than you can.

typhoon
Business as usual during a typhoon.

If it’s not a typhoon, it may just be extremely heavy rain. This sounds less threatening, but water weighs over 60 pounds per square foot, and floods can do a lot of damage. It gets hard to walk almost immediately, and even six inches of water can knock you down. In Japan, which is full of subways and underground shopping malls, flooding is a serious risk. It’s hard to run up stairs to evacuate when water is pouring down them, so if a warning is issued, you need to get to higher ground as soon as possible.

If a warning is issued… Japan takes disaster warnings very seriously, but if you don’t know the language, you may not notice them. At JCMU, this isn’t a problem, because the staff are very attentive and will make sure you know what’s going on. In fact, most groups of students will be taught how to operate a fire extinguisher and call for help in Japanese. If you’re out on your own, however, you’ll need to pay attention to your surroundings. TVs, radio stations, and Japanese phones will all broadcast alerts if one is issued, and towns will play warning alarms through the streets. On top of that, watch what everyone else is doing. Japanese society values following the rules, so many people will be obeying the warning, even if you don’t understand it. Most of them will probably be happy to explain things to you, and even show you what to do. There’s a good excuse to use Japanese outside the classroom!

The photos and reports of natural disasters we see in the media are only of the worst, most shocking events. There are thousands of earthquakes in Japan every year, and very few of them are large enough to inconvenience people. Look up recent quakes in your home country—there have probably been some in the past month that you didn’t even feel. Typhoons and tsunamis also come in varying strengths, and as long as you don’t actively put yourself in danger, you’ll be fine. Remember, normal weather doesn’t get international media coverage!

Some of the articles coming out today about the Osaka quake have headlines like, “Death Toll Climbs After Earthquake,” and that’s really just a scare tactic. As of this blog’s publication, the total death toll sits at 3 people. While any deaths are a tragedy, such a small number is impressive. This was accomplished through a lightning fast warning system, resistant infrastructure, and an educated population. The country has accepted that disasters happen, which allows it to take the best steps to protect itself.

While in Japan, you should be prepared for the reality that a natural disaster may occur— and that, so long as you’re prepared, you will likely be just fine.

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