Why are there so many earthquakes in Japan?
Every few years, Japan experiences earthquakes that cause large amounts of damage. This may cause one to think, why exactly are earthquakes so frequent in Japan? The main reason is that there are four different boundary lines of tectonic plates located around the archipelago of Japan. It is when these different tectonic plates rub against each other that pressure is created and earthquakes occur. Earthquakes may also occur from troughs (long, wide, and deep depressions in the ocean floor) located around the coastline.
And so there are lots of hot springs!
High quality hot springs gush forth from over 3,000 different locations in the Japanese archipelago. The reason for this is that Japan has about 10 percent of the world’s active volcanoes, which also means earthquakes may also arise due to volcanic activity. Though the probability of encountering a large earthquake during your trip to Japan is very low, it is still going to be higher than most other countries you’ll visit in the world. If by chance you do experience a major earthquake on your trip to Japan, what should you do? If you’re coming to Japan then this is information you need to get familiar with.
Damage depending on the seismic intensity
The shaking created by earthquakes is classified into 10 different levels. For example, if someone is notified of a level 3 earthquake while watching TV then most Japanese will lightly say, “Ah, there’s a little earthquake.” But for people who come from countries that don’t normally experience earthquakes, it may be quite a surprise. Perhaps an earthquake happens during your visit and things may seem OK where you are, but if the areas around airports you use are affected then you’ll have trouble getting back home. So, the first step is to be updated on recent information on recent earthquakes from media such as TV and the internet. Most images showing information on earthquakes will look something like this.
Level 0: No physical feelings of an earthquake.
Level 1: Some people may be able to feel an earthquake while lying in bed or being quiet indoors.
Level 2: More than half of people being quiet indoors will feel the earthquake.
Level 3: Most people will feel the earthquake as long as you are not walking.
Level 4: Shaking will cause hanging lights to swing and objects on shelves to shake which will take most people by surprise.
Just under Level 5: Majority of people will feel fear from the shaking. Light objects on shelves will fall over.
Level 5: Shaking will cause difficulty to walk. Most objects on shelves and weak shelves as well as some weak walls may fall over.
Just under Level 6: So much shaking it is difficult to stand. Non-reinforced furniture will fall over and doors and windows may get stuck, exterior walls may peel and glass may shatter, roof tiling from non-earthquake resistant wooden buildings may fall, and buildings may lean or even fall over.
Level 6: Those who try to stand or run will fall over. Furniture and shelves will fall over, most non-earthquake resistant wooden buildings will collapse, and fissures in the ground, landslides, and parts of mountains may collapse.
Level 7: Most non-earthquake resistant buildings will lean over or collapse and some earthquake resistant wooden buildings and non-earthquake resistant concrete reinforced buildings may lean over or collapse.
Earthquakes in large cities
If things aren’t falling off the shelves then it’s probably not an earthquake to worry about. But in rare cases, some earthquakes will come in groups that grow increasingly stronger with continuing aftershocks, so look at those around you to judge the situation.
◆What if you’re inside of a building?
If you’re in an old building and it’s difficult to walk due to the shaking of an earthquake you must be extra cautious! Careless movement may put you in danger of falling glass and concrete causing serious injury. After shaking subsides get outside. The chances of a new building to collapse is very rare so it’s often most safe to stay inside.
・Move to an area without large furniture and get close to a pillar or support. The area close to the pillar is firmly supported by it preventing the ceiling to collapse.
・Use your bag as a helmet to cover your head.
・If you’re in a department store, shop, theater, or hotel accommodation then remain calm and wait for instructions from people in charge or security.
・ If the power goes out then don’t panic and wait for emergency lights to come on. Moving through the dark can cause injuries while encountering fallen objects like glass, etc.
・In case of evacuation, do not use an elevator. If the power goes off then the elevator will stop and the doors will become unable to be opened. No matter how tall the building is use the stairs to evacuate.
◆What if you’re riding in an elevator?
・If you feel an earthquake while riding an elevator then push the buttons for all of the floors and get off at the first chance possible.
・If you get stuck in an elevator and the doors won’t open, push the emergency button in order to contact outside. Sometimes help won’t come immediately, but somebody will definitely come so remain calm and wait for help.
◆What if you’re in a hotel or inn?
・When checking into your accommodation check for the emergency exits and evacuation route.
・The shaking of earthquakes may feel especially large and long lasting in the upper floors of tall buildings, but many were built in such a way to sustain large earthquakes. No matter what, don’t panic.
・Get under a desk to protect yourself and wait until the shaking subsides.
・Cover your head and body with a pillow or comforter to protect yourself from falling objects.
・Stay away from windows, mirrors, pictures, or other hanging objects that may easily fall or break.
・If you are in a room without objects that may fall, open the door to ensure a safe path for evacuation.
・Use the stairs to get to the main floor and follow instructions from the staff to evacuate safely.
・If you’re staying in a smaller accommodation where staff are not always present, then be sure to ask the owner of the facilities before you come to Japan about the precautions and evacuation plans should an earthquake occur. During an earthquake, extinguish all open flames and turn off the gas.
◆What if you’re outside?
・There is a possibility of glass windows, exterior walls, and signboards falling during an earthquake. As far as possible, get away from such objects.
・Protect your head with your bag.
・Unexpected objects such as concrete walls, vending machines, and telephone poles, etc. may also fall during earthquakes. While being cautious of such objects, evacuate to a wide open area like a parking lot or park.
Experiencing an earthquake in a tourist location
During an earthquake, historic landmarks with hundreds of years of history may also collapse like during the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake. Most up to date buildings will be safe to stay inside of, but if you find yourself in old structures such as castles, shrines, and temples wait until the shaking subsides and get outside! Be sure to read any information on signs or pamphlets concerning the evacuation procedures for earthquakes before entering.
・Get away from glass exhibits and decorative ornaments as quickly as possible.
・Protect your head with your bag.
・Follow the instructions of the guide or staff of the tourist facilities.
・In case of historic landmarks, roof tiles and stone walls, etc. may fall or collapse. Get as far away as possible from such buildings.
Experiencing an earthquake near the ocean
In the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, many people lost their lives to the large tsunami that followed. One must take extreme care while visiting areas along the ocean during large earthquakes. Tsunami will not occur unless the hypocenter of the earthquake is at the sea floor, but it is impossible to tell where the hypocenter of an earthquake is immediately after the shaking. What’s most important is to get to high ground.
・Once you feel the shaking, get away from the coast as quickly as possible.
・In case of strong shaking, evacuate to a hill or building at least three stories tall, or any high place you can find.
・Trying to escape by calling a taxi does not guarantee one will come and may also take the risk of getting stuck in traffic while a tsunami hits. Evacuate on foot if possible.
・Tsunami takes time to occur. After the shaking of an earthquake subsides, do not leave the safety of a high building. In the case of the Tohoku earthquake, the tsunami didn’t occur for 40 minutes or even over an hour depending on the location.
・Tsunami come in multiple waves. Even if the initial wave has come and the sea has drawn back, do not evacuate from safe high grounds. It is possible to get pulled out to sea on the second or even third wave of a major tsunami.
・If you experience an earthquake at a swimming beach then follow the instructions of the present lifeguard or watchman.
・If you are near a river and try to evacuate upstream, a tsunami may cause the river to flow backwards due to the waves. Evacuate in a perpendicular direction to the flow of the river.
Experiencing an earthquake on a mountain or hill
If carrying the proper equipment, then you probably won’t run into much trouble with earthquakes while hiking or mountain climbing. Please do not refrain from bringing necessary gear for the sake of a lighter pack.
・Falling rocks and landslides may occur during large earthquakes. Get away from valleys, cliffs, and high bridges and quickly evacuate to a ridge if possible.
・If you’re near a volcano, there is a change of eruptions following earthquakes. If you find yourself near an eruption get to an evacuation cabin or shelter as quickly as possible. If you can’t find one then hide behind a large rock and cover yourself with your bag or sleeping bag, etc. to protect your head and body. Cover your mouth and nose with a wet towel to protect yourself from volcanic ash and gases.
・Carry a hiking helmet when going to the mountains.
・If you feel an earthquake while on a mountain, crouch down where you are and wait for the shaking to subside. Panicked movement may cause you to slip and fall dangerously, so relax and take extra care.
Experiencing an earthquake while riding in a vehicle
There is also the possibility of an earthquake occurring while riding vehicles like trains, buses, or rental cars. Because the vehicles themselves are moving it can be hard to feel the shaking. Most people would never even feel an earthquake in a vehicle unless it came to a complete stop.
・If an earthquake occurs while riding the shinkansen bullet train or other trains, subways, or buses, then an announcement will be made. Because there is the possibility of brakes suddenly being applied, one should hold on to a handrail or hanging strap, or for those sitting, make yourself small by crouching down and be prepared for any sudden stops or shaking that may happen.
・After the vehicle comes to a halt, follow the instructions of the crew.
・If you’re on a train don’t panic and hurry outside because there may be damaged high voltage electric lines around the tracks.
・In case of a sudden stop and power outage causing darkness, wait inside the vehicle! Without panicking wait quietly for rescue.
・If you feel shaking while driving a rental car, hold the steering wheel while keeping it in your control, turn on your hazard lights to inform the other cars around you, gradually decrease your speed, and bring the car to a stop on the left shoulder of the road. Take extra care around you in case other cars crash into you!
・Toll highways are constructed to withstand level 7 grade earthquakes. If you experience an earthquake on one of these highways, do not leave your car behind if possible. However, if the road damage is particularly bad and one should evacuate, be sure to take your car insurance along with valuable items, evacuate on foot and head for an exit to get off of the highway. In this case, leave the keys in the car and the doors unlocked.
・If you experience an earthquake and stop the car inside of a tunnel, there is a possibility of the tunnel collapsing. Long tunnels have emergency exits about every 1 km so evacuate by walking through one of these.
What to do after the shaking of an earthquake subsides
・The first thing to do after the shaking of an earthquake has subsided is to look around and check your safety.
・Open doors and windows to ensure an exit.
・There is the possiblity of broken glass fragments and dishes, etc. scattered around by the earthquake. When moving around be sure to wear proper footwear. Do not use elevators even if shaking has stopped.
・If smoke is made from fires, then cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief or other cloth and evacuate while keeping your body low.
・Be careful of falling objects when leaving buildings!
Carry bottled water with you just in case
Even if it’s not a huge earthquake, sometimes trains will stop for smaller earthquakes, keeping you inside and unable to leave for an extended period of time. We recommend always keeping a 500 ml bottle of water with you just in case.
Getting necessary information
◆Evacuation actions will change depending on your type of travel!
Travel agency sponsored tours
For those participating in a group tour, follow the instructions of the tour conductor or guide in charge for proper evacuation methods. For those traveling to Japan alone on a tour sponsored by a travel agency, please review the corresponding protocol for disasters in advance. Disaster protocol may vary between travel agencies, so be sure to check with your specific company. Also, contact your travel agency in the occurrence of a disaster.
In times of emergency, one must move and decide for themselves. In the event of an earthquake, one may not be able to use certain airports or transportation to desired airports in order to take scheduled flights. Before coming to Japan, be sure to check with your contracted airline about their policies on reissuing or refunding plane tickets, or where to handle such matters in the event of a disaster! Some LCC (low cost carriers) will not reissue or refund plane tickets. Check in detail the range in which your airline will help you in the event of a disaster before coming to Japan!
However, this is not just for Japan but any trip you make around the world. Of course, be sure to check the locations, phone numbers, and email addresses of the embassies and consulates located within Japan for your respective home country. Also, in the event of a disaster, many people will be calling the same phone lines potentially making immediate contact impossible. The same may go for internet phone services and email. Some embassies will have disaster information services for its citizens temporarily in Japan, so check this information before your departure.
“Safety tips for travelers” is a portal site aimed for foreign travelers in Japan that provides evacuation flow charts according to current circumstances, information from local Japanese media like communication cards, news, and maps, as well as helpful links that can be helpful in the event of a disaster. The “safety tips” application for smart phones introduced here will also automatically notify you of emergency warnings concerning earthquakes, tsunami, severe weather conditions, and so on. We recommend installing it before your trip!
Here’s the site↓
Safety tips for travelers