Emergency Preparedness for Americans in Japan

Before an emergency occurs there are a number of things that you can do to prepare:

Crisis Information is Practically Everywhere in Japan, “J-Alerts”

During your time in Japan, you may see alerts for events as diverse as heavy rain, excessive heat, landslides, tsunamis, earthquakes and civil protection.

The Japanese government uses a variety of avenues to reach people in affected regions. For example, during a Japanese television program, an alarm may chime, and an alert may scroll across the top of the screen for a minute or so. In some communities, loudspeakers outside may blast warnings as well. These are parts of the Japanese government’s “J-Alert” emergency broadcasting system that sends crisis information to the public. “J-Alert” even pushes messages to radios and cellphones. “J-Alert” can provide early warning emergency alerts on earthquakes predicted in a specific area, sometimes seconds before the earthquake hits.  It also provides warnings about other threats such as missile launches.

The Japan Meteorological Agency, a primary source for many of the crisis alerts in Japan, has a webpage in English. Japan’s Cabinet Secretariat has a portal website with information on civil protection.  If you can’t understand Japanese but are hearing or seeing emergency messages, pay attention and ask people around you what it means – it may be very helpful!

Japanese Government–Provided Emergency Information is Available Through Apps, in English

The Japan Tourism Organization has made available an android and iPhone app called “Safety tips” that “pushes” information alerts to users about disasters in multiple languages, including English! For more information about this app, check out the JNTO website and this press release.  The NHK World app also provides Japanese government emergency alerts via “Push Notification” service in English. Both of these apps push “J-Alerts” in English to your cell phone.

Establish Your Personal Social Network – Get to Know People Around You

Whether you have been living in Japan one day or 1,000 days, many times the best information comes from people in your network of local and expatriate friends, acquaintances and business contacts. This is especially important if you are unable to read and speak Japanese. If you’re a tourist, your social network could be as simple as the front desk in your hotel or even the cashier at the local coffee shop!

Social Media Can Be a Supplemental Source of Useful Information

Social Media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can be useful platforms for timely updates. Visit the websites of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo or the U.S. Consulate near you to learn how to sign up for our official feeds. These can be helpful supplements to information sent through the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program – STEP.

Your Smartphone May Be a Vital Life Line

If you have a smartphone with a contract to a local Japanese mobile provider, you may already be able to receive safety alerts as a text message through your cell phone. Check with your local provider as this typically requires a unique email address associated with your mobile account. If you do have this capability through your provider, you may be able to also get this information in English.

Information on the Radio

Japan’s cellular network is very resilient, and can be expected to remain in service even after a major earthquake with minimal interruptions; however, if cell service isn’t available after a disaster, you can receive emergency information in English over local radio stations such as AFN (American Forces Network) or InterFM (English language news alerts). Some stations to monitor are:

  • AFN Tokyo (810kHz, AM)
  • AFN Iwakuni (1575kHz, AM)
  • AFN Sasebo (1575kHz, AM)
  • AFN Okinawa (89.1MHz, FM)

The Role of the Embassy

The Japanese Government will be responsible for assisting foreigners immediately after a major earthquake. Telephone services will be severely overloaded and the Japanese Government will restrict phone use to priority users. Nonetheless, the Embassy will quickly want to ascertain the welfare and whereabouts of American Citizens.

To aid in this process, American citizens should cooperate with Japanese authorities at evacuation sites and clearly identify themselves as Americans. Those connected with larger organizations such as companies, schools or church groups should try to let these organizations know of their welfare and whereabouts if this is practical.

The Embassy will be in touch with the Japanese Government and with larger umbrella organizations to attempt to identify as many American citizens as possible and determine their welfare. In the likely event that it is impossible to communicate by telephone or use motor vehicles, Embassy consular assistance teams are prepared to walk to major evacuation sites, international schools, hotels and so on and collect information about American citizens. The Embassy will help you get information about the situation and communicate with Japanese government officials if necessary in order to obtain proper food, shelter and medical attention.

We will pass as much information as possible about the welfare of individual U.S. citizens back to the Department of State in Washington, D.C. so that this information may be shared with your families, friends and employers.

Japan is the most seismically active piece of real estate in the world. The Tokyo metropolitan area experiences regular tremors of varying intensities and the probability that a severe and damaging earthquake will occur is high. The consequences of such a quake will vary greatly depending upon the time of day and year that the quake occurs, and no one can predict with any certainty what conditions will be like immediately following an intensive shock.

It is prudent that everyone be prepared to fend for themselves in the immediate aftermath of a big earthquake. Every family and company should develop its own emergency plan and make sure its personnel and their family members are familiar with earthquake emergency procedures and precautions for their safety. Companies and organizations should coordinate carefully with their ward or city office to ensure that they are familiar with Japanese government plans for their area.

Please read on for information on how to best prepare.

Please visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website to learn about Tsunamis.

NOAA has primary responsibility for providing tsunami warnings to the Nation, and a leadership role in tsunami observations and research. Tsunami messages are issued by NOAA’s Tsunami Warning Centers.

Awareness Information

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) is responsible for providing warnings to international authorities, Hawaii, and U. S. territories within the Pacific basin. All tsunamis are potentially dangerous, even though they may not damage every coastline they strike.

Be familiar with the tsunami warning signs. A strong earthquake near the coast may generate a tsunami. A noticeable rapid rise or fall in coastal waters is also a sign that a tsunami is approaching.

Tsunamis most frequently come onshore as a rapidly rising turbulent surge of water choked with debris. They are not V-shaped or rolling waves, and are not “surfable.”

Tsunamis may be locally generated or from a distant source.  On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off Japan’s northeastern shore – the most powerful earthquake ever recorded to have hit Japan – generating enormous tsunami waves that spread across miles of shoreline.  The March 11 earthquake took nearly 16,000 lives.

Plan for a Tsunami

Tsunami-specific planning should include the following:

  • Learn about tsunami risk in your community. Contact your local city office. Find out if your home, school, workplace or other frequently visited locations are in tsunami hazard areas. Know the height of your street above sea level and the distance of your street from the coast or other high-risk waters.
  • Plan an evacuation route from your home, school, workplace, or any other place you’ll be where tsunamis present a risk. If possible, pick an area 100 feet above sea level or go up to two miles inland, away from the coastline. If you can’t get this high or far, go as high as you can. Every foot inland or upwards may make a difference. You should be able to reach your safe location on foot within 15 minutes. After a disaster, roads may become impassable or blocked. Be prepared to evacuate by foot if necessary. Footpaths normally lead uphill and inland, while many roads parallel coastlines. Follow posted tsunami evacuation routes; these will lead to safety.
  • Practice your evacuation route. Familiarity may save your life. Be able to follow your escape route at night and during inclement weather. Practicing your plan makes the appropriate response more of a reaction, requiring less thinking during an actual emergency situation.

What to Do if You Feel a Strong Coastal Earthquake

If you feel a strong earthquake when you are on the coast:

  • Drop, cover, and hold on. You should first protect yourself from the earthquake.
  • When the shaking stops, gather your family members and evacuate quickly.
  • Leave everything else behind. A tsunami may be coming within minutes. Move quickly to higher ground away from the coast.
  • Be careful to avoid downed power lines and stay away from buildings and bridges from which heavy objects might fall during an aftershock.
  • Return home only after local officials tell you it is safe. A tsunami is a series of waves that may continue for hours. Do not assume that after one wave the danger is over. The next wave may be larger than the first one.
  • Monitor warnings and advisories issued by the Japan Meteological Agency’s website.

Evacuations will likely occur after an earthquake when fires are spreading or buildings are in danger of being destroyed by landslides, etc. City police and fire authorities will issue evacuation advice. Americans, as well as others affected by the disaster, will need to seek assistance from the Japanese authorities.

To prepare, take a walking pre-survey of the designated place of evacuation nearest your home and office. Also be familiar with the location of the ward office and the telephone number of the Disaster Relief Headquarters for your ward. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has maps of evacuation points. You should phone your ward office and ask which evacuation points are nearest your home and office. Try to get detailed maps (with landmarks/street names in kanji as well) of those locations.

Even if your building is standing after the quake and you are not asked to evacuate, the evacuation points will have fresh water, food and medical supplies.

Being prepared for a typhoon means keeping informed on the progress and severity of the storm, and taking some common-sense precautions to minimize the problems a typhoon may cause for you.

Typhoons 101

A typhoon is a large tropical cyclone, a meteorological phenomenon also known as a hurricane. These storms, accompanied by heavy rainfall, can cover areas of up to 500 miles (800 km) in diameter and generate winds up to 180 miles (290 km) an hour. The typhoon season in Japan runs from May through October, with most activity from July to September.

Typhoons that hit Japan are often accompanied by damaging high tides. Persons living in areas close to the ocean are especially at risk. Landslides are also a serious concern during periods of heavy rain. Conditions for a landslide are particularly dangerous after rain has fallen at a rate of 20 mm or more an hour or when 100 mm of rain falls nonstop.

Keeping Informed

Weather watches (chuiho) are calls for “caution” when it has been predicted that damage may occur as a result of winds and rain brought about by bad weather. Warnings (keiho), which are much stronger than watches (chuiho), are released when forecasters predict that a storm will cause heavy widespread damage. When accompanied by an approaching typhoon, “heavy rain and flooding warnings” (oame-kozui keiho) or “heavy rain information” (oame ni kansuru joho) are also signs that dangerous weather conditions are present.

  • Web:  NHK World news (English).
  • For English-language information in many parts of the Kanto area, listen to Inter-FM at 76.1, Yokohama FM at 84.7 or the US military radio station at AM 810.
  • For other areas try Fukuoka, Love FM 76.1 MHz.English-language radio information may not be available in other areas; check local listings.
  • Television: If your TV is equipped to receive dual-language broadcasts, NHK news at 7 pm includes detailed weather information.
  • Joint Typhoon Warning Center: The U.S. Navy has the Joint Typhoon Warning Center with good satellite weather maps available online.
  • The Japan Meteorological Agency’s English-language website provides information on typhoons and other weather-related topics.
  • This site from weather.com has current online radar images of Japan and lots of information in English. The TBS website has a useful special typhoon page.
  • Weather information online is also available at a number of sites, including www.cnn.com. Type the term “japan weather” into your favorite search engine, such as www.google.com.
  • Telephone: Recorded information is available from the US Air Force base at Yokota by dialing 0425-52-2511, listening to a brief recording, waiting for a separate dial tone and then dialing 5-4174.
  • Recorded information is also available from the US Naval base at Yokosuka by dialing 0468-21-1910, and dialing extension 243-5155.
  • Recorded information in Japanese is available by dialing 177. NHK news at AM 693 is another Japanese language resource.
Take Precautions
  • Secure or move inside outdoor items such as toys, grills, bicycles, furniture, plants and anything moveable on the balcony. Move potted plants and other heavy objects away from windows inside as well.
  • Set your freezer to the coldest temperature setting to minimize spoilage if the power is cut off.
  • Watch for leaks around windows and doors. If the wind is strong enough, water may be blown into your home even if the windows are closed. Have handy towels, rags and mops.
  • If the storm becomes severe, move into a hallway or area where there is the least exposure to external glass windows.
  • Draw curtains across the windows to prevent against flying glass should windows crack.
  • If a window breaks, place a mattress or sofa seat over the broken pane and secure it there with a heavy piece of furniture.
  • A window on the side of the house away from the approaching storm should be cracked a few inches. This will compensate for the differences of indoor and outdoor air pressure.
  • Remember that typhoons have “eyes”, areas in their center where the weather appears calm. If the eye passes over your area, it may appear that the storm has finished, with winds then picking up again as the remainder of the storm arrives.
  • After the storm is over, check for broken glass, fallen trees and downed power lines which may present safety hazards near children’s school bus stops, outdoor trash areas, around your car, etc.

Your local municipality may already have Disaster Prevention (“Bousai” or “Bosai” in Japanese) information ready for residents and visitors online. Prefectural, city, and even ward-office disaster prevention and preparedness information may be in English, or have links to other useful resources. Below is a selected list of Disaster Prevention websites for major population centers in Japan. There may be many more resources available to you. Do a web search with the word “bousai” and the town or region you are interested in, and you may even find information in English!

Sapporo City

Sendai (Miyagi):
Sendai City
Miyagi Prefecture

Tokyo Metropolitan Area:
Tokyo Metro

Yokohama (Kanagawa):
Yokohama City

Nagoya (Aichi):
Aichi Prefecture
Nagoya City

Kyoto/Osaka/Kobe (Kansai):
Kyoto Prefecture
Osaka Prefecture
Kobe City (Hyogo)
Nara Prefecture

Ehime Prefecture
Kochi Prefecture
Kagawa Prefecture
Tokushima Prefecture

Hiroshima Prefecture
Yamaguchi Prefecture

Fukuoka Prefecture
Kumamoto Prefecture
Kagoshima Prefecture

Okinawa Prefecture

U.S. Military:
Stars and Stripes Pacific Storm Tracker Blog
Joint Typhoon Warning Center

For further information:

The 171 Emergency Line is a voice message board service provided by NTT that is available when a disaster such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption occurs. If regular phone service is interrupted in the disaster-stricken area, this service can help keep in touch with family members and friends.

To utilize the service, U.S. citizens can simply dial 171 and then follow the instructions to record or listen to messages. To record a voice message, users dial 171, then 1 followed by their phone number. Concerned family and friends in Japan can hear the message by dialing 171, followed by 2 and the phone number. For detailed information on using the voice system, please see this link. Unfortunately, while detailed instructions in English exist on the website, the actual voice prompts are in Japanese only. Please note that the site lists days during which the public can practice using the service.

The voice-based messaging service is currently limited to domestic contacts. However, U.S. citizens can leave messages for family members overseas using NTT’s Web 171 service. To post an Internet message, users need to go to the Web 171 site and enter their message and phone number. Messages can be viewed by typing in the phone number on the site. The site is currently closed, but will be opened in the event of an emergency. Web 171 also is in Japanese only. NTT has stated that it has no plans to offer this service in English. U.S. citizens interested in using either service, particularly those individuals with a limited knowledge of Japanese language, are thus strongly encouraged to familiarize themselves with the detailed English instructions on NTT’s website. Printing these and keeping them close to the family’s emergency kit may also be a good idea.

Personal Preparedness Starts at Home

Once a disaster happens, it’s too late to prepare. Get your “Go Bag” together and work with your family to come up with a plan to communicate and find each other in the case of a crisis. Don’t forget about your pets when making plans! For ideas on how to stock your “Go Bag” or emergency kit, visit FEMA’s website. Tourists should visit the Department of State’s Traveler’s Checklist for ideas on how to have a safe trip.

Essential Supplies (Store enough for three to five days)

  • Water (four liters/one gallon per person per day. Change water every three to five months)
  • Food (canned or pre-cooked, requiring no heat or water. Consider special dietary needs, infants, the elderly, pets)
  • Flashlight with spare batteries and bulbs
  • Radio (battery operated with spare batteries)
  • Large plastic trash bags (for trash, waste, water protection, ground cloth, temporary blanket)
  • Hand soap and/or disinfecting hand cleaner gel that does not require water
  • Feminine hygiene supplies, infant supplies, toilet paper
  • Essential medications as required; glasses if you normally wear contacts
  • Paper plates, cups, plastic utensils, cooking foil and plastic wrap (wrapped around plates so that they were re-usable) and paper towels
  • First Aid kit with instructions
  • Yen in small bills (ATMs may not work after a disaster), with coins and phone cards for public phones.
  • Place emergency supplies and your telephone in places where they are less likely to be knocked over or buried by falling objects (on the floor under a strong table is a good choice).

Essential Home Preparations Before a Disaster

  • Secure water heaters, refrigerators and tall and heavy furniture to the walls to prevent falling.
  • Move heavy items to lower shelves, and install latches or other locking devices on cabinets.
  • Install flexible connections on gas appliances.
  • Remove or isolate flammable materials.
  • Move beds and children’s play areas away from heavy objects which may fall in an earthquake.
  • Sign up for the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to register online with the Embassy or the Consulates; The emergency contact information is on the Embassy’s website.

Essential Planning Before a Disaster

  • Draw a floor plan of your home showing the location of exit windows and doors, utility cut off points, emergency supplies, food, tools, etc.Share it with baby-sitters and guests.
  • Establish family meeting points with alternate sites inside and outside of your home for all members to gather in the event of an evacuation.
  • Establish reunion sites with alternate sites for when the family is not at home, e.g., local shelter, neighbor’s house, park, school.
  • Designate a person outside of your immediate area for separated family members to call to report their location and condition if separated.
  • Learn or establish disaster policy/planning at your children’s school.
  • Know your neighbors and make them aware of the number of people living in your home.
  • Learn where the nearest designated shelter for your neighborhood is.
  • Photocopy passports and other important documents. Store copies away from home (for example, at work).
  • Learn how to contact the police, fire and rescue services in Japanese. Be able to provide your address in Japanese.

Essential Steps Immediately After a Disaster

  • Check your immediate surroundings for fire, gas leaks, broken glass and other hazards.
  • Open doors and/or windows to avoid being locked in if there are after-shocks.
  • Contact one friend or relative in the U.S., and ask them to inform other parties of your situation.
  • Monitor local TV and radio for evacuation information (If available in your area, for English info, listen to American Forces Network: AFN Tokyo-AM 810kHz, AFN Iwakuni-AM 1575kHz, AFN Sasebo-AM 1575kHz, AFN Okinawa-FM 89.1MHz).
  • Monitor NHK World news.