Disaster guide | Time Out Tokyo
Illustration: Time Out Tokyo

How to prepare for natural disasters and emergencies in Tokyo and Japan

What to do when an earthquake, typhoon, tsunami or other natural disaster hits the capital

Tabea Greuner
Written by
Kirsty Bouwers
&
Tabea Greuner
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Japan on the whole may be pretty safe in terms of crime, but unfortunately when it comes to natural disasters, it's not a case of if but when. Even a temporary visitor may have experienced a small earthquake or two, while long-term residents certainly will have had their fair share of ground-shaking episodes, not to mention the typhoons.

Luckily, Tokyo often avoids most of the severe trembles, but it pays to be vigilant and prepared, considering many scientists predict a rather high change of the big one hitting our megalopolis in the next few decades. Here are some of the basics you need to know, including essential places for English-language emergency information.

RECOMMENDED: Read our typhoon preparation guide here.

Emergency information and help

Alarm numbers

119 is for emergencies such as fire or quick-response care; 110 is to call the police to report crimes and accidents. The Tokyo police have 24/7 English-language support, too: call 03 5463 6000 if you’re living in one of Tokyo’s central 23 wards, or 042 334 6000 if you’re in one of Tokyo’s outer suburbs.

For English-language help, try the Japan Helpline at 0570 000 911. It offers 24/7 English-language emergency services assistance. 

For emergency medical interpretation services, call 03 5285 8181. The hotline offers interpretation and information in English, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Spanish daily from 9am to 8pm.

 

Websites & guides

Japan Meteorological Agency
The JMA has reliable, up-to-date earthquake, tsunami or weather information in both English and Japanese. You'll find weather predictions and warnings here, plus data on how strong the earthquake was in your specific area. JMA data, which is based on the Japan Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system, is the first point of reference for many news outlets, and many apps use the EEW to update their own information.

JMA offers recent earthquake information in 14 different languages: English, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Tagalog, Nepalese, Khmer, Burmese and Mongolian.

Tokyo Bousai Guide
Designed and distributed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, a Japanese hardcopy (or five) of this disaster prevention, preparedness and reaction guide was distributed to every household in 2015. It's truly a comprehensive book, so give it a read. For the English version, check out the PDF edition online. It might be lengthy (300+ pages), but it contains interesting, important and life-saving information. Check out the Survival Tips section in particular, which includes how to keep yourself warm using old newspapers, how to make a stove from cans, and more. 

NHK World
The national broadcaster NHK's multilingual website has information in 20 languages, while info is also disseminated through the English-language NHK World news and radio channels.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Disaster Prevention
Essentially a web version of the Bousai Guide, this slightly clunky site does have quite a lot of useful info on it. You might just have to dig a little to find it.

Apps

If you're with one of the big Japanese carriers such as Docomo, AU or Softbank, your phone will blare out a warning message in case of a truly strong earthquake, tsunami or even a missile overhead, but it’s worth getting one of these apps to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Yurekuru Call (Android)
This English-language earthquake app sends out a signal when one has been detected by JMA's EEW system, depending on the settings you've chosen. The map shows you how strongly the earthquake was felt in various regions (partially based on user responses), but the really nifty thing is its Sonae page, with a wealth of disaster preparedness and emergency tips, including for floods, fires and tsunami. Note there is an iOS version of the app, but it was recently renamed Prep and is only available in Japanese at the moment.

Yahoo! Bousai Sokuho (Yahoo!防災速報) (iOS/Android)
Probably one of the most used apps in Japan, this one tends to be fast and accurate, and includes things such as tsunami and missile alerts, but is only available in Japanese. 

Evacuation & shelter

This will differ depending on where exactly you are and the type of disaster. In general, it's advisable to get to higher ground wherever possible after a large earthquake, in case a tsunami occurs afterwards.

Whether or not you need to evacuate depends on the specific situation, so stay tuned to the information sources above for the latest advice. If you need to evacuate during an earthquake, it's generally better to do so only after the shaking has stopped completely, to protect yourself from any possible falling objects while on the move. Hide beneath a table or under a doorpost, away from windows, with something to protect your head. 

In terms of mental preparation, open public spaces, such as school playgrounds and parks, are often designated evacuation points. It pays to take note of them while walking around town.

Otherwise, check the Tokyo Disaster Prevention Map – this map shows you all the shelter and evacuation options in the area of your choice. 

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Disaster kit

Technically essential in every household, yet often forgotten, a disaster kit is a simple bag of items you'll need when things go wrong. At the bare minimum, it should contain enough ready-to-eat food, drinking water and simple medical supplies to keep you going for a few days. Other items that are often advised to be added to your kit are:

- flashlight (solar/hand-powered, or with spare batteries)
- radio
- charger/power bank for phones and other essential communication devices
- lighter
- copies of important documents, e.g. passport
- a change of clothes
- helmet/head protection
- work gloves
- wet tissues
- plastic bags (to keep things dry)

Keep your important papers, cash and bank cards in a place you can easily grab them, and if possible, put your disaster kit items together in a sturdy bag, ready to snatch up if unfortunately needed.

If you’re too busy to browse your local ¥100 store to pick up all the necessary items for your disaster kit, then you can order a pre-packed backpack from Tokyu Hands, and there’s a kid-friendly version available at Loft. 


Home preparations

Even if you don’t need to evacuate, it’s best to do some prep in case you end up stuck at home after the disaster. In recent years, some badly hit places have lost electricity and water in the weeks after a natural disaster. If a bad storm or earthquake is coming, we recommend purchasing disposable emergency toilet kits that are usable without water and electricity. And if you’re in a newer apartment with an induction stove, pick up a portable gas stove as a backup.

Make sure to stock up on water bottles, and fill up your bathtub in case water supply is interrupted. Food-wise, it’s a good idea to buy some cup noodles, pre-cooked curry packs and other instant foods that don’t require refrigeration.

To avoid broken windows and other damage during a typhoon, bring anything from your garden or balcony that could fall during strong winds inside. During an earthquake, shelves and cupboards can fall over, so make sure to secure them to the walls or ceiling.

If you live close to the riverside and use a storage room in the basement of your building, move all of your important belongings to your apartment in case of flooding. If your car is parked in the basement, look for a nearby covered car park above ground level.

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