How-tos

Earthquakes: What to do before, during and immediately after

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Earthquakes are an ever-present danger in Japan so it is important to be thoroughly prepared in the eventuality that one strikes. Although many areas in Japan publish comprehensive guides in English and other languages — see “Tokyo Bousai” (“Disaster Preparedness Tokyo”) published by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as an example — here’s a few important reminders:

What to do ahead of the earthquake

  • First of all, register at your embassy.
  • Know the evacuation routes not only from your home but from your work, children’s schools, neighborhoods and the places you visit most frequently. Print out maps since you can’t rely on Google in a disaster (it also helps to walk around your neighborhood as much as possible to get an idea of where everything is). Decide upon a place for family members to meet once the all-clear sounds.
  • Write down important phone numbers to include in your emergency kit in case of cellphone failure. Include your family and friends, any emergency contacts and the number for your embassy.
  • Experts recommend you store anything from a few days’ to a week’s supply of water and nonperishable food. Check your earthquake kits for expiration dates — Japan recognizes Sept. 1 as Disaster Preparedness Day (and Nov. 5 for tsunami preparedness), but perhaps designate the easy-to-remember March 11 for your annual emergency kit check.
  • 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, the deed to your home [kenrisho], etc.) are all standard items in an earthquake kit. Consider adding photographs of family members or small books and toys if you have children, they will need to be occupied or comforted in evacuation centers.
  • Develop a safety mind-set with your daily routines: Store a pair of shoes and clothes near your bed in case of a midnight quake (you won’t want to evacuate your apartment barefoot), ensure your car’s gas tank is always filled, practice habitual earthquake safety by noticing the evacuation signs when visiting new places or escape routes to higher ground when near coastal areas or rivers — and learn the kanji for quake-related vocabulary.

During an earthquake: Drop, cover, hold

  • Drop: Lowering your point of gravity will help to keep you steady during a tremor.
  • Cover: Your head and neck are vulnerable to injury as objects may fall off shelves or from the ceiling. If you’re outside in an urban area, you’ll need to protect yourself from broken glass, bricks or cement that falls from skyscrapers. Use your bag, a backpack or purse to protect your head and neck.
  • Hold: Hold onto something to keep yourself in place in case of violent tremors to stop from being tossed around. Although most earthquakes last only 10 seconds, any one of them could be “the big one” that lasts for minutes and gets increasingly worse.
  • If you’re on public transport, follow the same guidelines outlined above — drop (away from the windows), cover, hold. Stay calm and follow instructions from the conductor.
  • If you’re in a car, pull over immediately and away from potential falling debris from trees, buildings, overhead wires or overpasses. Wait in the car if you can. Tune the radio into emergency reports. If you must evacuate, don’t forget to leave your car doors unlocked and your keys in the ignition in case rescue workers need to move your car.

In the wake of an earthquake

  • If you live in a coastal area, don’t wait for an official tsunami evacuation. Head to high ground. You can check your portable radio for updates once you’re in the clear.
  • If you’re trapped under rubble, cover your mouth. Bang rhythmically on a pipe or wall, or send a text for help instead of shouting. You’ll conserve energy and oxygen.
  • Be creative with communications. If phone lines are down, try other applications or texting services. After the March 2011 disaster, many people successfully kept in touch with family and friends via Twitter, for example.
  • When evacuating buildings, don’t use the elevators, even if it seems like the shaking has stopped. Remember the likelihood of aftershocks and use the stairs.