Surviving Disasters in Japan: It’s the Simple Things That Will Save You


I have lived in Miyagi Prefecture in Japan since 1974. During that time, I have experienced at least three major earthquakes, including the megadisaster of March 11, 2011. However, the statistical probability that an average short- to medium-term visitor will experience anything more than a minor tremor is extremely low.

Nonetheless, the whole of the Pacific rim region, including the Japanese archipelago, has entered another phase of seismic activity, and more megadisasters will occur at some time in the future. It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict when and where an earthquake, tsunami, or volcanic eruption will occur, but seismologists agree that more major earthquakes—and in some cases large-scale tsunami—will occur in the areas around Tokyo, Shizuoka, and Nagoya, for example. With the changes in world climate resulting in extreme weather conditions, visitors to Japan may find themselves trapped by floods or mudslides after a super typhoon. Man-made disasters may also make these natural disasters more acute.

No Cause for Panic

If that is bad news, then the good news is that Japan has one of the highest levels of disaster-preparedness in the world. Modern buildings are built to very strict standards to withstand all but the most damaging of earthquakes. People are drilled in disaster evacuations starting with toddlers in daycare and kindergarten. Even if you are trapped on the scene of a major disaster, if you understand what to expect and follow a few simple rules, your chances of surviving will be greatly increased. If you keep calm and act properly, you may even be able to help people and make new life-long friends.

Health workers and other officials from around Japan gather in Miyagino-ku, Sendai, to discuss ways to keep evacuees healthy in the wake of the 3/11 megadisaster. Taken on March 22, 2011.

To survive a disaster, you first have to live through the initial impact, be it an earthquake, tsunami, flood, or nuclear reactor accident. While this period of time is extremely intense, with the exception of a nuclear accident, it is also usually short. Statistically speaking, your chances of lasting the initial disaster are usually very high, but the problem of surviving the aftermath can be much bigger than the disaster itself. Consequences, such as the total collapse of communications and transport, food and water shortages, and dangers to sanitation and hygiene can all be life-threatening if not properly dealt with.

Community residents form an orderly line at a Sendai store to collect supplies on March 15, 2011, soon after the megadisaster.

Getting Through a Disaster

If caught in a disaster, the first thing you must do is stay calm, think, and focus your attention on what is happening around you and what other people are doing. Even if you know no Japanese, following the example of the people around you is usually a good way to start. If you are in a building during an earthquake, it is usually safer to stay where you are, cover your head from falling objects, and wait until the shaking stops. In the case of a megaquake you should expect to have to evacuate the building as your first safety procedure after the quake subsides. In your haste, do not forget your passport and other valuables. Also, if you can get it, take as much water and emergency food as you can with you. After a large-scale disaster, getting enough water and food to survive until help comes will be your major concern. If you are lucky, normalcy will be restored in a day or two, and you will be able to return to your lodgings soon. However, in the case of a real megadisaster, you may have to evacuate to a relief center and spend several days living on emergency rations.

Living in a Relief Center

If you find yourself in a big relief center in the center of a major city, it will probably be well-equipped with emergency provisions, water, blankets, and other emergency items. It will be run by public servants with some training in running emergency centers and in dealing with a wide variety of people with different needs and problems. On the down side, most of the occupants will not know each other, and tensions and the potential for trouble will be high.

However, if your relief center is a local community hall run by the local residents, usually elderly men, then the situation will be rather different. They will be improvising as they go, resources will be limited, and many of the people in the center are likely to be old. More positively, most of the people will know each other as neighbors, and the level of cooperation and cohesion among the people there will be high.

In a relief center, you will need to trust other people and work to get them to trust you. Observe and follow their lead. Even if it does not seem so, the level of stress in any evacuation center will be very high, so be considerate of the people around you. Once you have settled down, see if there is something that you can do to help others—even something simple, such as helping to hand out rations or clean toilets. Interacting with other people is possibly the single best thing you can do to help yourself deal with the sense of disorientation you will be experiencing.

With help from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, the Sendai municipal government prepared emergency information in multiple languages following 3/11. (Courtesy Sendai Tourism, Convention, and International Association)

The True Secret to Success

In dealing with the rapid increase in foreign visitors to Japan, the Japanese government is seeking ways to ensure that these visitors will be looked after properly when the next major disaster occurs. However, government initiatives lean far too much toward technical or engineering solutions, such as disseminating multilingual information online or building massive seawalls as tsunami defense lines. However, the reality of what happened in Miyagi Prefecture, which suffered the highest death-toll from the tsunami of 2011, suggests that the real solution is much simpler, but also much more difficult to achieve.

The single most important lesson from the tsunami of 2011 is that it is interpersonal interaction and basic communication skills that save lives. In a megadisaster, communication networks either collapse or become overloaded. To survive the disaster itself, find your way to a relief center, and then survive there, at each stage you will need to cooperate with the people around you. Basic English and sign language can become powerful tools of communication if you use them imaginatively. Thinking that you need a translator or electronic tool will only impede communication.

In 2011, several thousands of foreign residents were located along the coastline hit by the tsunami, but the death toll was surprisingly low. In both the big inland cities and the towns and villages along the coast, an unknown number of foreign residents and tourists spent time in evacuation centers. In a limited number of cases, the presence of foreigners led to problems in some centers. However, appropriate action by local residents led to solutions for the problems, and now residents’ associations consciously include the local foreign population in their annual disaster training drills.

Postdisaster government and press reports tend to focus on “what went wrong,” but the larger reality is that in most cases things went right, given the extreme circumstances. The most important element in these cases was face-to-face interpersonal communication skills. A simple smile is universal, and can speak more than any words.

The city of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, has published an English-language report detailing the responses of foreign residents to the March 11, 2011, disaster and spelling out steps to take in future disasters. Read it here.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Students from Sendai’s Shichigō Junior High School study in a temporary classroom set up in a gymnasium in the wake of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. Taken on April 19, 2011. All photos courtesy Sendai municipal government except where otherwise noted.)

Tōhoku disaster Miyagi 3/11