Japan thinks ahead with a long tradition of nationwide “disaster drills.”

Last week, my father-in-law sent a group email titled “Family Fun Plan,” detailing the exciting ways we could prepare for disasters such as rising sea levels, hurricanes and, most recently, North Korean nuclear missiles. Only Tom could make doomsday prepping sound like a nifty family project. If he, an American living on the West Coast, is so worried about missile strikes, imagine how the Japanese feel.

But the Japanese have been conducting disaster drills for decades, most notably during the country’s annual “Disaster Day” (防災の 日)—September 1, the anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which took more than 105,000 lives with its triple onslaught of quake, tsunami and blazing fires. The memorial day was first established in 1960, and was followed in 1995 with Disaster Response Volunteer Day (防災とボランテイアの 日), which commemorates the Great Hanshin Earthquake of January 17. After Tohoku’s triple disaster in 2011, November 5 was marked as Tsunami Readiness Day (津波防災の日). These memorial reminders are accompanied by disaster drills that happen all over the country.

Japan may be perched on the Ring of Fire and in range of a sensitive geopolitical power struggle, but it is also one of the world’s best-prepared countries in the face of disaster. Memorial days are not just to honour the dead, but also to run drills that teach citizens how to act in natural and manmade crises. Each year, everyone from elementary students to diplomatic staff members participate in a variety of simulations, practicing ways to minimize trauma, whether it’s with basic duck-and-cover protection or emergency rescue operations. Families are also encouraged to keep an emergency bag with first aid supplies, a few days of food and water, and an ample supply of toilet paper. These measures are supplemented by a comprehensive J-Alert system, an early warning system that broadcasts messages on radios, loudspeakers and cellphones.

Japan wasn’t always so pragmatic. People long believed that earthquakes were caused by a namazu, a giant, mischievous catfish that lived in the mud beneath the archipelago. The namazu could only be controlled by powerful gods, and whenever they slacked off the namazu would squirm and the islands would tremble. Some stories are unbelievable (now, anyway), and some events are unforeseeable—but these contemporary disaster drills make a real impact. During the recent North Korean missile launch over Hokkaido, citizens were alerted and immediately took cover in shelters, remaining calm until they were given the all-clear. We can only hope that the drills continue to be just that—practice. In the meantime, Japan has become a leader in disaster preparedness. World leaders from developing countries have come to Japan to participate in Disaster Day, and to learn how Japan’s system might be adapted to suit their own homes.


Always be prepared

Hold on, don’t cancel that plane ticket! While all this disaster talk might seem worrisome, it’s always better to hope for the best, but plan otherwise.

DO get informed

Check out special disaster drills for non-Japanese speakers, and read Tokyo’s “Disaster Preparedness Pamphlet.”

DO get the lay of the land

Look over the hotel floor layout posted on the back of your door, noting all the exits.

DO go digital

Download a free English app, like Yurekuru or Safety Tips, to keep you in the emergency loop.


Illustration by Chieko Watanabe