The islands of Japan are among the world’s most seismically active spots, and in fact minor tremors are an everyday occurrence to the Japanese. However, a long history of dealing with natural disasters and sensible government policies have also made Japan well-prepared to handle quakes. If you’re ever caught by a major earthquake in Japan:

0) Don’t Panic
More than anything else, acting in panic is the likeliest way to get hurt. Don’t get caught in a crowd stampede, and don’t rush out of a building if you’re indoors as you might get hit by falling debris. Modern Japanese buildings have been built to withstand tremors, so you’re safer inside than out.

1) Protect yourself
If you’re indoors, get under a sturdy table or a door jamb, and don’t move until you hear an all-clear signal or at least well after the tremors have stopped. If in a train station, the recommended action is to get near a pillar and hunker down low until the quaking has stopped. If on board a train or bus, get down low and wait until you’re given the all-clear to get off.


If you’re outdoors, follow the Japanese, or the policemen’s instructions, to the nearest disaster evacuation area emergency assembly point. These are clearly marked with signs in Japanese, English, and several other languages, and with an icon of a man running for shelter. These are often in or near public parks.

Emergency Evacuation Site for tourists outside Ryoan-ji, Kyoto (credits: unknown)

If you’re on the street, try to get inside a large modern building if you can safely do so; if you can’t, at least try to move away from any construction sites or rivers, and head toward open ground. If you’re near the sea, head for high ground in case of tsunami.

Buildings marked with these icons, or with these icons circled, are evacuation centers safe from the indicated types of disaster, but not for disasters marked X. So if a building is marked with a circle for flooding and tsunami, but with an X for landslides, it’s not a safe refuge for landslide events.

Protect your head by putting your arms over them, or better yet your bag if you have one. Most importantly, follow the instructions of policemen, railway staff or other authorities. They drill regularly on how to handle such emergencies, and their actions will be tailored to the local terrain and conditions. Even if you can’t understand Japanese, monkey see – monkey do works.

2) Turn off the gas
If you’re indoors, especially if you’re in a rented apartment, turn off the gas to prevent fire.

3) Have an evac kit
Try to have these important items close together so you can easily grab them all if you need to evacuate: bottled water, a warm jacket, blankets if possible, your phone and charger, portable wifi if you have one, your passport and other identification, any food you can easily carry, and your wallet. During the cold seasons or if you’re in the highlands, have a pack of kairo, disposable heating pads, handy. The good ones last up to 8 hours or more.

If you’re on any maintenance medicines, be sure those are easily found and taken along too; same with extra water and baby formula, if you’re traveling with an infant. Don’t weigh yourself down though — take only the barest essentials, the priority is to be able to reach safety quickly.

You may also want to print out, or at least have in your phone, these emergency communications cards provided by the JNTO for foreign tourists.

4) Get in touch
In Japan’s last major earthquakes at the Tohoku region and Kyushu, landline service was interrupted over the affected areas but Internet remained largely available. You can use social media to let family know you’re ok or ask for help. Try to call your country’s embassy or nearest consulate if you can – you can easily Google their number before you leave for Japan.

In Kyoto, dial 119, Kyoto Fire Department emergency hotline. Here’s a guide for using it.

5) Safety apps
There are several services which provide earthquake warnings via a smartphone app. You can download any one of these, and if you have a wifi connection you can get a warning if an earthquake is happening or about to happen. The warning may come mere minutes or seconds before the shock, but even so a second or two is enough time to dive under a table. Available earthquake warning apps include: Safety Tips, Yurekuru, Japan Alert, and Earthquake Alert (the latter has worldwide coverage).

Safe travels!

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