Earthquake Awareness and Preparedness: What you need to know and do when earthquakes occur



Below is useful information about earthquakes, categorized under 10 headings.

We hope that you familiarize yourself with this information on earthquakes because one never knows when it might come in handy. You can read it from top to bottom, or go to the topics you want to read first.

1. Know about Earthquakes in Japan
2. Know How Earthquakes Are Measured: Magnitude and Seismic Intensity (Shindo)
3. Know about Tsunami
4. Know about Fires
5. Know about Lights and Power
6. Know about Cellphones
7. Know about Public transportation
8. Know What to Do If You Are Inside a Building
9. Know What to Do If You Are Outdoors
10. Know about Precautions Before

  • 01

    Know about Earthquakes in Japan

    Japan is situated in one of the most earthquake-prone areas in the world and minor earthquakes occur nearly every week, with minute quakes occurring daily. However, most of them are so slight that they are undetected by people. Only in rare instances do they cause much serious, physical damage, and even when they do, you might find a few broken dishes and fallen objects in your room after the earthquake stops.

    If you happen to be in Japan during an earthquake, there’s no need to panic as long as you know what to do. The chances of a major earthquake during your trip are pretty slim, so there’s no need to worry too much; however, it always helps to be prepared and know about earthquakes and how to best protect yourself just in case a big one happens.

    Some scientists believe that Japan should expect another devastating earthquake in the next 30 years or so, but no one is sure. In addition, others say that there’s really no reliable way to predict earthquakes. With advances in technology, Japan has reached some degree of earthquake prediction, but it’s not 100% reliable at the time of this writing. Sometimes earthquake alarms in Japan do ring on cellphones and TVs (when turned on), notifying you to prepare for some type of earthquake. The alarm sounds, but there is no indication whether the earthquake coming is either strong or weak. If you hear the earthquake alarm, stay calm, be prepared to take action, and assess the situation when/if the ground starts shaking, before you run outside in your night clothes, for example. Sometimes earthquake alarms sound, but no earthquake happens. Often times, the earthquakes announced by alarms are small. And finally, please be aware that alarms don’t always sound, so unfortunately the ground will start shaking without warning. You know when an earthquake occurs because you can feel the shaking.

    Regardless of a warning or not, when earthquakes happen you need to be aware of your surroundings and know the best ways to respond. For example, knowing what to do, how to act, and where to go is important, so further below is some useful information that you should read if a strong earthquake occurs, which requires your taking an immediate response.

  • 02

    Know How Earthquakes Are Measured: Magnitude and Seismic Intensity (Shindo)

    Many visitors to Japan are fortunate to live in earthquake-free regions so have never experienced an earthquake. Here we provide you with some general information about earthquakes, especially how earthquakes are measured and the amount of shaking you feel. This way, if you watch the TV news, you will know what the news is describing after an earthquake occurs.

    Two terms are used to describe the intensity of earthquakes and they are magnitude and shindo (or seismic intensity). The power or energy intensity of earthquakes is measured on a scale of magnitude, which is a standard used all over the world. The scale of earthquake energy ranges from 0 to 10, with 10 actually being an impossibility according to scientists. A 10 would be the energy measured if a giant meteorite were to hit the Earth. Earthquakes that cause large damage start around 6. The largest earthquake ever recorded on Earth was a magnitude of 9.5 (the 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile). For your reference, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 (also called the Tohoku Earthquake), measured 9.0 in magnitude.

    In Japan, you will find the term “shindo” (seismic intensity) also used to describe the shaking strength of earthquakes. This measurement describes the amount of shaking at locations in the affected areas. “Shindo” literally translated means “shaking degree”. It was first created in Japan in the late 1800s and is used only in Japan and Taiwan. Scientifically speaking shindo is called “seismic intensity” and refers to the degree or amount of rocking and shaking that people feel. Shindo for some reasons is measured on a scale of 0–7, but there are now actually 10 levels in the scale: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, weak 5, strong 5, weak 6, strong 6, and 7.

    The 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake (which many people call the Kobe earthquake) was the first earthquake ever to measure a seismic intensity of 7. In other words, shindo is actually a good measurement of what people feel and experience during earthquakes. While you hear about the magnitude, magnitude is the amount of energy released. It’s really the shindo measurement that gives us an idea of how strong an earthquake feels or felt to us. Shindo is influenced by factors such as distance to the epicenter, local ground conditions, and type of geology under the Earth’s surface. Then of course, the earthquake’s energy or magnitude plays the biggest role.

    When speaking of magnitude the higher the magnitude number, the higher the earthquake energy, and there is only one number of magnitude assigned to every earthquake. So, earthquakes will have only one magnitude number.

    On the other hand, when speaking of shindo, the number will vary depending on how close or far an area is from the epicenter, so there will be different shindo numbers depending on how much the Earth shook in different areas. To give an example, the Great East Japan Earthquake (the Tohoku earthquake) on March 11, 2011 was a magnitude 9.0. The shindo reading, on the other hand, for that same earthquake, reached the highest level of 7.0 in Miyagi Prefecture, the prefecture nearest the epicenter. However, further away in Tokyo, the shindo for that same earthquake was 5+ because Tokyo is further away from Miyagi and even further from the epicenter. Tokyo didn’t shake as strongly as Miyagi.

    Shindo also is affected by the depth of the earthquake; the shallower, the stronger the shaking. The vast majority of earthquakes are shallow, meaning less than 50 kilometers deep. The Kobe Earthquake of 2017 was a magnitude 7 and also a shindo of 7. Although it lasted only 20 seconds, it occurred at such a shallow depth (only 10 miles or 16 kilometers) that it caused extensive damage. So if you are in Japan and experience an earthquake, the TV-news broadcasts will describe different areas’ seismic intensities more often than talk about the magnitude.

    The Japan Meteorological Agency website has more details on shindo (

  • 03

    Know about Tsunami

    News broadcasts will warn you if there is the possibility of a tsunami. While the Earth shook violently during the Tohoku Earthquake, most of the damage and unfortunate loss of lives were the result of the tsunami that followed the huge earthquake. If you are in a lowland area especially during an earthquake, be sure to seek immediate information about tsunami warnings and immediately evacuate to higher ground if instructed to do so. Evacuating by going into tall buildings is not always the safest action. Unfortunately, after the Tohoku Earthquake ended, many individuals sought shelter in schools, city halls, and office buildings above the third floor to avoid the tsunami. But that wasn’t such a good idea because those buildings were destroyed by the tsunami because the waves were so high and powerful. Sadly, the victims who ran into such buildings perished in the disaster.

    In fact, some areas of Tokyo are considered lowland and subject to tsunami warnings. The areas are along Tokyo Bay. Several of these areas of high risk include places frequented by travelers, such as Ota-ku (Haneda Airport), Chuo-ku (Ginza), and Koto-ku (Ueno). And in the Kansai area (western Japan) some parts of Kobe are at high risk for tsunami. Basically, however, all coastal areas surrounding the entire country of Japan have some degree of tsunami risk. So, keep in mind that huge earthquakes can be only the initial disaster, as tsunami can follow and create even more damage and loss of life. And finally, if you do come into contact with tsunami floodwaters, be very careful because they can contain harmful substances such as chemicals, sewage, and debris.

    Signs showing the sea level can be seen at many places

    Signs showing the sea level can be seen at many places

  • 04

    Know about Fires

    Fires also are real dangers after earthquakes occur. In both the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011 and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, fires also caused a great deal of damage and took lives. When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck around noon, many households were cooking lunch by using lit charcoal that was used at the time to cook food. These charcoal burners fell over started huge fires that further destroyed the area. Nowadays, one of the reasons fires start after earthquakes is due to broken gas lines that emit gas that can combust at the slightest spark. That is why you never, ever should light matches or cigarette lighters after an earthquake. Maybe you don’t want to smoke a cigarette but want to use a match so you can see in the dark. Nevertheless, if there is leaking gas it will explode into huge fires and create horribly dangerous and light-threatening situations.

  • 05

    Know about Lights and Power

    Often times during earthquakes, power outages will occur. That means nothing running on electricity will work. Building lights will go off, so your cellphone will become a good flashlight. Elevators will stop, so you should never get into an elevator after an earthquake, even if the electric power is on and the elevator is operating. Both the power and elevator might strop suddenly. Running water won’t be pumped into upper floors, and air conditioning will stop. In addition, outdoor street lights, signs and signals won’t be lit. Also, telecommunication might be interrupted so using the Internet, texting on SMS apps, and calling on the phone might not be possible.

  • 06

    Know about Using Cellphones

    Your cellphone can be a life saver in many ways, so keep it near you at all times. If it is dark, such as during the night, or if the electricity stops and the area becomes dark, your cellphone will provide you with a flashlight so you can see. For example, if you hear people coming to help, the flashing light will direct them to you. You can try texting for help, and even try to make a phone call. But make sure to use your cellphone wisely so the battery doesn’t die, as you might need to use it for a long while before you can be helped. Saving battery life is a must.

  • 07

    Know about Public transportation

    If you happen to be on a train or bus, just hang on tight and wait for instructions. If you don’t understand Japanese, then follow others, making sure it is safe to go. In addition, make sure people whom you are following know where they are going. Don’t exit haphazardly. If everyone is panicking, be sure to watch and decide your own next step. If you are between stations, the train might be able to travel to the next station if it can, or you might be allowed to get off if safe to do so. During strong earthquakes, the trains and buses might stop for hours and even days. This happened most recently in 2011 in Tokyo. After the earthquake struck at 2:46PM on a Friday afternoon, all modes of transportation stopped in Tokyo. Some people who decided to walk home spent hours and hours before reaching home, even walking after it became dark. So, do know the general direction of where you need to go on foot if trains and buses stop. People who were so far away from home had to sleep in offices if they were at work at 2:46. Some people spent the night at all-night bars even. Lucky people were those able to quickly reserve hotel rooms for the night. So, be aware of the public transportation situation. Even when trains started running very late in Tokyo, the stations and trains became so crowded that the situation was dangerous. So even if the trains start running, don’t expect to get on any time soon after. And finally, when mentioning public transportation, some Shinkansen lines in the Tohoku area after the earthquake struck were inoperable for months.

    After a large quake, be aware of the public transportation situation

    After a large quake, be aware of the public transportation situation

  • 08

    Know What to Do If You Are Inside a Building

    If you’re inside a building when an earthquake happens, experts agree that you will be safer by staying inside rather than going outside. The reason is Japan’s strong building codes. In Japan, buildings are constructed to withstand earthquakes, and buildings are frequently re-enforced over time to withstand stronger and stronger earthquakes. Generally, in order for buildings to collapse, the right circumstance is an extremely powerful earthquake that shakes old buildings for a very long time, as in shaking for minutes. For instance, the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 occurred 30 kilometers (18 miles) underground. Shallow but still not too shallow. However, it lasted an incredible six minutes. Even at a magnitude 9 and shindo 7, most of the newer and stronger buildings remained standing. However, older buildings without much re-enforcement finally started to collapse after being subjected to six minutes of constant shaking. If the quake had been shorter, such as even only a minute or so, much less physical damage would have happened.

    If you are trapped inside and can’t leave, you can try banging on a pipe or wall. You should cover your mouth with your shirt or a handkerchief for protection and instead of shouting, use a whistle if you have one. (Whistles are good emergency items to keep handy in your bag when you are out.)

    If you are in a fairly old building, interior doorways might be safe. However, in modern homes, doorways are no longer considered safer than any of the other places in the building. So, the recommendation nowadays is to get completely under a sturdy desk or table. Also, bathroom/toilet areas with pipes in the walls are also structurally strong. But be careful of bathroom mirrors and windows that might break and shatter glass on you. Be sure to stay away from all exterior walls and windows.

    Earthquake drills are regularly held in schools, so children know to cover their heads and hide under the table

    Earthquake drills are regularly held in schools, so children know to cover their heads and hide under the table

    Keep far away from heavy furniture and appliances that could fall on you, such as bookcases, cabinets, TVs, display shelves, refrigerators, and light fixtures. While the building is still moving, get close to the floor and grab objects to cover yourself, such as cushions, pillows, blankets, chairs, and even large books. Covering your head is essential. If you are in bed, turn face down and cover your head and neck with a pillow. Or you can roll off the bed and stay next to it. The bed will hold up some of the debris, creating a safe void around the edge of the bed. It’s generally not a good idea to hide under a bed or sofa because they are too low to the floor and if they were to collapse, there would be little space left for you to escape. In other words, the small space underneath a bed or sofa will be made even smaller if the ceiling collapses on it and then the bed/sofa collapses. When you get out of bed and start to move, put on easy-to-wear shoes so your feet will be protected from broken glass and fallen objects.

    After the earthquake stops, take the stairs if you want to get out of the building, making sure that the stairs are safe and not damaged. Never use an elevator either during or after an earthquake. However, before you rush outside, be extremely careful to watch out for possibly still falling objects and already fallen objects on the sidewalks and streets, especially broken glass from windows, broken electric wires, fallen signs, etc.

  • 09

    Know What to Do If You Are Outdoors

    Outside of buildings can be either very safe or very dangerous. depending on the place you are located. If you’re in a city area, avoid the following:

    Overhead power lines: Many big cities still have a lot of overhead power lines. These can break and fall and still be live with electricity.

    Outside of buildings: Standing next to or against a wall of building can be extremely dangerous. In fact, it can be the worst place to be during an earthquake because signs and window glass can break, shatter, and fall on you. The greatest danger from falling debris is just outside doorways and close to outer walls of buildings. So stay clear of buildings.

    Trees: Trees have large root systems, so holding onto a tree may seem like a safe place. However, trees are considered to be dangerous during earthquakes. The entire tree can fall on you if the earthquake breaks the tree’s roots. In addition, old and dead tree branches might shake and fall on you.

    Concrete/concrete-block fences/walls: In Japan, to separate one house from another, many houses are surrounded by walls or fences that are built of either concrete or concrete blocks. They have caused casualties in the past because they fell down during earthquakes. Be careful of especially old and high walls because they may not have the steel supporting structure to prevent them from collapsing during big tremors.

  • 10

    Know before It Happens

    In the event of an actual emergency that requires going to a shelter or emergency center, the Internet might not be working and so it may be good to look up this information in advance. Again, in most situations, you can probably rely on going in the direction that most people are going. Check your embassy’s website before coming to Japan, as most of them will have emergency numbers and instructions for what to do in the event of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

    This basic information provided here is intended to keep you safe in case a large earthquake happens. It is valuable information for you to increase your knowledge about earthquakes and earthquake awareness and preparedness. Hopefully, a big earthquake will not happen so you will never have to take action as described above. Nevertheless, you should read this and always keep this information in the back of your mind.

    Another important aspect is to be earthquake aware. Always familiarize yourself with your surroundings especially when you are away from home. Take a look around you when you go out, and think about where you can go if an earthquake were to strike. For example, if you are shopping, check the location of exits and stairs, for example. Regardless if you are at home or traveling, staying safe is a top priority for everyone.

    Signs for evacuation shelters can be seen at large parks and public schools.

    Signs for evacuation shelters can be seen at large parks and public schools.

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