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Living in Japan

Are You Prepared for the Next Big Earthquake in Japan?

Today, September 1st, is Disaster Prevention Day (bousai no hi, 防災の日), which commemorates the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake. Over 100,000 people died in this massive 7.9 magnitude quake which struck Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures.

Since the 1960s, local governments, especially in the Kanto region, have held disaster preparation activities and drills in order to minimize the death toll from future disasters.

The photo at the top of this article is from a 2015 manga comic book produced by Tokyo metropolitan government called “Tokyo “X” Day” which depicts what would happen if a major earthquake were to strike Tokyo and ends with this message: “In the near future, this is not a “what if” story. This story is sure to become reality.”

Below are three simple things you can do now to prepare for the next earthquake that will strike Japan.

1. Know that earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan

Earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan, and if you live here or are thinking of moving here, it’s a good idea to accept the reality of Japan’s geographic position (at the joint of four tectonic plates) and that the country is prone to a high level of seismic activity.

Knowing the facts is one of the first steps in disaster preparedness.

The Central Disaster Management Council of Japan estimates that the “next great earthquake that will strike in the Tokyo metropolitan area will cause 11,000 fatalities and 112 trillion yen (1 trillion US$) economic loss.” These estimates are based on a simulation in which a magnitude 7 (M7 on the Japanese seismic scale) quake were to strike metropolitan Tokyo.

There is a 70% probability that an [M7] earthquake will occur in the Tokyo metro area in the next 30 years, according to the Earthquake Research Committee of Japan.

The Japanese earthquake scale, ranges from “0” to “7” (in ten levels, including “Lower 5”, “Upper 5”, “Lower 6” and “Upper 6). In an “Upper 6” level quake “people need to crawl to move, and may be thrown through the air. Almost all unsecured furniture move and more start toppling over. Large cracks may form in the ground, and large-scale landslips and massive collapse may occur.” (Tokyo Metropolitan Government)

In an M7 quake, “There are even more cases of wooden houses with low earthquake resistance tilting or collapsing. Even buildings with high earthquake resistance could tilt. More reinforced concrete buildings with low seismic resistance collapse.” (Tokyo Metropolitan Government)

Because of its vulnerability to seismic activity, Japan has world-leading earthquake building standards.

2. Understand Japan’s Strict Earthquake-Resistant Building Standards and the 1981 Shin-Taishin Building Code

The Japanese government regularly updates the country’s building standards and always reviews regulations following a major earthquake. Japan’s first earthquake-resistant building codes were introduced in 1924.

When you are looking to buy or rent an apartment in Japan, one of the most important things to know in terms of earthquake-resistant construction standards is the building code amendment that came into effect in 1981.

Kyu-Taishin Buildings (1950-1981)

“Kyu” means “prior” and “taishin” means “quake resistance”. Under the pre-1981 kyu-taishin (旧耐震) Building Standards Law, “construction companies were generally only obliged to construct a building so that in the event of an earthquake which would definitely occur during the life of a new building (assumed to occur once every several decades and measuring approximately 5 on the Japanese earthquake scale) damage from the earthquake would at most only result in minor cracks in the walls.” (Legal Issues in Japanese Real Estate Investment, p. 55, emphasis added).

Shin-Taishin Buildings (1981〜)

Following the devastating M7.4 (Shindo-level) 1978 Miyagi quake, the building code was amended to further upgrade construction standards.

The New Earthquake Resistant Building Standard Amendment (Shin-Taishin, 新耐震) “added a further condition that in the event of an earthquake which may probably occur during the life of a new building (assumed to occur once every several hundred years and measuring approximately 6 to 7 on the Japanese earthquake scale) the building would not be completely destroyed or collapse.” (Legal Issues in Japanese Real Estate Investment, p. 55, emphasis added).

There are no guarantees, but Shin-Taishin standard buildings are more likely to survive a major earthquake

In 1995, damage from the M6.8 Great Hanshin Earthquake, provided strong evidence that buildings built to the 1981 Shin-Taishin standard survived the major quake in much greater numbers.

The following data is from a Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT) study of the ratio of buildings which suffered major damage or which were completely destroyed (Legal Issues in Japanese Real Estate Investment, p. 56).

  • Kyu-Taishin-Standard Buildings: 29% had major damage, including 14% that were completely destroyed or collapsed
  • Shin-Taishin-Standard Buildings: 8% had major damage, including 3% that were completely destroyed or collapsed

As a practical matter, when looking for property to buy or rent, people are often advised to look for a building constructed to the 1981 Shin-Taishin standard. However, as is clear from the data, a 1981 Shin-Taishin standard building does not guarantee that the building will not suffer damage or collapse in a major earthquake, but it does increase the chances that it will survive.

Also, many building owners have already or are in the process of retro-fitting pre-1981-standard buildings to meet current earthquake-resistance standards.

As the data from the MLIT report above also suggests, there are buildings built before 1981 that are as earthquake resistant as 1981 Shin-Taishin standard buildings. There are also cases, as suggested from the data above, where buildings built post-1981 did not meet the standard of not being completely destroyed in a major quake.

3. Make practical preparations for the next earthquake

In 2015, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government published a comprehensive and easy-to-understand guide to disaster preparedness called “Disaster Preparedness Tokyo” designed for residents of the Tokyo metropolitan area.

“Disaster Preparedness Tokyo” Guide

If you were living in Tokyo in the fall of 1995, you would have received a copy in the mail! Though it was designed for residents in the Tokyo metropolis, the information and practical tips and checklists can be used anywhere in the world to understand and prepare for disaster situations including a major earthquake. You can download a copy here: Disaster Preparedness Tokyo

The guide is extremely detailed, and we will summarize only a few points here from the chapter on preparing for an earthquake. Even doing one of the things below could make a difference.

  1. “What may protect you and your family in the event of the earthquake could be just one piece of knowledge, just one tool, or just some simple communication. Small preparations transform into enormous help.”
  2. What is most indispensable at the time of a disaster is a stockpile of food (especially canned and dry foods that don’t need to be re-heated) and daily essentials. Have a stockpile ready to continue living at home and to survive.
  3. Use the “daily stockpile” concept: Always maintain a little more than you need — Consume items in daily life — Buy extra food and daily essentials — Replenish items before you run out. Then repeat the cycle.
  4. Prepare two emergency bags (including important papers). Keep one with you and one at your place of work.
  5. The following is a list of items that people who experienced evacuation life in a disaster-stricken area found particularly helpful.
    • Water
    • Portable gas cooking stove and cannisters
    • Everyday medications
    • Flashlight
    • Batteries
    • Rechargeable radio
    • Plastic bag
    • Plastic wrap
    • Emergency/Portable toilet (called Keitai-yō toire, 携帯用トイレ)
      • Example of portable toilet bags. These are available on for about ¥1,000


You may also be interested in: Testing The World’s Largest Earthquake Simulator: Japan’s E-Defense

Photo Credit: Tokyo Metro Bousai Comic Book