Preparing for the Unthinkable: Emergency Preparedness in Japan for a Man-Made Disaster

Japan is the most seismically active country in the world and disaster preparedness efforts usually focus on preparing for a major earthquake, but no one knows what exactly the next major disaster or series of disasters will be.

The recent missile launch and nuclear test by North Korea are also at the top of the news. Our intention here is not to stoke fear or to pander to speculation about what might result from the geo-political situation.

We’re posting this article because we think that:

  • It’s better to acknowledge what might happen, even if it’s highly unlikely and to know the official guidelines on what to expect.
  • There is no way to prepare completely for a major catastrophic event, whether it’s natural or man-made.
  • If and when the next disaster strikes, no matter how well prepared you are mentally and physically, you will likely feel fear and panic. Some prior preparation may help you make the right actions to help yourself and your family.
  • We learned from being in Tokyo during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that one of the reasons for the high level of fear and anxiety in the aftermath was the difficulty of getting reliable information even from official sources. We can only provide the limited official information we have now and present it as it is.
  • Given these things, we should all at least be familiar with basic emergency preparedness in general and in particular to understand the civil protection infrastructure that the Japanese government has in place for an armed attack on the country, no matter how unlikely and unthinkable it is.

Civil Protection Guidelines on Armed Attack and Terrorism

Japan’s Cabinet Office has published a brochure in English on: Protecting Ourselves Against Armed Attack and Terrorism, as part of the government’s civil protection activities following the enactment of the Civil Protection Law in 2004.

The basic framework for civil protection consists of:

  • Evacuation (warning sirens and if necessary, communicating instructions to evacuate)
  • Relief (providing food, daily necessities, temporary housing, medical treatment)
  • Response to armed attack disaster (firefighting, rescue, implementing emergency measures, establishing hazard zones)

The government divides possible armed attacks into four main categories: landing invasion, ballistic missile attack, attacks by guerilla/special operation forces, and aerial intrusion.

The introduction to the civil protection brochure describes the purpose of the document as follows: “This brochure describes how you should act in situations of armed attacks or terrorism etc. and what things you should prepare for such situations on a routine basis. Such responses have much in common with those needed at the time of a natural disaster such as an earthquake.”

As is clear, preparations you should make for the highly unlikely event of an armed attacked on Japanese territory are very similar to the preparations for a natural disaster.

Official Guidelines on Emergency Preparedness

For general emergency preparedness, we especially recommend the very comprehensive “Disaster Preparedness Tokyo” guide. It was prepared for people living in the Tokyo metro area to prepare for a major disaster, especially a major earthquake. However, the information is applicable throughout Japan. You can download the guides using the links below:

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Manual: Disaster Preparedness Tokyo

Japan Cabinet Office: Protecting Ourselves Against Armed Attack and Terrorism

1. What to Prepare Now: Stockpiling and A “Go Bag”

This is a very abbreviated summary of what you should do for general emergency preparedness. We recommend you download and read the manuals above for comprehensive “to do” lists.

You should stockpile food, water, daily goods, and medication, and have enough supplies to sustain you and your family for three days. This graphic contains a list of recommended items:

Have a three day supply of food and water and any medications. Image: Japan Cabinet Office

You should also prepare a “go bag” (emergency bag) that contains the minimum essentials you will need in case you have to evacuate. This graphic shows the recommended items in an emergency bag.

Items you should pack in an emergency bag. Source: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Manual

Register now for official information and know how you will communicate with your family

Along with basic supplies and safe shelter, reliable information and being able to keep in touch with loved ones are some of the most valuable things you will need when a disaster occurs.

Some of the bullet points below are taken from the US Embassy’s very detailed page on Emergency Preparedness for Americans in Japan, but the items are applicable to other foreigners in Japan, as well.

For general emergency preparedness, you should also:

  • Register your presence in Japan with your embassy
  • Sign up for official news feeds from your embassy and local municipality
  • Establish family meeting points with alternate sites inside and outside of your home for all members to gather in the event of an evacuation.
  • Establish reunion sites with alternate sites for when the family is not at home
  • Designate a person outside of your immediate area for separated family members to call to report their location and condition if separated.
  • Learn or establish disaster policy/planning at your children’s school.
  • Know your neighbors and make them aware of the number of people living in your home.
  • Know your company or school’s disaster preparedness plan and meeting points.
  • Learn how to call emergency services in Japan and be able to give your address in Japanese.
    • Ambulance: Dial 119
    • Fire: Dial 119
    • Police: Dial 110

2. J-Alert Warning System

J-Alert is a satellite based system that allows authorities to quickly broadcast alerts to local media and to citizens directly via a system of nationwide loudspeakers, television, radio, email and cell broadcasts.

The August 29th, 2017 missile launched by North Korea that passed through Japan’s territorial waters triggered the J-Alert system to set off warning sirens in Hokkaido. The messages advised people to take shelter in heavy concrete structures, to stay away from any suspicious objects and to alert authorities of any suspicious objects.

Broadcast in 5 languages

All J-Alert warnings, except for severe weather warnings, are broadcast in five languages: Japanese, English, Mandarin, Korean and Portuguese (Wikipedia).

As explained in the civil protection brochure, “municipal governments in the areas under threat from armed attacks or terrorism etc. or where the occurrence of armed attacks or terrorism etc. has been recognized” will alert people using the J-Alert system.

What J-Alert warnings contain

  • The content of the warnings, such as what incident has occurred or is likely to occur, where the incident has occurred or is likely to occur, and what action the citizen should take, will be communicated through TV and radio broadcasting and fire departments’ loudspeaker vans.
  • The residents in areas where evacuation is necessary are notified by the same method.

Alert message sent on August 29, 2017 during a North Korean missile launch. The message says that a missile has passed by and warns people to stay away from any suspicious objects they see and to report immediately suspicious objects to the police and fire department. (Wikipedia)

What the civil protection siren sounds like

The civil protection siren is quite loud and meant to be alarming. You can visit the Japanese government’s civil protection portal site to download a Windows file to hear a playback of the siren.

When warnings are issued with respect to possible missile attacks

The Cabinet Office brochure explains that : “It is extremely difficult to be able to pinpoint missile landing areas before their launch. The missile is expected to land in a short period of time. Therefore, a warning will be issued to the effect that a launch of a ballistic missile is imminent and the content of the warning will be communicated via TV and radio etc. Then, every time a ballistic missile is actually launched, warnings will be issued and the residents in the area where the missiles are expected to land will be alerted by siren.”

3. What to do when warnings are issued

The brochure on Protecting Ourselves Against Armed Attack and Terrorism advises that you take the following actions immediately following a warning or occurrence of an armed attack or terrorism.

If you are indoors

  • Shut all doors and windows
  • Turn off the gas, water, and ventilator (wall fans)
  • Sit down away from doors, walls, and windows

If you are outside

  • Go indoors to a place such as a strong building or underground shopping arcade
  • If you are driving, stop your car and park to the side of the road.
  • If you have to evacuate and leave the car on the road, park the car unlocked on the left side of the road so that it will not obstruct the passage of emergency vehicles.

Calm down and collect information

Gather information by listening to warnings and other information reported on TV and radio. The cellular network in Japan is robust, but you may have to rely on a portable radio.

4. What to do if instructions for evacuation are given

Instruction for evacuation given by administrative agencies include:

  • evacuation indoors
  • evacuation to nearby evacuation center facilities, and
  • evacuation to a distant place across municipal or prefectural jurisdictional borders

How to find an evacuation center near you for general emergency preparedness

Japan has thousands of official evacuation centers (usually schools and public buildings) designated throughout Japan.

For general emergency preparedness, you should locate the nearest evacuation center to your home, school, or place of work. Evacuation centers are clearly marked with multi-language signs designating them as such.

You can also get a map of the evacuation centers in your neighborhood from your city, town, or ward office.

If you are in the Tokyo metro area, you can use this searchable English map prepared by the Tokyo Metropolitan Disaster Prevention Map to find shelters and evacuation areas near you.

What to do when evacuating from home to an evacuation center

  • Turn off water/gas mains and unplug electrical cords
  • Leave your fridge plugged in
  • Wear stout shoes, long pants, long shirts, and a hat
  • Take emergency supplies and goods with you
  • Carry a form of identification, such as passport and driver’s license
  • Lock up your apartment or house
  • Communicate briefly with your neighbors
  • Evacuate effectively by following instructions given by administrative agencies with regard to evacuation routes and methods

5. Points to keep in mind when evacuating

The brochure on Protecting Ourselves Against Armed Attack and Terrorism has specific points for evacuating from the different types of armed attacks envisioned.

In the case of a ballistic missile attack, the government advises us to:

“Evacuate indoors during the initial phase of the attack and then evacuate appropriately following instructions given by administrative agencies. In case of evacuating indoors, evacuate to a robust building or underground shopping arcade nearby.”

The information in this article is an outline of the brochure produced by Japan’s Cabinet Office on: Protecting Ourselves Against Armed Attack and Terrorism.

Top photo:  Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces members carrying out search activities in Minami Soma City, Fukushima prefecture (March 26, 2011)

Photo Credit: Wikimedia