When I first came to Japan, senior ALTs assured all the new arrivals that since Shimane Prefecture does not sit on the ring of fire in the Pacific Ocean, big earthquakes are rare in this area. However, the longer I’ve lived in Japan, the more I’ve asked myself questions about how prepared I really am for a disaster or an emergency.
Earthquakes can still happen in Shimane. Some of my teachers at my bigger school told me that the year before I arrived, there was a small earthquake in the middle of the school day. Nothing was damaged and no one was hurt, but school was cancelled for the day.
A couple of weeks ago, a chime sounded from everyone’s phones in the staff room. One of my teachers told me it was a test for the missile alert system; in case a missile from North Korea started flying over Japan.
Not too long ago, there was a fire at a hot spring near Izumo station. No one was hurt, and no other buildings except for the hot springs’ was damaged. But many of the buildings in Izumo are built so close together, that it could be easy for fires to spread if the conditions were right.
Like the rest of Japan, Izumo is full of narrow roads that are shared by cars, bikes, and pedestrians. If you’re using one of these roads, you have to constantly be aware that you’re not putting yourself or someone else in danger.
When I asked myself if I really knew what to do in any of these situations, I found I was pretty unsure. For that reason, I took the opportunity last Saturday to go to a disaster preparedness class for foreigners at Izumo’s Fire Station. This week, I want to share a bit about what I learned so that any current or aspiring ALTs can be a bit more confident should they ever have to face a disaster or emergency in Japan.
- Phone Alarms
If you buy a phone in Japan that’s served by Soft Bank or one of the other big phone companies in Japan, your phone will come with a built-in alarm for earthquakes. When it goes off, this alarm will chime and say, “Jishin desu. Jishin desu.” Earthquake. Earthquake. When you hear this, protect your head, and get as low to the ground as you possibly can. Ideally, you should hide under a sturdy table and away from heavy furniture that can fall over.
I didn’t buy a phone when I came to Japan. I just switched the SIM card in my phone from the States. For this reason, I don’t have a built-in alarm. However, a friend told me that you can download disaster alert apps for earthquakes and other disasters. If you’re using a phone from your home country when you arrive in Japan, look up disaster apps that will work for your phone.
- The News
After an earthquake stops, you should listen to the news so that you can hear tsunami warnings. You can listen to the news either through a TV, a handheld radio, or possibly the radio in your car if you have one. Make sure you have some way of listening to the news in Japan. Specifically, tune in to NHK Satellite Broadcast on TV or NHK Radio 2 Broadcast.
- Gas and Electricity Safety
If you’re using the stove when an earthquake happens, DO NOT go to turn off the gas. Many gas ranges in Japan will automatically turn off during an earthquake. Once the shaking stops, though, you should turn off your gas valve and turn off your circuit breakers. If you smell gas, open all the windows, and call the gas company after you exit the building. DO NOT use any electric lights or open flames if you smell gas.
- Go Outside
If you’re inside when an earthquake happens, open doors and windows so that you have multiple ways to get outside. Turn off your gas and electricity, grab your emergency kit, and go outside as soon as you can. You should go somewhere that’s away from large buildings.
Around whatever city you live in, you’ll probably see signs that look like this.
These are places you should go immediately after an earthquake happens. Take note of where the nearest ones to you are as soon as you can. The one closest to me is a park near my house. Many of the parks around Izumo are also evacuation sites. Wait here for instructions on what to do next.
In some cases, you may need to go to emergency shelters after an earthquake. Shelters in Izumo have signs that look just like the Evacuation Area signs, except they explicitly say that they’re a shelter rather than an Evacuation Area.
Like the evacuation sites, look for the shelters closest to you as soon as you can, and practice walking there sometime. Shelters could be places like schools, the city hall, or other places like community centers or event halls.
- Emergency Kits
Before an earthquake happens, begin gathering things for an emergency kit. At stores around Japan, you can buy things like backpacks, first aid kits, bottled water, and non-perishable foods to put in this kit. This is the checklist I got from the Izumo Fire Station.
If you’re worried about the expense of buying everything at once, buy one or two things each time you go to the store. Or, better yet, if your house or apartment had other ALTs living in it before you, look around and you’ll probably find that you already have things like a basic first aid kit.
When gathering food for your kit, make sure you get things that you usually eat. This way, you can eat the food and replace it after a time to keep it from getting old. I’ve been told you should change the water you keep around every six months, and pay attention to the expiration dates on whatever food you gather.
Make sure you have enough food and water for at least seven days.
- Heavy Furniture
To keep things like bookshelves or refrigerators from falling over, you can buy tension rods like these.
To use them, stick one between the furniture and the ceiling and extend it until it fits tightly between the furniture and the ceiling.
Also, take a look around the area where you sleep. If there is something heavy that could fall on you in your sleep, move it away from you or make sure to secure it. I had to do this recently. After hearing this advice, I realized that the clothes dryer I used was higher up and not secured. I put the dryer in a lower spot as soon as I realized that.
The last thing you should be wary of is objects on furniture. These could fall off during an earthquake, so make sure heavy objects can’t fall on you when you sleep or when you’re hiding under a table. If you can, figure out some way to secure these objects.
In some stores, you can buy a sticky film to put on windows or glass casings. In an earthquake, this film will keep broken glass in place so that it doesn’t litter your floor. After an earthquake, make sure to be careful of any broken glass or other sharp objects. Have some shoes ready to walk around your apartment with so that you don’t injure your feet.
Wherever you live, get to know your neighbors. In the disaster preparedness class I took, there was a lot of emphasis on helping each other during a disaster, and making sure you can provide some help to others.
Starting to get to know the people you live close to can be as simple as saying Ohayougozaimasu, konnichiwa, or konbanwa whenever you see your neighbors. When you greet people, make sure to use polite Japanese, especially if you’re talking to older people. Going to international events as often as you can or participating in neighborhood disaster drills is another good way to get to know people in the community.
One way that I began talking with the people who live across from me was during a snowstorm this winter. My neighbor noticed me digging my car out of the snow so I could go to work, and he asked me if I needed help. He also asked me, “Don’t they cancel work during this kind of weather in the United States? Japanese people work too hard.” Offer people help when you can. Offer greetings when you see people. Whether you become close with your neighbors or not, it helps to at least know who they are so you can help each other during an emergency.
Fire, Injuries, and Accidents
- Emergency Number
The emergency number in Japan is 119. Some cities have translation services (Izumo does), but not every city will. Find out if your city has emergency translators as soon as you can. Just in case there is no translation service, try to learn the Japanese vocabulary for “ambulance,” “accident,” “fire,” and other words related to emergencies. You should also memorize your address in Japanese and the names of any other landmark buildings and streets.
- Useful Phrases
Fire = kaji
Ambulance = kyu kyu sha
(Car) Accident = jikko
Fire! = kaji da! (Shout this when you see a fire to warn other people in the area.)
- Fire Extinguishers
Fire extinguishers in Japan are red. To use them, pull out the pin that’s on top of the extinguisher, detach the hose from the side, and squeeze the black handles when you’re ready to spray the fire.
A fire extinguisher’s spray will be able to reach about five to six meters, and will only spray for about fifteen seconds before it starts running out. Make sure you’re within five or six meters of the fire before you start spraying.
Also, DO NOT throw a fire extinguished into the fire. This won’t work the way you think it will.
- Car Accidents
If you hit another car, you must call the police to report it whether the accident is major or not. If you hit a person, it’s especially important to call the police, even if the person you hit says that they’re fine. The police number in Japan is 110.
- Drinking and Driving
If you drink any amount of alcohol, you are not allowed to drive or ride a bike. Whether you had one glass or five, you’ll get in trouble. If you go out somewhere and you plan on drinking, take public transportation or carpool with someone.
- Drive Safe
Typhoons (heavy rain and strong wind) are pretty common in Japan. Sometimes, school is canceled during particularly bad days (although staff is often still required to go to school). If you drive a car, make sure you drive more carefully than usual during a typhoon. The weather may make it more difficult to use a car or bike because it will limit your visibility, and possibly affect your steering.
2. Water Safety
If you live near water, keep an eye on how high it gets during a typhoon. You may need to put sandbags around water to keep an area from flooding.
I hope these tips help anyone who’s been worrying about this kind of thing. Whether you live in Japan, or are just traveling, it helps to know what to do just in case. If you live or have lived in Japan and notice something I missed, please let me know! I’d love to keep this up to date.