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Remembering 3/11

How to Prepare for an Earthquake: Lessons from the Life Safety Learning Center

How can you protect yourself and your family from the worst in an earthquake or other natural disaster? Be prepared by knowing these key points.



A section in the Life Safety Learning Center reproduces the destruction after the rubble, and invites visitors to imagine what behavior to conduct in that situation (©JAPAN Forward)

March 11 marks the 13th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. With it, comes a moment of reflection about what each of us can do in a time of natural disaster. 

It's daunting to imagine the trauma of an emergency. At the same time, there is a 70% chance that a magnitude 7-class earthquake will occur directly under Tokyo within the next 30 years. That is according to one estimate by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. 

Therefore, reporters visited the Tokyo Fire Department's Life Safety Learning Center in Tachikawa with enhanced interest on March 4. One of three centers in the Tokyo area, it offers insight into what to expect when a big earthquake strikes. Importantly, it stresses how best to prepare. 

The lessons learned from the center and the background information can help everyone, whether visitors or residents, in a disaster. 

Tour participants on March 4 at the Life Safety Learning Center in Tachikawa experience VR earthquake. (©JAPAN Forward)

Knowing What to Expect: Visiting the Life Safety Learning Center

What's it like to experience a massive tremor? The Life Safety Learning Center offers the experience. Visitors sit in special seats that then vibrate as if they are in a quake similar to that of 2011. Put simply, the quake is too strong to stand through. Using a virtual reality visor, visitors also see for themselves how a house would be damaged with furniture knocked over, broken windows, and doors blocked by toppled furniture and shelves.

The extent of damage is shocking, from furniture to collapsed roofs. It brings home the importance of taking refuge in a safe place such as under the table.

In addition, a second room in the center features a mechanically movable floor that shakes with the same force as the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of 1995.  Just under 7,000 people died in that disaster. 

Participants find themselves holding on for dear life to the legs of a table as the floor shakes. Subsequently, they are warned about the risk of fire, and are taught the three things to do when the earthquake subsides: 

  1. Switch off the gas.
  2. Open the door to find an escape route 
  3. Pull the electrical breaker off to reduce the risk of fires.

In the final section, visitors learn to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. For example, what to do when rescuing people from the rubble. 

Reporters at the Life Safety Learning Center experience an earthquake. (©JAPAN Forward)

For Visitors and Residents: Be Prepared

The background information is useful to put oneself in the mindset of an earthquake situation. But how can people prepare for a disaster in practice? 

It's important to keep in mind not to panic. Japan is a very earthquake-resilient country. Tokyo alone is estimated to have over 92% earthquake-resistant buildings. In the capital, urban planning has been implemented with fire containment measures in mind. Furthermore, there is a sophisticated flood prevention system. 

Nevertheless, it's crucial to be armed with disaster management information to reduce the risk as much as possible. A couple of tips can help with that. 

Safety Tips App, from JNTO website.

1. Download the Safety Tips App

TMG recommends that all visitors download the Safety Tips app. This is provided by the Japanese government specifically for visitors. 

Translated into fourteen languages, it provides earthquake warning alerts even with foreign SIM cards. It also sends weather advisories, volcanic eruption warnings, and more. The app also features a handy guide with emergency numbers in case of a fire or injury, and useful phrases. 

More information for emergency calls is also available on the Tokyo Fire Department's website. For example, this page gives advice about what information operators will ask for, how to use interpreters, and how to use public phones in the event cell phone signals are down. (Note: public phones can be used for free by pressing the emergency button). 

The lounge at Hotel Keihan Namba Grande features an automatic check-in feature and can be used for relaxation or as a co-working space. Naniwa Ward, Osaka, September 2. (©Sankei by Keiko Tamura)

2. Follow Instructions of Nearby Professionals

It might seem obvious, but wherever visitors are, the general advice is to follow the instructions of nearby staff at the hotel, restaurant or other facility. They are trained in what to do to help you in case of an emergency. 

Most large facilities have provisions in place for disasters. As an example, on March 5 reporters visited Azabudai Hills, a mixed-use urban complex in Tokyo's Minato Ward. Azabudai Hills stocks emergency provisions for 3,600 people at all times, the facility representative told us. This includes food, sanitary products, and temporary air mattresses. 

3. Keep Useful Information Handy

A general rule of thumb is to protect yourself and your family first. 

  • Indoors, take cover under a table or a similar furniture
  • Outdoors, protect your head and stay away from block walls or places where objects could fall on you. 

In other situations, the best way to avoid panicking in an emergency situation is by being informed. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has put together a comprehensive guide in English on what to do in various situations. For example, Chapter 1 tackles what to do when outdoors, in a supermarket, or when riding a train.

It's best to check this information beforehand and bookmark the page so as not to be caught unprepared. In 2011, the areas closest to the earthquake lost all signals. It's a reminder to maintain access to necessary information even without the internet. 

4. If the Internet is Available

If the internet is available, staying informed through the official media is suggested. For example, NHK World is one of the fastest media in the world when it comes to publishing information after a natural disaster. The Japan Meteorological Agency also offers a list of useful apps for disaster preparedness in 10 languages. 


Especially For Residents

On top of the above information, residents in Japan should also be aware of the steps to take in everyday life to be prepared. This comprehensive app provided by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is one of the most helpful.

Ayukawa Hama soon after the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011.

1. Secure Your Space

One of the commonly cited statistics in Japan's disaster prevention is that between 30-50% of injuries in past disasters were due to injuries that happened inside the house. Toppled furniture, broken glass, that sort of thing were the culprits. 

This illustrates how implementing simple steps to secure one's home or workplace can help to reduce injury and damage related to earthquakes by up to 50%. 

The first thing to do is to secure large furniture. The second chapter of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government guide has a detailed home checklist. It includes non-slip sheets for appliances, earthquake-proof latches for cupboards, and shatter-prevention sheets for windows.

Most hardware stores in Japan will have a 防災 (bousai) corner, for disaster prevention. (©JAPAN Forward)

2. Stockpile and Prepare

The next thing is to prepare provisions in case of a disaster. Emergency backpacks can be bought in most hardware stores or general sales websites. One can also prepare one's own. 

According to the experts, a disaster backpack should include at least: emergency gear such as a torch (flashlight) and blanket, water and food for at least three days which can be consumed without gas or electricity, and sanitary products in case of lack of water (emergency toilets). External battery packs are recommended to keep your devices charged and an AM/FM radio is helpful to keep yourself informed.

It's also advisable to prepare a go-to kit in case an evacuation warning is issued. This should include disinfectant, masks, and medicines available to grab in a hurry. This previously published detailed guide helps identify the items to stock and where to buy them. The Tokyo Resilience Project also has a handy stockpile calculator. 

Most supermarkets will have easy to cook food well suited for an emergency situation. (©Sankei)

3. Have a Plan in Advance for Yourself and Your Family 

The first impulse in case of disaster might be to call one's family and friends. But phone lines are often overloaded during emergencies, not least because many people are calling ambulances or the fire department. Therefore, it's advisable to devise an emergency plan with one's family beforehand and avoid phones. 

This means knowing how to get to your nearest evacuation center in case of instructions. It also means setting up agreed meeting points in case you are separated. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government explains the evacuation process and provides a list of evacuation areas

If your questions have not been answered, make sure to keep yourself informed through reputable sources like the Japanese government's social media feed, the Japan Meteorological Agency, and your local government. Local authorities will usually have guides in multiple languages. In an emergency social media can quickly become a source of misinformation, so tread carefully. 

Disasters are unpredictable and unpleasant experiences. But by preparing in advance and staying informed, you have a higher chance of protecting yourself and those around you. 


Author: Arielle Busetto


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