Ria is an avid writer who is currently teaching English in southwest Japan. She loves helping new teachers and expats get settled in.
In 2017 and 2018, heavy rains caused massive flooding across southwest Japan. The floods in July 2018 killed at least 225 people, in part due to landslides that were triggered in mountainous areas. While flood events like these are often caused by typhoons, they are sometimes completely separate storms and can strike with little warning. Even Typhoon Hagibis, which slowly approached Japan with plenty of advance notice, caused significant loss of life in October 2019.
Residents and visitors to Japan can protect themselves by learning evacuation routes, watching out for common flood hazards, and having necessary supplies ready to go. It's especially important to learn these safety tips if your home country or region doesn't regularly get typhoons or heavy rain.
Even if you're used to floods in your own country, the number one thing to remember here is: don't panic. Japan is more safety-conscious than many other countries, which can result in a plethora of "emergency" alerts being sent to residents when there is no immediate threat. While it's important to read and attempt to understand all communications from emergency management agencies, bear in mind that you may be able to go about your daily life during severe weather.
Know Your Neighborhood
Most, if not all, municipalities in Japan create "hazard maps" (ハザードマップ, hazaadomappu) that detail known flood plains, landslide risk areas, and evacuation centers. To find one for your area, try searching online for "ハザードマップ" plus your town or ward name in Japanese. (Sometimes these maps are sorted based on school attendance boundaries, so you may need the name of your nearest elementary or junior high school.) These maps are almost always in Japanese, but you may be able to recognize streets, landmarks, and topography.
Locate the Nearest Police Box, School, or Citizens' Center
If you're visiting from overseas, you probably won't have time to research everywhere you'll be visiting. At a minimum, locate the police box closest to wherever you're staying, especially if you're staying at an AirBnb or other rental property that doesn't have staff around. This will be a good place to go if you need information or assistance urgently.
If all else fails, many public schools and citizens' centers (市民センター, shimin sentaa) become evacuation centers in an emergency. Even if your nearest school or citizens' center isn't equipped for you to stay there, they can usually point you to another safe place to go.
Communicate With Your Employer Ahead of Time
For residents, try to communicate with your employer well ahead of time about what expectations are during severe weather, especially if you live in an area that's susceptible to flooding or landslides. Most employers will have some kind of policy regarding absences due to weather or public transit cancellations. Obviously, your own safety is more important than your job, but it can be helpful to know how your employer handles things.
Watch for Warning Signs
The most obvious warning sign will be when your phone buzzes with an emergency alert from your city or prefecture. Unfortunately, these alerts are usually in Japanese, but a quick run through Google Translate can usually give you the gist of the message. Overseas visitors might not receive these emergency alerts, even if they have a data or Wifi connection, so check your area's emergency management website in case of severe weather. Try searching for "危機管理" (kikikanri) followed by the name of the area you're in.
Additionally, the Japan Meteorological Agency maintains an English-language website that has basic warning information and forecasts, but it will not have the most up-to-date local evacuation information. Similarly, the broadcasting company NHK now has a smartphone app that can provide basic information in English. Yahoo! Weather Japan also has evacuation information during crises, and while the evacuation information is entirely in Japanese, it has useful maps and works relatively well with Google Translate and other translation software.
Be Wary of Low-Lying Areas
Once heavy rain has begun, watch for signs of trouble in low-lying areas, areas with uneven pavement, underpasses, and riverbanks. While drainage systems in Japan are well-designed, they can get overwhelmed or clogged with debris, causing flooding in streets, parking lots, fields, and more. Water levels can rise quickly, even if the rain has slowed down or stopped.
If you see flooding that seems to be caused by a blocked drain, do not try to fix the problem yourself, as suddenly unclogging the drain can result in dangerous, fast-flowing water. Your best bet is to call the property manager responsible for the property, or the police if the drain seems to be on public property.
Keep an Eye (and an Ear) Out for Landslides
For landslides, watch out for water leaking out from the sides of steep slopes, as well as cracks, unusual bulges in the ground, or tilting trees or buildings. If you hear low rumbling or creaking, this is a sign that a landslide is imminent. Since landslides can take out most buildings, don't try to seek shelter inside a house—get away from the slope as quickly as possible. It's also possible for a landslide to happen well after the rain has stopped, especially if an earthquake or other disturbance happens.
How to Evacuate
In Japan, there are two main kinds of evacuation warnings: hinan shiji (避難指示) and hinan kankoku (避難勧告). Hinan shiji is an evacuation order, meaning that you need to leave the affected area and go to a designated evacuation location. Since hinan shiji are sometimes limited to individual blocks or landslide hazard areas (土砂災害警戒区域, dosha saigai keikai kuiki), make sure to have your address memorized if you're staying anywhere near a river, mountain or large hill. You may sometimes receive emergency alerts that don't apply to you, since the technology that pushes these alerts out to phones isn't 100% accurate when it comes to location.
Pay Attention to Evacuation Advisories
Hinan kankoku is best translated as an "evacuation advisory," but you should definitely heed the advisory if conditions in your immediate area are looking bad or you are near a steep slope or riverbank. These advisories' locations are usually broader and may cover most of a ward, but may mention areas near specific rivers. You may also see or hear hinan junbi (避難準備), or evacuation preparation, but this is typically a low-level advisory that means you should keep an eye on the weather in case of later problems.
Tips for Evacuating Safely
If you evacuate during a flood, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Bring your passport and/or resident card, some cash, medication, and any other absolute necessities. (These should ideally be placed in a backpack far ahead of time, since Japan is prone to earthquakes, but should be absolutely ready to go as soon as severe weather is announced.)
- Do not wear rainboots, as they actually make it harder to move in high water.
- Do not attempt to move through moving water.
- If possible, carry a large stick or cane to help you feel around for obstacles or loose ground.
- Do not attempt to drive through water; in many areas, it may be safer to evacuate on foot, since being in a car limits the routes available to you.
- If time allows, unplug all electronics and let friends and family know where you're evacuating to before heading out.
What to Do If It's Unsafe to Evacuate
If you see large amounts of debris or downed power lines that make it unsafe to evacuate, here's what to do.
- Stay inside and call the police or another emergency help line for rescue.
- Go to a higher level of your building, if possible.
- You can also put yourself and/or your valuables in the bathtub to stay out of the water for as long as possible.
- Turn off utilities such as gas and electricity if advised to do so.
If in doubt about what to do, try reaching out to an employer or friend who lives in the area—if they've been in the area longer than you, they might have advice on when and how to evacuate.
© 2018 Ria Fritz
Liz Westwood from UK on October 28, 2018:
Sadly, globally we are hearing more frequently about these kinds of events. Japan sounds more prepared than other countries.