As most people planning their own travel to exciting destinations know, Japan is one of the safest destinations in the world. Despite being in the flight path of North Korean missiles, home to several active volcanoes, subject to (sometimes severe) earthquakes, and in the path of several typhoons every year. Japan also gets torrential rains that cause devastating flash floods, and it even has tornadoes. In summer, Tokyo can be hotter than Bangkok, with the subsequent incidents of heatstroke and dehydration, and even deaths among children and elderly. And fires, that used to burn entire cities to the ground when they raged unhindered two hundred years ago, are still a threat in a country where family residences are often built from wood.
Yet Japan is incredibly safe. In Japan, crime is so uncommon that people regularly leave the doors to their homes unlocked, even in the big cities. They reserve their seats by putting their wallets or Gucci bags on the table. The police are mostly occupied by giving directions to people who are lost.
This does not mean they are wimps, by the way. Japanese police are armed and bullet-proof vests are part of their regular equipment, even though Japan does not as a rule permit weapons except for sport. The officers are trained in unarmed combat (a special branch of aikido), and the officers you often see leaning on a stick outside the police stations can take down a shoplifter, drunk reveller or bankrobber in a few seconds with that same stick. Even if the bankrobber is armed with a knife.
And they regularly patrol neighborhoods on their characteristic white bicycles (with a special holder for the fighting stick). In residential areas, the police stations are not more than five hundred meters apart.
So maybe crime can go to the bottom of the list of you worries. But how about the natural disasters? What about earthquakes, for instance?
Worry About Earthquakes
Earthquakes happen all the time in Japan. This is a country that sits on top of three different continental plates. The plates move, and if they get stuck against each other and then suddenly get unstuck, a tremendous amount of energy is released. Not as heat or light or sound, but as seismic waves. Imagine the Earth jumping up and down under your feet, and you get some feeling for what it feels like. If you have problems understanding how something moving a few centimeters can release so much energy, just consider the difference moving a toy car and a truck a few centimeters. The truck is so heavy it needs a huge engine consuming lots of fuel to move at all. Then multiply that several billion (we are talking about plates of rock the size of continents, remember), and you get a feel for fow much energy is moving under Japan.
Earthquakes Taking Roof Tiles
Even a huge earthquake like the one which hit northeastern Japan does not faze the Japanese, however. The earthquake did actually not hit Fukushima, by the way. The events which crashed the nuclear reactor in Fukushima Daiichi came a few days after the earthquake and the devastating tsunami.
Most buildings in Japan are built to withstand an earthquake. This is not as complicated as it may sound. Even Tokyo Sky Tree, one of the tallest buildings in the world, did not fall over during March 11 2011, when the Great Northeast Japan Earthquake happened. Most big buildings did not even get a scratch. By far the most buildings damaged were private homes, which actually turned and twisted when the seismic wave passed through them, so that the roof tiles fell off.
Not that Japan experiences earthquakes every day. Even though the country is so geologically active, there are long stretches of time when nothing happens.
Volcanic activity is tied to geological activity as well. A volcano is a hole in the earth where the molten rock from the interior can push out, and that can either happen with a permanent hotspot, like in Hawaii. The recent lava flows are coming straight from the center of the Earth. But unless the hole is because there happens to be a weak spot in the continental plate, like under Hawaii, volcanoes erupt where the continental plates are torn apart. Like under Japan (and Iceland).
There are no active volcanoes close to Tokyo, though. The closest, Mt. Hakone in eponymous Hakone, leaks poisonous gases (eggs boiled in water from the hot springs on top of the volcano turn black and become a popular souvenir as well as snack). But it is not in any danger of erupting anytime soon. Neither is Mt. Fuji, even though that is one of the worst nightmares of many people in Tokyo.
Typhoons And Tornadoes
The weather is a bigger problem for the Japanese than their volcanoes and earthquakes. Japan is struck by several typhoons every year, which are exactly the same as hurricanes although on the other side of the world. And sometimes, they are as intense as their counterparts that strike Florida, Cuba, and islands in the Carribbean. You can not plan for earthquakes, but Japanese travelers plan ahead for the bad weather during the Japanese travel year.
On the day before the typhoon is forecast to hit, Japanese homeowners take a day off, clean up their yards, close the storm windows, and pack away anything breakable. But most of the time, unless the typhoon is forecast to be extra strong, they go to work as usual. And the kids go to school, because it takes a lot to close a Japanese school.
Most typhoons do not hit Tokyo anyway, they cross Japan to the west of the city, or they pass out to sea. They only result in high winds and heavy rain. Only in quotation marks, because high winds might not be able to blow you away, but they will break your umbrella; and the rain can be so heavy that it literally washes cars off the streets. People still get to work.
There are, very occasionally, tornadoes as well. You might have thought that tornadoes only happened in the US. But they happen whenever the temperature difference is right and there is a plain for them to move over. And even though Japan is a mountainous country, the Kanto area (where Tokyo is located) is a huge plain, almost completely flat.
Typhoons And Monsoon
Typhoons can bring heavy rain, but so can thunderstorms and the summer monsoon, which actually is what hits Japan in the beginning of June. These heavy rains are so heavy that they cause flash floods and landslides. And then I have not talked about the snowfall which happens in western Japan, that can bring up to four meters of snow in a few days. Fantastic for skiing, not so good if you are trying to drive to the office.
But that is in winter. Most of the year Japan is very easy for the traveler (I have a blog post about the Japanese travel year here).
The thing to remember, as the Japanese do, is that these disasters are temporary and do not happen often, although earthquakes are not related to typhoons. But most natural disasters - earthquakes as well as storms - are too weak to be dangerous. They will be a nuisance at worst. Remember that since Tokyo was basically rebuilt in the past 70 years, the city is a very safe place with buildings and infrastructure built to be earthquake resistant. Other places around Japan are much less safe, as the buildings are either too old to be built to earthquake-proofing standards, or too new to be built in the traditional way, which is earthquake-resistant in a different way. The temples of Kyoto are all built using traditional methods which makes them much more resilient in the face of natural disasters than buildings from the mid-war period. The Big Bad Wolf could huff and puff all he liked at the brick house of the third little pig, but an earthquake would have shook it up properly. Most of the damage from the 2011 Northeast Japan earthquake - after the tsunami damage - was caused by houses actually twisting and shaking off their roof tiles.
No Great Kanto Earthquakes
You are unlikely to experience anything like that, even though a repetition of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake which basically laid Tokyo flat is high on the risk assessment agenda of the local government. But since there is no way you can control it, you are better off worrying about things you can control, like fires and other man-made disasters.
Fires are not as infrequent as you may have thought in Japan. There are two reasons for this, and you do not have to worry about the first: Smoking.
Japanese people are great smokers and even though their diet and habit to drink green tea may protect them somewhat from cancer, somewhere between one third and half of all Japanese smoke. They respect no-smoking signs, so to save your children from second-hand smoke, look for places where smoking is prohibited.
Cigarettes Are Smoking Guns
Smoking is also one of the two culprits behind the frequency of house fires. People smoke in bed, drop the cigarette on the sheets, and you can figure out the rest.
Fires would have a much harder time to catch if houses were made of anything else than wood. But wooden houses are the norm in Japan, except for tall or modern buildings which tend to be built from concrete. The low one-family houses that dominate large swathes of the Tokyo cityscape are mostly built from wood. And it is dry, often bone-dry from having sat in a house for fifty years. So dry you would be happy to use it for firewood. As happens when there is a house fire.
The house where you and your family are staying is unlikely to catch fire, unless you smoke. But you may be forced to evacuate if the house next to yours catches fire. When you look for a place to stay, do not just look at what your house, also look at your neighbors. The newer the house, the less likely it is to catch fire, even if it is built from wood. With concrete houses you do not have to worry at all.
House fires are probably the scariest man-made disasters you should fear in Japan, but of course there are others. Traffic accidents are not as uncommon as you might expect in such a safe country, and small children will always tend to run out on the streets chasing a ball, or a flower, or their dog. Japanese drivers can hardly be called reckless (this is a country where the safety part of the driving lessons take more time than the driving itself), but accidents still happen. They are something to watch out for as a parent, and since the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, you may not be as used to the traffic conditions as you may like to think. Behave ultra-carefully and always stay within the white lines or on the pavement with your stroller, and you and your child will never be in any danger.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.