Japan takes earthquake safety seriously. Here's how its culture of preparedness keeps so many people alive.

  • Japan is still coping with the aftermath of a powerful earthquake earlier this month.

  • With its history of natural disasters, Japan is one of the countries best prepared for emergencies.

  • A sophisticated alert system, strict building codes, and a prepared population all help.

Japan's Noto Peninsula is reeling from its most powerful earthquake in a century, but the death toll is remarkably low.

The 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the peninsula in central Japan on January 1, violently rattling buildings, triggering landslides, starting fires, and even forcing land upward to create new beaches on the coast.

Such quakes can be incomprehensibly deadly. When a pair of tremors of similar magnitude hit Turkey and Syria last year, the disaster resulted in at least 56,000 deaths. In 2010 in Haiti, a 7.0 earthquake and its aftershocks killed up to 300,000 people. In 2005, a 7.6 quake killed at least 79,000 in Pakistan.

As of Friday, however, the death toll from Japan's latest temblor was 94 people, Reuters reported.

It's no coincidence. Just look at the mega-disaster Japan experienced in 2011, much bigger than this latest quake. That March, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami and a nuclear power-plant meltdown.

While over 18,000 people died, the World Bank noted that Japan's history of preparedness helped many evacuate and likely saved lives.

The situation on the Noto Peninsula is dire, to be sure. The January 1 quake may have been the strongest one felt in the region in over 100 years, according to Nature. Over 200 people are unaccounted for and 30 villages remain inaccessible, while the rubble-ridden Wajima city is short of food and water for roughly 11,000 evacuees sheltering there, Reuters reported.

Japan's quake resilience isn't perfect, but experts say the nation is doing some things right: investing in infrastructure, enforcing strict building codes, and training its citizenry.

"Japan has lessons that they can give to everyone," Daniel Aldrich, a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University who studies disasters and civil society, told Business Insider.

Japan invests in its buildings

Japan sits on four tectonic plates, making it an extremely seismically active country. The plates' constant grinding can cause 1,500 earthquakes a year. As a result, Japan has been honing its earthquake preparedness for many decades.

After a series of natural disasters following World War II, Japan enacted the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act in 1961, which increased its investment and planning around earthquakes and floods.

Japan now has some of the strictest building codes of any country in the world, The New York Times reported after the 2011 earthquake. Through decades of studying how the country's temblors affect its buildings, Japanese engineers have homed in on quake-resilient construction.

Japan designs new buildings to rock side to side with an earthquake's movement, rather than staying still and letting that movement stress the structure.

In tall buildings, giant pads made of rubber and steel help absorb some of the shaking from earthquakes, as do hydraulic shock absorbers. Many older structures were retrofitted to withstand disasters better.

However, sometimes surviving the quake itself isn't enough. For example, BBC News reported that many older wooden structures in Wajima went up in flames after a fire broke out following the 2024 earthquake.

Of course, Japan's wealth gives it an advantage over other quake-stricken countries. However, some of its seismic safety is more about mindset than money.

Japan maintains a culture of emergency preparedness

September 1 is Disaster Prevention Day in Japan. Officials designated the day in 1960 to prepare citizens for emergencies.

When he lived in Japan, Aldrich said he and his neighbors ran comprehensive drills for the day each year, practicing tourniquets, slings for broken arms, and how to spray house fires with a hose.

"Wherever you are in Japan, everyone has those drills," including children, Aldrich said. The government constantly communicates their importance," Aldrich said, adding, "Are you ready? What have you done? Do you know your neighbors? Can you help in a disaster? What skills can you bring?"

Visitors crouch under a pink structure as an earthquake hit the region at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka in 2024
Visitors brace for the 2024 earthquake at Universal Studios Japan.Kyodo via REUTERS

Students participate in earthquake drills, and the government conducts simulations to test its readiness. The government also recommends people keep an emergency kit ready at all times.

That's crucial to survival because affected regions can be cut off from emergency services for days after a disaster, just as much of the Noto Peninsula is now.

In those cases, Aldrich said, your neighbors are your first responders. In over a decade of researching disasters, he's found that social relationships are a major predictor of survival. He said that community earthquake drills teach people what to do and help them trust their neighbors.

In 2007, the Japan Meteorological Society launched its "Earthquake Early Warning System" (EEWS). The J-Alert system can also broadcast to TVs, radios, and cellphones.

Tokyo even has a radio-equipped vending machine that sounds an alarm to park-goers.

Workers stand on a road where a car is stuck on a broken road after an earthquake in Japan
The earthquakes killed dozens, left thousands without power, and destroyed roads and buildings.REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Warnings come through a few seconds to a few minutes before the quake hits, giving people some time to get to a safer location. They're also crucial for rail travel. Japan Railways trains automatically halt when the earthquake detection system kicks in.

In 2022, a bullet train derailed after a 7.4-magnitude quake, but none of the 78 passengers and crew were seriously injured, Kyodo News reported. The train slowed significantly from its typical speed of up to 186 miles per hour, according to The Japan Times.

Japan installs resilient infrastructure

Much like its buildings, Japan has the experience and the money to fortify its infrastructure against earthquakes.

During that 2011 disaster, rapid response teams were able to quickly repair roads to help move supplies and assistance to affected areas. In one case, a torn-apart road took only six days to fix, The Guardian reported.

Japan earthquake
Local residents look at cracks caused by an earthquake on a road in Mashiki town, Kumamoto prefecture, southern Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo April 16, 2016.REUTERS/Kyodo

A 2021 World Bank report said the country learned several lessons from the 2011 disasters, from improving water supply infrastructure to fortifying backups to the undersea cables that power the internet.

Aldrich said the biggest lesson was in revamping nuclear plant safety regulations.

After the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, Japan was slow to restart using nuclear power. The Japan Times reported that 10 of its 33 reactors are in operation after being shut down over a decade ago.

Experts are also concerned about the possibility of a very large "megaquake" occurring sometime in the next four decades, per The Guardian. In 2020 a Japanese government panel warned that another large tsunami could inundate the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant at any time.

The double disaster of a tsunami

A massive tsunami wave rushing over trees and houses in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan in 2011
A massive tsunami wave swept over trees and houses in Natori, Japan in 2011.REUTERS/KYODO

One of the reasons an earthquake in Japan can be so dangerous is the possibility of tsunamis.

During the 1980s and '90s, Japan constructed seawalls to hold back gigantic waves. But in 2011, a 40-foot tsunami rushed over the 19-foot seawall at the Fukushima plant. The plant suffered a meltdown as a result.

Despite a long history of disasters, the country wasn't fully prepared for the tsunami that developed following the 2011 earthquake, according to a 2012 report.

In some areas, buoys outfitted with sensors monitor for tsunamis. As with earthquake alerts, the Japan Meteorological Agency uses TV, radio, and mobile phones to distribute the warnings. Sirens also sound, often giving people several minutes of warning that a wave may strike.

In contrast, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit a number of islands with no formal warning system and resulted in over 200,000 deaths, per NOAA.

According to the World Bank, historical knowledge may have helped save lives during Japan's 2011 tsunami. Some survivors knew how far waters could encroach due to stone markers residents had placed after earlier tsunamis. Some of the monuments are hundreds of years old.

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