What California Can Learn From Japan


On the morning of September 1, 1923, a massive earthquake shook Japan’s Kanto Plain, devastating the capital Tokyo and the coastal industrial city of Yokohama. As in the San Francisco earthquake 17 years earlier, fire followed the shaking and by the time the earthquake-caused tsunami receded over 140,000 were dead. The destruction of Tokyo was so great that Japan considered moving the capital to another, safer city. Tokyo is still the capital of Japan and it is one of the safest big cities in the world to be in during an earthquake.

After the 1923 earthquake, Japan experienced more seismic events, most recently the 2011 M9 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. After each event, the country got better at preparedness, and today it is the world’s leader. There is national culture of preparedness, a national earthquake early warning system and some of the most seismically effective building codes anywhere. When it comes to earthquakes and getting prepared, Japan is a model for California.

Every year since 1960, Japan marks Disaster Prevention Day on September 1st. Schools start the day with an evacuation drill. The Prime Minster is involved, and at a recent Disaster Prevention Day he talked about the importance of mutual aid, stating. “I would like to ensure that the government will prepare itself for disaster, together with the people, so that it can confidently say that ‘Providing is preventing.’”

For more than a decade the country has had a national earthquake early warning system that is tied to the radio, TV and mobile companies for instant notification. Japan’s tsunami warning system is more than 65 years old and boasts over 300 censors that together with sophisticated computer systems can predict the height, speed, location and arrival time of any tsunami.

In 1981 Japan updated its building codes based on seismic research, and the 1995 Kobe earthquake led to increased research and a new set of building codes. In 2000, these codes were revised, incorporating specific requirements and mandatory checks. In response to the 1995 earthquake, where more than 4,000 schools were destroyed, Japan passed its own version of California’s Field Act, making every school resilient to the impact of earthquakes.  Since 2002 the percentage of earthquake-resistant public elementary and junior high schools in Japan has increased from fewer than half of schools to more than 95 percent in 2015.

We can always do better to make our citizens safer; learning from Japan is one important and valuable way.