Experiencing Earthquake Drills in Japanese Schools

I was in the middle of a sentence when the siren went off. My vice principal’s calm voice echoed through the PA system.

“It’s an earthquake,” he announced in Japanese. Jishin des.

I’d already been living in Japan for a year. I had experienced many earthquakes, but it was my first earthquake drill. I quickly got under a table. Now all I had to do was wait for the signal that it was ok to leave the building.

In real life, that meant hanging around to make sure there are no aftershocks. Trying to leave a building in the middle of an earthquake is a bad idea. Doors get stuck and there’s also the risk of getting hit by a flying object. You have to protect your body till it’s safe to go outside.

“Sensei,” a young man said, interrupting my thoughts.


“That’s my table.”

Whoops. I was prepared for earthquakes. But earthquake drills? Not quite.

Kumamoto Castle after the earthquake in 2016. Image courtesy of Hyo Lee.

Since then, I’ve lived through dozens more earthquakes and several more earthquake drills. Thankfully, I no longer accidentally seek shelter under my students’ tables. In elementary schools, earthquake drills tend to take place monthly. Whereas junior high schools and high schools have them less often.

Earthquakes also lead to fires, so students are taught to safely navigate out of the building in the event of one. In Japan, September 1 is Disaster Prevention Day (防災の日) bousai no hi. It commemorates the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and is a day on which disaster preparations are taken all over the country.

We had an impromptu earthquake drill at my school this morning following the 7.5 magnitude earthquake in New Zealand.

My prayers are with all the families affected.