Stay safe in Japan
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, the crime rate is significantly lower than in western countries.
Volcanoes, storms and typhoons are a potential problem especially if you are mountaineering or sailing, so check the latest information before you go. In volcanic areas, stick to designated trails as volcanic gas can be a problem. Typhoons are rarely physically dangerous, but they can affect planes, ferries and even (in landslides) trains and buses.
There are poisonous snakes called habu (波布) in Okinawa, although not in unusual numbers. It is unlikely that you will be bitten by one, but if you are bitten, seek medical attention immediately as there are antivenoms. When hiking in Hokkaido and Honshu, be aware of possible bear activity, especially in autumn. Attacks are rare, but in areas like the Shiretoko Peninsula, you should attach bells to your backpack to scare them away.
Especially in the countryside, watch out for the Japanese giant hornet (大雀蜂 or 大スズメバチ ōsuzumebachi), a subspecies of the Asian giant hornet; it is about 4 cm long and can sting repeatedly and painfully. Every year in Japan, 20-40 people die after being stung by giant hornets. A hornet defending its nest or feeding site will make a clicking sound to warn intruders; if you encounter one, retreat. If you are stung, seek medical treatment immediately, as prolonged exposure to the venom can cause permanent damage or even death.
Crime and fraud in Japan
|Police and the law|
|Police in Japan can hold people for up to 23 days before a prosecutor formally presses charges, and you may be subjected to continuous interrogation during this time. You can only hire a lawyer if someone from the outside pays the fees in advance, and your lawyer is not allowed to be present during the interrogations. |
Insist on an interpreter and consular access, and do not fingerprint (the Japanese equivalent of signing), especially if you do not fully understand what you are signing. A signed confession will result in a guilty verdict at your trial. By far the most common pattern of how foreign tourists end up on the cold, yellow walls of a Japanese jail cell is getting drunk and then getting into a fight. Standard police procedure is to arrest everyone first and sort things out later. If someone accuses you on even the flimsiest of grounds, you can expect an unpleasant extension of your leave. If you are convicted of a crime, you will experience the notoriously harsh Japanese prison system first hand.
Japan is exotic and mysterious; what seems foreign and even attractive to you during the day can become uncomfortable and annoying at night, especially if there is some alcohol running through your veins, so control your temper and alcohol level. The police patrol the party areas heavily at night and are ready to “rescue” a Japanese from a violent foreigner.
Street crime is extremely rare, even late at night, but you should still use common sense. Women travelling alone should be careful, as in their home countries, and never hitchhike alone.
Pickpocketing sometimes happens: If you take your usual precautions in crowded places like trains and Narita Airport, you should be fine. Women and men on crowded trains at rush hour should be aware of the existence of male chikan (痴漢) and female chijo (痴女) or harassers. Be careful on these trains as well, as you could be blamed and possibly arrested for such incidents. There is a lot of drinking in the evening and occasionally drunks can be a nuisance, although alcohol-related violence is extremely rare.
The notorious yakuza (ヤクザ, also known as 極道 gokudō), the Japanese gangsters, may have acquired a sometimes undeserved reputation as a gang of violent, psychopathic criminals due to their portrayal in various films. In reality, however, they almost never target people who are not already involved in organised crime. Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.
Red-light districts in big cities can be seedy but are rarely dangerous to visitors, but some smaller bars in back alleys have been known to charge exorbitant entrance fees or drink prices. In some extreme cases, foreigners have reported being drugged in such establishments and then having to pay up to ¥700,000 or almost USD7,000 for drinks they could not remember ordering (especially in the Roppongi and Kabuki-cho districts of Tokyo). Never go to a place recommended by someone you have just met. This is especially true for street vendors (which do not exist in Japan except in places like Kabuki-cho).
Note that drug laws in Japan are stricter than in many Western countries. The Japanese do not distinguish between hard and soft drugs, so even possession of soft drugs for personal use can result in a prison sentence of several years. Do not assume that just because you have a prescription from your home country, you can take the drugs to Japan. If you have prescription drugs, check with the Japanese embassy before you leave to see if they are allowed in Japan or not. If it is illegal, they should also be able to give you information on what medicines you can buy in Japan to use in place of your prescription while you are there.
Police boxes (交番 kōban) can be found on every other street corner. The police are generally helpful (although they rarely speak English), so ask if you get lost or have any problems. They usually have a detailed map of the area, showing not only the hard-to-understand numbering system, but also the names of office or public buildings or other places to help find your way.
Even if you have travel insurance, report thefts or lost items to the kōban. They have forms in English and Japanese, often called the “Blue Form”. For lost items, even cash, filling out this form is not a wasted effort, as Japanese people very often bring lost items, even a wallet full of cash, to the kōban. If you happen to find such an item, bring it to the kōban. If the item is not claimed within six months, it is yours. If it is claimed, you may be entitled to a reward of 5-15%.
There are two emergency numbers in Japan. To call the police in an emergency, dial 110 (百十番 hyakutoban). To call an ambulance or fire truck, dial 119 (a reversal of the American 911). In Tokyo, the police have an English emergency number (03-3501-0110), which is available from 08:30 to 17:15 Monday to Friday except public holidays.
Prostitution in Japan
Prostitution is illegal in Japan. However, enforcement is lax and the law explicitly defines prostitution as “sex in exchange for money”. In other words: If you pay for another “service” and then have sex by “private agreement”, the law does not recognise this as prostitution. So Japan still has one of the most vibrant sex industries in the world. The most famous red light district is Kabukicho (歌舞伎町) in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, where many call girl booths and love hotels are located. The incidence of HIV has increased in Japan in recent years. Some prostitutes refuse to serve foreign clients, even those who speak fluent Japanese.
Traffic in Japan
Contrary to its reputation for very efficient and comprehensive public transport, Japan is a very car-centric culture outside of Tokyo.
As the road layout in large parts of the country has remained unchanged for centuries, many roads are rather small and full of blind corners. One should always be alert when travelling off the main roads.
Moreover, traffic lights have a different meaning in Japan than in the rest of the world. When the traffic light is green at a pedestrian crossing near an intersection, Japanese drivers often don’t think about coming towards you yet. They often turn halfway and then stop to allow you to cross, although it is not uncommon for them to speed ahead at full speed, ignoring the people crossing.
You should also be aware that crossing the road at a red light is illegal in Japan and this law is sometimes enforced.
Discrimination in Japan
Although violent attacks against foreigners are almost unheard of in Japan, discrimination against foreigners in employment does exist. Even Western visitors have been denied entry to certain onsen and restaurants, especially in rural areas. Some flats, motels, nightclubs and public baths in Japan have been known to post signs stating that foreigners are not allowed or that they may only enter if accompanied by a Japanese person. Such places are rare, however, and many Japanese claim that the bans are due to perceived social incompatibility (e.g. foreigners may not understand proper bathhouse etiquette) rather than racism.
Banks are often reluctant or unwilling to give cash advances to foreigners, mainly due to stereotypes of unreliability. If you need a cash advance from your bank, Japanese language skills or a Japanese friend to vouch for you will help a lot.
Earthquakes in Japan
Japan is prone to earthquakes (地震 jishin). On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, triggering a very large tsunami that affected the city of Sendai and the surrounding area. The quake (and its aftershocks) were felt throughout Japan, and the death toll was over 15,000, mainly from the tsunami. The previous major quake hit Kobe in 1995 and killed over 5000 people. Every few days a quake big enough to be felt is felt somewhere in Japan, but most of them are completely harmless. Even though electronic devices are now being introduced to detect earthquakes (both the magnitude of the quake and the number of seconds it takes for the tremors to reach a particular location), you should follow some basic safety measures:
- Do not place heavy objects in high places, especially above your bed.
- Japan has an early warning system that sends information that an earthquake is about to hit a certain area. Use this invaluable time to protect yourself before the actual quake.
- If you are inside a house and feel a strong shaking, the standard advice is that you are far safer staying indoors: Falling roof tiles and masonry outside usually pose the deadliest danger.
- While it is extremely important to extinguish all flames (burners, candles, etc.) immediately if you have time, be aware that your immediate danger is from falling objects and overturning furniture. Be aware of what is above you and seek shelter under furniture or in a doorway if necessary.
- If you are in a house and feel a strong shaking, try to open the door or a window as quickly as possible and keep it open by using something like a doorstop in case it is stuck. Again, remember that your immediate danger is from falling objects and overturning furniture.
- If you are outdoors, stay away from brick walls, glass panes and vending machines, and watch out for falling objects, telegraph cables, etc. Falling roof tiles from older and traditional buildings are particularly dangerous as they can fall long after the quake has stopped.
- If you are by the sea and experience even a moderate quake, look out for tsunami warnings (also in English) on NHK TV (channel 1) and Radio 2 (693 kHz). For most tremors and small quakes, only a message in Japanese will be displayed at the top of the screen, as they are not considered particularly newsworthy. If you are near the sea and experience a major earthquake, evacuate immediately to higher ground; do not wait for a warning.
- Know exactly where your passport, travel tickets, documents, credit cards and money are and take them with you when you leave the building as you may not be able to go back in.
Every neighbourhood has an evacuation area, usually the local playground. Many schools are set up as temporary shelters. Both are labelled in English. If you are travelling with others, plan to meet there and be aware that portable phones will probably not work.
Drug smuggling in Japan
Japan is extremely intolerant of drug offenders. There are strict laws for anyone who smuggles drugs. This applies even if you have consumed the drugs outside the country, or if you are proven to be unaware that the drugs are in your luggage. It is strongly recommended that you check your luggage beforehand to avoid such problems.
Stay healthy in Japan
Japan is a country obsessed with cleanliness and health hazards are rare. Tap water is drinkable everywhere and food hygiene standards are very high. There are no communicable diseases of any significance; despite the name, Japanese encephalitis has almost been eradicated.
Some Japanese public toilets do not have toilet paper, although there are often vending machines nearby that sell some at coin prices. Do as the Japanese do and use the tissue packets that advertisers hand out for free at major train stations.
Although it may be “common sense” for people who have lived in urban areas, many newcomers to Tokyo or Osaka are not familiar with living in an extremely crowded metropolis where almost everything they touch has already been touched by hundreds of other people on the same day. If newcomers to large Japanese cities do not take precautions, they may be more susceptible to common illnesses such as colds. As in any other urban area, you should wash your hands with soap and water as often as possible in a major Japanese city such as Tokyo or Osaka, especially after taking public transport and before eating.
Be sure to take a small umbrella for the frequent rainy days. Don’t rely too much on the weather forecasts, especially from the day before yesterday. If you forget, you can always go to the nearest supermarket and buy one for ¥500.
Japan has its share of dirty areas. In the cities, the streets and curbs are just as dirty as anywhere else because of the high volume of traffic. The obsession with cleanliness and taking off shoes before entering a house makes sense because of the conditions in the outside world.
If you come down with a cold or other illness, get a mouth guard, a surgical cloth mask. You will find that people often wear these on trains and at work. This filters your sneezing and coughing so you don’t spread it to others.
Second-hand smoke is a major health risk in almost all Japanese restaurants and public areas; this applies to multinational food chains as well as local venues. Non-smoking areas are not often offered and are sometimes substandard when they are available.
Healthcare in Japan
Medical facilities in Japan are on par with the West, and the better-known hospitals are usually equipped with the latest medical technology. For Japanese citizens and residents, the cost of medical treatment is affordable through the government’s national health insurance system. However, for those who are uninsured, the cost of medical treatment is expensive. While foreigners staying in Japan for a longer period of time (e.g. on a work or student visa) have limited access to the national health insurance system, it is not available to tourists on short visits.
Most Japanese doctors and nurses are not able to communicate in English. The US Embassy website has a list of hospitals and clinics that have English-speaking staff available.