Japan is an archipelago of almost 7,000 islands found between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan in East Asia. Its natural beauty, hot springs, exotic cuisine, history, culture and 18 World Heritage Sites attract visitors from all over the world. During 2019, Japan pulled in nearly $41 billion in international tourism receipts, according to the 2019 Edition of the UN World Tourism Organization's Tourism Highlights, the most recent version available.
Japan is one of the world's safest nations. But with earthquakes in the news—and memories of Japan's 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami and Fukushima nuclear accident still fairly fresh—should tourists be worried about their safety?
Then, there's coronavirus. On Feb. 22, 2020, Japan received Level 2 Travel Advisory (Exercise Increased Caution) status from the U.S. Dept. of State for COVID-19, the official designation for this new form of coronavirus. On the same day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put Japan on Alert Level 2, Practice Enhanced Precautions status for COVID-19. [On Jan. 3, 2020, it had put Japan on Level 2 for an outbreak of rubella, recommending that travelers there be vaccinated with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine before traveling there.]
- Japan is one of the top five safest countries to visit.
- Violent crime in Japan is almost non-existent as the nation and its populace value peace and prosperity over minor inconveniences or trifles that may lead to conflict.
- Although Japan is situated in an area that experiences considerable geographic anomalies, traveling there is still extremely safe as these incidents are quite rare.
- However, travelers with nonessential business—especially those who are older or have chronic health issues—might do well do avoid visiting Japan during the Level 2 Travel advisories for COVID-19.
Global Peace Index Ranking
The Global Peace Index, created by the Institute for Economics and Peace, measures the relative peacefulness of 162 nations across the globe that represent 99% of the world’s population. The Index measures peace based on 22 qualitative and quantitative indicators including ongoing domestic and international conflict, societal safety and security (including crime rates), and militarization. For the 2019 study, Japan ranked 9 out of 162 countries falling behind frontrunners such as Iceland, Portugal, Denmark, Singapore, Slovenia, and others.
Japan is ranked #5 in the world in the Safety and Security security of the 2019 Global Peace Index, behind Iceland, Singapore, Norway, and Switzerland.
Many of the Index’s indicators are scored on a 1 to 5 (very low to very high) ranking system. Japan scored 1 on many of the indicators, including homicides, jailed population, access to weapons, organized conflict (internal), violent demonstrations, violent crimes, political instability, weapons imports, terrorist activity and deaths from conflict (internal and external).
Because COVID-19 is front-of-mind, this report will start with the latest on its appearance in Japan. Discussion of other risks to travelers follow.
Japan and COVID-19 Risk
As of Feb. 27, 2020, Japan has 186 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization. Three people have died and Japan, after the Republic of Korea, has the most reported cases outside of China.
"Japan is experiencing sustained community transmission of respiratory illness (COVID-19) caused by the novel coronavirus," says the CDC website. "The virus can spread from person to person. Older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing nonessential travel."
What does that mean exactly? Community transmission means that the disease is beginning to spread among people who did not visit Wuhan in China where the virus was first identified, or have a history that includes contact with anyone who has been in China or other regions where COVID-19 has spread. (On Feb. 26, 2020, a patient being treated in Sacramento, Calif., was identified as the first probable case of community transmission in the U.S.).
In the current environment, travelers should factor in COVID-19 risks when planning any trips; it's only prudent.
Safety Advice from the U.S. Dept.of State
The U.S. Dept. of State issues travel alerts and warnings on an ongoing basis, and travelers to any region should check for notices before leaving home and while abroad, if possible. The U.S. Department of State notes on its website: “The general crime rate in Japan is well below the U.S. national average. Crimes against U.S. citizens in Japan usually involve personal disputes, theft, or vandalism. Violent crime is rare, but it does exist. Robberies committed after a victim has been drugged from a spiked drink are increasing. Sexual assaults are not often reported, but they do occur, and females may be randomly targeted.”
The U.S. Department of State specifically mentions Roppongi and Kabuki-cho – entertainment districts in Tokyo that cater to foreigners and are considered high-risk areas for crime, especially misuse of credit card information and credit card/cash theft associated with drink spiking. Read the entire Safety and Security message here.
Natural Disasters and Other Risks
While Japan is considered a “safe” country in terms of dangers perpetrated by other people, natural disasters pose other risks. Over the years, Japan has been affected by devastating natural disasters, including earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, typhoons and volcanic eruptions.
It’s worth noting that certain areas in the country are more (or less) prone to natural disasters. Tohoku, in the northeast, and Kanto (near Tokyo), for example, are more prone to earthquakes. Regions that are more likely to be affected by typhoons include Okinawa, Kyushu and Hokkaido. And active volcanoes exist, including Japan’s most famous volcano, Mount Fuji, and Mount Unzen in Shimabara. Of course, the same can be said of the U.S., with the Eastern seaboard being more prone to hurricanes and the Midwest more likely to experience tornados.
Insurance firm Swiss Re ranked 616 urban centers from around the world by how prone they are to extreme weather events. In Japan, Nagoya ranked sixth because of its tsunami risk; Osaka-Kobe ranked fourth due to the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis; and Tokyo-Yokohama ranked first because of the risk of earthquake, floods, tsunamis and monsoons. Also appearing in the top 10 was Los Angeles, Calif., ranked ninth because it sits on the San Andreas Fault, making it highly prone to earthquakes.
Radiation is also a concern following the Fukushima nuclear accident triggered by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and subsequent tsunami. While radiation is still present in the accident’s vicinity, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published a report in April 2014 that stated, “The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low. No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants.” As of early 2020 the area is relatively safe for habitation and almost completely safe for those just passing through.
The Bottom Line
Overall, Japan is considered a very safe country for travelers. It ranks in the top 10 in the Global Peace Index. Like any country, Japan has areas that are less safe than others, and travelers should use common sense, especially when visiting entertainment districts and using ATMs. And, like anywhere you live or travel, it’s important to pay attention to weather warnings and give heed to any recommended or mandatory evacuations.
Now that COVID-19 is beginning to spread in Japan, travelers on nonessential business, especially those who are older or suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes and asthma, would do well to avoid travel in Japan. And anyone coming home from travel there who experiences respiratory symptoms or fever should telephone their physician or local health authorities for instructions on what to do next. They—and anyone in contact with them—should also isolate themselves. The CDC has detailed instructions for people in this situation.
Note: U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in Japan (or any foreign country) are encouraged to enroll in the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which provides security updates and makes it easier for the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to contact you and/or your family in case of an emergency.