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 2013, Japan hosted more than 10 million tourists, representing nearly $15 billion in international tourism receipts, according to the 2014 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 – how worried should tourists be about their safety? And what about those stories of being robbed in Tokyo?
When making plans to travel or live abroad, safety is often a consideration. People traveling to Japan – or any other country in the world, for that matter – are not immune from risk. Here, we take a quick look at how safe it is to travel in Japan.
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 2014 study, Japan ranked 8 out of 162 countries, falling behind only Iceland (#1), Denmark, Austria, New Zealand, Switzerland, Finland and Canada (for comparison, the U.S. ranked 101).
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).
Advice from the U.S. Department of State
The U.S. Department 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.
So are natural disasters a real threat to tourists in Japan? Maybe, but the odds of being in an area while it is struck by disaster are statistically small because of their infrequency.
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.”
The Bottom Line
Overall, Japan is considered a very safe country for travelers. It ranks in the top 10 in the Global Peace Index, and it has no active travel warnings or alerts issued by the U.S. Department of State. Of course, like any country (including your own), 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.
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.