Tornadoes in Japan: A Rotating Rarity?

Tornadoes in Japan: A Rotating Rarity?

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Dual tornadoes strike the Izu islands in Japan.
Tornadoes are far from the first natural disaster one thinks of in association with Japan - yet they occur more often than you may realize.

Tornadoes in Japan – Rare but Deadly

Tornadoes are far from the first natural disaster one thinks of in association with Japan – yet they occur more often than you may realize.Support Unseen Jap…

Watch a documentary-style version of this article on our YouTube channel.

On May 1st, 2021, a powerful tornado rampaged through the city of Makinohara, Shizuoka Prefecture. Utility poles were wrenched from their moorings; the rotational pull of the storm sucked up plastic greenhouses and destroyed or damaged 91 buildings, littering the city’s famed tea gardens with debris. Flying glass injured three residents, and many homes suffered superficial damage. At its height, the tornado reached a wind velocity of 198 kph (123 mph), earning the storm an EF2 rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, indicating “considerable damage.’ In other words, the tornado possessed the power to lift cars, utterly destroy wooden buildings, and shift the foundations of frame homes. Thankfully, no lives were lost in the storm; indeed, few ever perish in Japan’s more frequent-than-you’d-think but generally weak tornadic events.

Japan is known for many things: technology, a globally beloved pop culture, incredible cuisine, a once-isolated and militant history. Also prominent in global imagination is Japan’s status as a magnet for natural disasters. Sitting atop the Ring of Fire, the country experiences over 2000 earthquakes annually — more than any other country. (Most of these are small enough to be confused for a large truck driving nearby, but many are considerably larger.) Relatedly, earthquake-born tsunamis devastate Japan’s coast; in 2011, a single earthquake-tsunami event caused the death of over 20,000 people in the northern Tohoku region. Volcanoes belch magma and send columns of smoke miles into the atmosphere. On the weather front, torrential rains can cause disastrous landslides and flooding. Japan is a land that has been shaped, both geographically and culturally, by disaster.

However, one form of disaster is conspicuously missing from Japan’s pantheon of calamity-bringing phenomena. Tornadoes, the very symbol of dangerous weather in large swathes of North America, seem not to be associated with Japan. True, isolated cyclonic events happen on the Japanese archipelago at rates far lower than in the infamously tornadic USA. Yet, as this year’s destructive storm in Makinohara demonstrates, tornadoes do very much occur in Japan.

An Edo-era woodblock print portrays Edoites gazing up towards a tornado.
In an Edo-era woodblock print, denizens of the capital city gaze up towards a funnel cloud.

Towards the Tatsumaki

The phrase in Japanese equivalent to the English “tornado” is “tatsumaki (竜巻)”, literally “winding dragon.” In Japan, the word can refer to both land-bound tornadoes and waterspouts, which form over bodies of water. According to Goo Jisho, the term tatsumaki derives from the latter; waterspouts seen sucking water into the sky resembled dragons climbing up towards the heavens.

On average, Japan experiences 20-25 observed tornadoes per year. This data point is just an average, however. Like most places on earth that experience tornadoes, the number of occurrences in any given year can vary greatly. Around half of the country’s tornadoes happen between July and October; most occur near coastal areas. Around 15% are waterspouts, and a further 20% of tornadoes in Japan are associated with the typhoons that buffet the archipelago each year. In 1979, a single typhoon generated 11 separate tornadoes.

No Match for America

These 20-ish annual tempests are a mere fraction of the US’s massive 1000+ tornado count. Even adjusted for how much larger the USA is compared to Japan (around 26 times the landmass), Japan still has less than half as many tornadoes per area. And unlike the US, where tornadoes can reach up to 2.5 miles in length and destroy whole cities, Japan has never officially recorded a tornado worthy of an F4 rating or higher. On the whole, Japanese tornadoes are usually on the ground for half the length of their US counterparts. (3.2 km vs. 7.1 km.)

Comparisons to the US, however, can be misleading. The USA is the tornado magnet of the world; few areas on Earth can compare to its deadly Tornado Alley (although Bangladesh is home to the most deadly tornado in history). Japan, however, is still one of the planet’s relatively few regions that regularly experience tornadic storms.

JSDF members shift through debris caused by a 2012 tornado in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.
JSDF members shift through debris caused by a 2012 tornado in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo copyright Japan Ground Self-Defense Force; 陸上自衛隊. Shown under CC 表示-継承 3.0.)

The Global Tornado Scene

The global tornado zones go as follows: an area that extends through southern Canada, the vastness of the US, and down to northern Mexico is the world’s active region for tornado strikes. South America, in turn, has its own Tornado Alley, focused around Uraguay and north-central Argentina. Across the Atlantic, the majority of Europe, save Iberia and the Balkans, is subject to tornadoes big and small; around 700 occur per year. Southern Africa is another site for regular tornadoes, mostly in the region around South Africa. Australia and New Zealand also experience their fair share.

In Asia, only a few regions experience regular tornadic activity. A long strip running from northern Pakistan, through India, and covering Nepal and Bangladesh see the most, and the most deadly. Bangladesh has more annual deaths from tornadoes than any other country, at over 100 per year. China’s east coast sees hundreds of tornadic storms; a single tornado in 2016 killed at least 98 people and injured over 800 in the farms and factories of Jiangsu province. South Korea and the Philippines are also subject to the threat of the funnel.

This leaves Japan as the last remaining major site of tornadic threat. Despite the many regions here mentioned, the vast majority of Earth’s surface does not regularly experience tornadoes; Japan is one of only 12 major regions to do so. While tornadoes here are far from the powerhouses of America’s central plains, they do still occur, and they do still take lives.

A map of the major regions where tornadoes occur globally - including all of Japan, save Hokkaido.
A map of the major regions where tornadoes occur globally. Notice that Hokkaido is not part of Japan’s tornadic region.

Rare but Still Deadly

On November 7, 2006, a tornado touched down in the Hokkaido town of Saroma, near the Sea of Okhotsk. The tornado, a comparatively weak F3, was still fierce enough to throw cars small distances and rip the roofs off of stable houses. However, it was as it approached a tunnel-building project that the destructive storm turned deadly. The tornado, not strong enough to completely destroy most permanent structures, still made easy work of the prefab housing on-site for the tunnel workers. Twenty were buried under the debris that moments prior had been their housing. Nine people perished in what became the deadliest tornado strike since the Japan Meteorological Agency began tracking tornado deaths in 1961.

There had been more deadly tornadoes prior to 1961. 12 died in a 1941 storm in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture. The largest tornado death toll in Japanese history occurred in the 1880s, when a tornadic funnel made direct contact with an elementary school in Miyazaki Prefecture, killing 16.

In the case of the Saroma storm, however, the location was itself cause for surprise. Hokkaido, even less so than the rest of Japan, is not known for tornadoes. Indeed, occurrence rates vary greatly from prefecture to prefecture — the most tornadic of Japan’s 47 local governments is Okinawa, on the exact opposite north-south axis from Hokkaido. Two other areas that experience more than their fair share of tornadic storms are Miyazaki and Kochi prefectures, both far to the south of Hokkaido.

Cyclones on the Coast

In general, the closer to the sea, the more danger tornadoes present in Japan. Prefectures that experience more tornadoes often do so primarily in their own coastal regions, with waterspouts that spawn out to sea sometimes even making landfall. Outlying islands can be in more danger than prefectural mainlands. Tokyo Prefecture has experienced more tornado damage than almost any other prefecture, but the lion’s share of that statistic relies on tornadoes that have struck the Izu and Ogasawara islands; technically part of the capital prefecture, these island chains lie far out to sea. (The Ogasawaras in particular are some 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo proper.)

Far From a Formost Fear

What does the average person in Japan think about tornadoes? To find out, I conducted a short interview with a Japanese national to whom I am close. While one person is a small sample size, I feel her opinions reflect those I’ve heard from other Japanese friends, coworkers, and acquaintances.

Q: How often would you say you think about tornadoes?

A: In Japan, never. In the US? Many times.

Q: Let’s think about some other forms of natural disasters. How scared are you of earthquakes, on a scale from 1 to 10?

A: 10. We always talk about the Big One they’re saying is going to come one day. Also, after living in Europe, even small earthquakes back in Japan started to freak me out a bit more.

Q: How about tsunami? How much fear do you hold towards them?

A: Depends on where you live. If you live near the ocean, I guess they’re a 10. Inland, you don’t worry too much about them.

Q: And lastly, what about tornadoes?

A: I mean, if I take the time to think about them, they are scary. But I never think about them. So if I was to say I’m scared of them, it’s more of a 「未知のものへの恐怖」 – a fear of the unknown.

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Funneling Attention

Although tornadoes remain a background worry at most for the majority in Japan, they have been gaining more media and scientific attention in recent years. A spate of damaging and destructive tornadic storms from 2005 onwards jumpstarted a greater local awareness of the potential danger such occurrences entail. In particular, 2005 saw a deadly train derailment caused by a tornado in Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture. All six cars of a train on the JR-Uetsu line derailed; five passengers died in the event, with 32 others sustaining injury. Together with the Saroma, Hokkaido tornado, the Sakata derailment helped foster a greater appreciation for how dangerous tornadic events can be.

A diagram demonstrating damage from the Sakata derailment. (Copyright by the Japanese government, used here under terms of under the Government of Japan Standard Terms of Use (Ver.2.0).)

Since 2005, the Japanese media now reports on essentially every tornado in the country, whether deadly or not. The Japan Meteorological Agency, which previously only tracked damage-causing tornadoes, now collects data on all tornadic events. More thought is being put into how to build structures that are resistant not only to the major threat of earthquakes, but also to meteorological events that produce powerful wind.

Still, tornadoes rightfully remain far from the forefront of one’s mind when considering the dangers inherent to life in Japan. While climate change is continuing to make weather more erratic, producing stronger and more frequent typhoons (which themselves bring a risk of tornado), the likelihood of actually seeing a swirling mass of wind and cloud descend from the heavens remains low on the islands of Japan. Tornadoes do, indeed, occur on the archipelago — but Japan remains far from being the Tornado Alley of East Asia.

伊豆諸島で”竜巻” 黒雲からハッキリと2本の筋(20/03/16)

気象庁は、伊豆諸島北部で竜巻が発生したとみられると発表しました。 伊豆大島のカメラマンが16日昼ごろに撮影した映像です。海の向こうに2つの竜巻が発生しています。気象庁によりますと、現場は伊豆大島の南から南西にかけた海上だということです。島からどれくらい離れているかは分かっていません。[テレ朝news] https…

Japanese news captures two simultaneous tornadoes striking the Izu islands.


Niino, H., Fujitani, T., and Watanabe, N. (1997.) A Statistical Study of Tornadoes and Waterspouts in Japan from 1961 to 1993. Journal of Climate, Vol. 10, Issue 7.

Matsui, Masahiro & Tamura, Yukio & Cao, Shuyang & Yoshida, Akihito & Kobayashi, Fumiaki & Okada, Rei & Sabareesh, G. (2021). Recent tornado damage in Japan.


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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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