Japan factors foreigner safety into its disaster prep
More counterterrorism drills including interpreters and multilingual information
Tetsuro Kosaka, Nikkei senior staff writer
TOKYO Japan is beefing up its anti-terrorism measures with a special focus on protecting foreign residents and visitors during the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
The Cabinet Secretariat recently held a counterterrorism drill in Kyoto that included evacuation guidance for foreigners. Japan's ancient capital draws more than 3 million tourists from abroad every year.
The scenario of the Feb. 2 drill was that terrorists had released a deadly nerve gas, called sarin, inside the Kyoto Racecourse building. The participants "escaping" the building included 14 foreign residents from the city.
"Stay calm. Proceed slowly," a police officer said in Japanese. "Is anyone feeling sick?" another asked. Assisted by volunteer interpreters and other citizens, the non-Japanese participants made their way through a decontamination tent and received triage tags indicating the severity of their exposure to the gas before boarding a bus to an evacuation center.
Once at the center, these participants answered a doctor's questions in the presence of interpreters.
Takashi Ito, the cabinet counselor who arranged the drill, said, "We could confirm what kinds of programs are effective for the evacuation and medical treatment of foreigners when a chemical terror attack occurs at a large spectator facility."
Combined public and private efforts helped raise the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan to an all-time high of 24 million in 2016. The number of foreign residents in Japan also climbed to a record 2.3 million.
As the number of foreigners in Japan grows, earthquake and other natural disaster drills across the country are increasingly including support for people who do not speak Japanese.
But natural disasters, while devastating, often follow fairly predictable patterns, with the situation tending to settle down after the initial event.
The course of events after a terrorist attack, by contrast, is far less predictable, not least because of the possibility of additional attack. The invisible nature of chemical or biological weapons, moreover, can amplify people's fear, provoking chaotic reactions that are different from those following a natural disaster.
CRITICAL COMMUNICATION The drill in Kyoto not only encouraged participants to think about counterterrorism measures in a more concrete way, it also brought various issues to light.
"In my country, people would panic if a chemical attack occurred, but Japanese people may remain calm," said one foreign student who took part in the drill and remarked on the orderly behavior of the Japanese participants. While it is easy, of course, to remain calm in a drill, the student's comment indicates that a person's reaction to a crisis depends to some extent on his or her cultural background.
"If a large-scale terrorist attack occurs in Kyoto, train stations and other places may be thrown into havoc by large numbers of foreigners trying to flee the city en masse," said Masanari Okamoto, a senior official of the Kyoto City International Foundation.
There is also the challenge of making sure inaccurate information does not spread and create further confusion. The task for the central and local governments is to promptly disseminate pertinent information in a number of languages.
For the February drill, the Kyoto city office prepared written instructions in English, Chinese and Korean. This kind of preparation could come in handy during an actual crisis.
For many Westerners, accurate information in English is a must, a student from Latin America said after the drill.
Another issue is that people from elsewhere in Asia may not be recognized as non-Japanese and thus might not receive the assistance they need.
"Foreign students living in Kyoto should have as many Japanese friends as possible so that they will not be isolated in terms of information," Okamoto of the Kyoto foundation said.
In the drill, volunteer interpreters accompanied foreign participants from the racetrack to the evacuation center. But there is no guarantee that enough interpreters will be available in the case of an actual terrorist attack.
Studies are needed to investigate ways in which technology, such as smartphones and automatic translation software, can be used to better protect foreign residents and visitors.
Mobilizing the necessary human resources is also key. Large cities like Kyoto have international exchange organizations staffed with people able to assist foreigners in case of emergencies. A personnel dispatch system would go a long way toward helping municipalities lacking such staff.