TOKYO -- The Japanese government is developing a new framework for helping foreigners who need emergency medical or other assistance.
The move, spearheaded by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, comes at a time when record numbers of tourists are flowing into the country. The number of foreign visitors topped 20 million for the first time in 2016, and the government expects twice that many in 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympics.
The three-part support framework includes a multilingual smartphone app that sends real-time warnings for earthquakes and tsunami, as well as information on the nearest available evacuation centers.
Also in the works is a system that uses interpreters to help with emergency phone calls, and the deployment of bilingual or multilingual personnel to provide and coordinate information at evacuation centers.
The ministry has earmarked about 7 billion yen ($61.4 million) for related expenses in the fiscal 2017 draft budget being discussed in the current session of the Diet, Japan's parliament.
Currently, the ministry distributes disaster information in English on the Japan Meteorological Agency's website. Mobile service providers, such as NTT Docomo, provide a multilingual service that delivers early warnings for earthquakes and alerts for tsunami issued by the agency.
However, there have been complaints that local governments do not offer enough language options for evacuation information during disasters.
The app is expected to provide the latest disaster information and directions to evacuation areas in English, Chinese, Korean and other major languages. It will also use pictograms to help those whose languages are not covered.
Interpreters on call
Currently, tourists who need an ambulance have to dial the same 119 number that Japanese use. However, the language barrier can make this impractical -- potentially even deadly -- if the necessary information cannot be communicated.
Under the envisaged system, an interpreter will be on hand to facilitate communication between the fire department and the caller.
Currently, English and Chinese are the only foreign languages that the Tokyo Fire Department can accommodate. Technology will be developed to enable interpreters to mediate phone conversations between the two parties.
The final element of the planned system is designed to help visitors adapt to life at evacuation centers. Some foreigners may have trouble adapting due to a lack of knowledge of local etiquette and customs, such as how to use Japanese-style toilets.
The ministry is working with local governments on a possible system for deploying multilingual personnel to act as information coordinators at evacuation facilities.
The coordinators would also be tasked with helping foreigners convey any requests or information to the local government.
Deadly natural disasters strike Japan almost every year. Last year, a series of powerful earthquakes slammed Kumamoto Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu, and heavy rains and flooding wreaked havoc in the northeastern prefecture of Iwate.
The ministry is worried about the fact that foreigners and the elderly tend to be the last ones to receive disaster information.
By studying what has happened in previous disasters, such as the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the ministry aims to create a system under which everyone has access to information when disasters strike.