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Tourists left stranded after Osaka quake

Lack of information highlights flaws in emergency response measures

Many foreign tourists like this Indonesian family were left stranded at Osaka station after the earthquake on June 18. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

OSAKA -- When a magnitude 6.1-earthquake struck the Japanese city of Osaka on Monday, many foreign tourists found themselves stranded and in need of assistance that was not forthcoming.

The need to share information quickly and efficiently is supposedly one of the lessons Japan learned from the loss of life following disasters in the northeast of the country in 2011 and the southern island of Kyushu in 2016.

Yet, many overseas visitors said they had no access to essential information in the aftermath of Monday's temblor, despite the many emergency procedures put in place by the authorities.

As the country strives to attract more foreign tourists, and with major international events such as the Rugby World Cup and Olympic Games on the horizon, the events in Osaka have raised concerns regarding the safety of the expected influx of people.

Tanguy Bovey, a 21-year-old from Switzerland, was in his hotel in the city when Monday's earthquake struck. The building's PA system began blaring out guidance and information for the guests, but he had to rely on news websites from his own country to figure out exactly what had happened -- a process that took hours.

The earthquake left five dead and about 400 injured, causing widespread travel diruption and blackouts in some areas.

The local authorities had made significant efforts to provide for foreign visitors. The Osaka prefectural government swiftly posted messages in English on its website warning about aftershocks and set up a multi-language, round-the-clock hotline.

But these initiatives went largely unnoticed. The hotline received just a handful of calls, mostly from foreign residents enquiring about utilities supply and evacuation orders. Many tourists, meanwhile, were left stranded and desperate for information.

Bovey said his concern was down to simply not knowing what was going on, and he was not alone.

A 24-year-old Chinese man found himself stuck at a busy train station, where little information was available in foreign languages. He had to turn to Chinese microblogging site Weibo for updates.

Some of the measures taken were more effective.

The Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau removed the time limit on its free Wi-Fi service on Monday to allow people as much internet access as needed. The service, which is available at about 5,000 locations across the prefecture, is usually available for up to one hour per user per day.

In the last few years, many local authorities and hotels have drafted disaster response manuals for their staff, often with the help of the central government and private think tanks.

Typically, they include a list of warnings to relay to customers, such as "A major earthquake has occurred," or "Do not use the elevator," in English, Chinese and Korean.

The manuals provide reminders for staff that many foreign tourists may have never experienced an earthquake, are unlikely to speak or read Japanese, and will be looking for information. They also encourage local governments and hotels to share information through websites and social media accounts.  

Services like text-message earthquake alerts are now provided for foreign residents, but they require prior registration and few short-term visitors are likely to be aware of them. 

The events in Osaka have highlighted a significant flaw in current emergency response systems, namely, that local government websites are not the most efficient way of dissemminating information among foreign visitors.

"Local governments have prioritized assisting residents rather than short-term visitors in dealing with emergency situations," said Yoshiaki Hisada, professor of urban design and planning at Kogakuin University in Tokyo.

He suggested that tourist boards and local governments could use channels that people are more likely to be familiar with, such as popular travel sites.

"They still have a lot of work to do to assist foreign visitors," he said.

Nikkei staff writer Mitsuru Obe in Tokyo contributed to this article.


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