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Nikkei Editorial

Japan must improve its disaster services for foreigners

Emergency information needs to address the specific needs of tourists

Foreign tourists rest at an evacuation shelter in Sapporo after the northern main island of Hokkaido was hit by a strong earthquake in September. (Photo by Maho Obata) 

If a major earthquake or other disaster hits Japan, is the country equipped to provide sufficient information to foreign residents and tourists? This issue was brought into sharp relief this past summer when disasters hit the northern main island of Hokkaido and the Kansai area in the west.

If current trends and projections are any indication, the number of foreign tourists, residents, students and employees in Japan will only increase. The authorities must therefore ensure that these people are not left in the dark in times of emergency.

At the moment, disaster information in emergency situations -- provided through local radio communication systems and via subtitles on TV news broadcasts -- is available mainly in Japanese only. For those not acquainted with Japanese earthquake and tsunami protocol, merely knowing the intensity of a quake or the name of the area hit is not enough to get an adequate picture of the situation and therefore may trigger false rumors and groundless fears.

Referring to Typhoon Jebi, which flooded Kansai International Airport, and the recent strong earthquake in Hokkaido, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted at a Sept. 21 meeting of the government's Tourism Strategy Promotion Council that the "information provided to non-Japanese was insufficient."

The kind of information that foreign tourists need in such emergencies -- including how and whether they can return home, and where they can find shelter -- is not always exactly whatlocal residents are looking for. The authorities need to recognize this difference and reflect that not only in the disaster information they provide but also in the means in which theyprovide it.

A survey by the Japan Tourism Agency of foreigners who experienced the massive earthquake that rocked Japan in 2011 found that most turned not to Japan-based websites for information but to media outlets and social networking sites from their home countries. Japanese diplomatic missions overseas should therefore make a point of providing accurate information to their respective host countries.

Japan has gotten better, if slowly, at disseminating information in multiple languages. National broadcaster NHK currently provides news programs and disaster information in 17 languages through its broadcasting services and the internet. It plans to supply foreigners with more information on how to respond to possible disasters in Japan before they visit the country. Making greater use of such public services and constantly striving to increase awareness of them could be quite effective.

Many travelers depend on smartphones for traffic information and translation services. But the natural disasters that happened this summer caused massive power blackouts that rendered the smartphones useless for such purposes and thus aggravated the turmoil. Those incidents underscored the need for systems that enable non-Japanese speakers to access crucial information through means other than the internet.

The Council of Local Authorities for International Relations offers an online tool for producing a printed "multilingual living information" guide for emergency situations. It covers such topics as garbage disposal, toilets, battery charging and health care. A lot of unnecessary confusion can be averted if operators of evacuation shelters, for example, prepare such guides in advance.

It is also vital to secure personnel who can facilitate communication between Japanese and foreigners. That means drawing on the experience of people who are familiar with overseas lifestyles and religions. One way to do this is to ask nonprofit organizations engaged in international exchanges for help in emergencies. An interim report by an Osaka prefectural government panel on earthquake preparedness recommends creating a system for commissioning non-Japanese students and foreign employees working at Japanese companies under the technical intern training program to temporarily serve as interpreters at evacuation shelters. Other local governments could take a cue from that idea.

It is important that the Japanese government provide people in other countries information in advance about the possibility of natural disasters in Japan and how to respond to such emergencies during their stays. From a long-term perspective, gaining the trust of non-Japanese is more important than scoring near-term increases in tourist numbers.

When disaster strikes, it is difficult to do much more than look after oneself. But even in those dire circumstances, all Japanese should keep in mind the many foreigners around them who are at a dangerous disadvantage in terms of access to information.

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