Volunteer interpreters assist foreigners with disaster drill

by Reiji Yoshida

Fifty volunteer interpreters speaking seven foreign languages took part in a disaster drill for foreign residents Wednesday in Tokyo, helping the roughly 60 participants communicate with their rescuers.

Tokyo has 447 registered translators covering 16 languages who have volunteered to help foreign residents at evacuation shelters in case a major disaster strikes.

The drill scenario started out with a strong earthquake hitting northern Tokyo around 8:55 a.m., destroying much of the capital’s critical infrastructure, including power, gas and water lines.

The volunteers first spoke over cell phones with the foreign participants, providing information on evacuation procedures and answering their questions. In a real disaster, the government would set up an emergency telephone hotline.

The foreigners then practiced various disaster drills with the translators in a park in Ikebukuro, including one involving an earthquake simulator that can shake up its occupants as strongly as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake pounded Kobe and its vicinity.

“This is very good (experience),” said Modrzyk Nicolas of Malaysia, who added he has not experienced a major earthquake in his own country.

The interpreters also practiced helping foreigners communicate with ambulance crews, using medical terms and phrases that would likely be needed during an actual disaster.

The languages handled were English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic.

When a disaster strikes, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to set up the Gaikokujin Saigai Joho Center (Disaster Information Center for Foreigners) at its main office in Shinjuku Ward and contact the volunteer interpreters.

The government will then ask them to staff any evacuation shelters with foreign residents, based on requests from ward and city offices.

A 63-year-old English-language volunteer, who identified himself only as Takashi, said he registered partly because he hails from Kobe and his relatives suffered in the 1995 earthquake.

“I thought I may be able to give some help” to people who get caught up in a disaster, he said.

But he also said that registered volunteers probably should get more training because they only get practical experience for emergencies once a year.

As of Dec. 1, Tokyo had 389,695 non-Japanese listed as residents. In addition, 4.81 million foreign tourists visited Tokyo last year.

“The role of volunteers is very important and meaningful,” said Hiroko Takishima, an official at the metropolitan government’s Bureau of Citizens, Culture and Sports.

The metropolitan government is looking for more multilingual volunteers.

For information, call (03) 5388-3156. The Foreign Residents’ Advisory Center also provides disaster information in English or Japanese at (03) 5320-7744 from Monday to Friday. Chinese-language service is available Tuesdays and Fridays at (03) 5320-7766, and Korean on Wednesdays at (03) 5320-7700.