Kansai officials brace for sudden deluge of refugees

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — Local governments nationwide are offering food, water, medical aid and officials to assist in the disaster-relief effort, as well as temporary shelters for those left homeless.

But with growing numbers of residents from Tokyo and other parts of the Kanto region leaving or thinking of leaving their homes due to fears of radiation from the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant about 270 km away, cities and businesses in western Japan and elsewhere are quietly discussing measures to deal with the possibility of a deluge of refugees.

Osaka and Kyoto prefectural officials and Kansai-area businesses, especially hotels, say nothing has been officially decided but informal discussions have begun among government officials and individual firms about how to handle a sudden influx of people from Tokyo who need hotels for the short to medium term or more long-term shelter.

Tadashi Nishimura, an official with the Osaka Ryokan and Hotel Association, said Wednesday that at the moment, business hotels and “ryokan” inns are facing the opposite problem, but that things could change.

“Due to last Friday’s quake, our members have been reporting increased cancellations. But we do need to start thinking about what would happen in the event Osaka suddenly sees large numbers of people from Tokyo looking for rooms,” he said.

In Kyoto, where hotels and ryokan over the next couple of weeks were previously almost fully booked for the cherry blossom season, the prefecture said it is starting to consider measures to deal with sudden spikes in mid- and long-term demands for hotel rooms. Kyoto is only about two hours and 20 minutes from Tokyo Station by the fastest trains.

“Discussions on a scenario that requires responding to the arrival of refugees from Tokyo are expected to begin soon,” said Shinya Iwako, a prefectural official.

In Kyoto and Osaka prefectures, there are more than 500 hotels and ryokan, plus another 340 or so in Hyogo Prefecture. Over the past few days, a number of people from Tokyo have been arriving at Kyoto Station and Kansai and Itami airports with plans to stay in the region for an indefinite period.

In Kobe, those who lived through the 1995 quake and participated in volunteer activities said it is the responsibility of not only the local governments but the central government to assist those who choose to leave Tokyo.

“Even if the worst does not happen at the Fukushima plant, lots of people living in the Kanto region may choose to leave simply because of disaster fatigue and the constant worries about more quakes, tsunami and continued blackouts,” said Shizuka Mori, 47, a Kobe resident who has participated in volunteer rescue activities in Japan and overseas.

“Local governments should do what they can to welcome those who want to leave, but such people would also need financial and medical help from the central government.”