Disaster-zone foreigners feeling linguistic squeeze

Kyodo News

A lack of good information in foreign languages about the nuclear plant crisis and food-rationing in shelters for evacuees is contributing to the anxiety felt by foreign survivors of last month’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami and their supporters.

A 40-year-old woman from the Philippines who evacuated from the city of Date, Fukushima Prefecture, recalled the fear and anxiety she felt amid reports of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant emergency.

“The nuclear power station exploded. I was really worried and scared. But I cannot catch what people say on TV,” the woman said at a shelter in Tokyo. She fled from the city with her 12-year-old daughter.

Her 55-year-old Japanese husband tried to help her understand the terminologies related to nuclear power generation, only to see her baffled.

“I’ve been studying Japanese. But I hope somebody will give me information in my mother tongue, Tagalog, in such a serious circumstance,” she said.

The woman and her daughter eventually chose to leave Japan and stay in the Philippines until the situation stabilizes at the nuclear complex, after her brothers asked her to do so from their homeland.

“I need to keep my child in a safe place until the nuclear station regains control,” she said.

The number of foreigners who left Japan, including interns and vocational trainees, rapidly increased after the March 11 disaster, according to Japanese authorities. The figure was 140,000 for the week through March 11 but jumped to 240,000 the following week.

Some foreigners in disaster-ravaged areas said they became particularly anxious when they overheard shocking conversations, although they eventually realized that most of what they heard proved to be wrong or utterly groundless.

Such false rumors included: “The mess in Fukushima was caused by a nuclear missile” or that the inland prefecture of Gifu “could be hit by a tsunami next.” They say they simply have no way to confirm whether those rumors are true because of the language barrier.

In Sendai, one of the areas hit hardest by the quake and tsunami, volunteer staff of the Miyagi International Association have begun responding to inquiries from foreigners in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese — even after midnight. How to leave Japan or the whereabouts of residents are among the most commonly asked questions.

Andrea Matsubara from Brazil and Marlene Shoji, a Filipino, voluntarily provide support trying to alleviate the uneasy feelings spreading among their countrymen. Shoji fields roughly 70 inquiries a day at the association — even after the massive tsunami engulfed her home.

“I know many people turn to me on an occasion like this because I’ve been in Japan for 36 years,” Shoji said. “There’s no time for tears.”

Masae Omura, chief planner and coordinator of the association, said she has been heartened to see foreigners helping not only their compatriots but also many others.

“While a number of foreigners are rushing to leave Japan for fear of possible radioactive contamination, there are many who have decided to stay here and help people around them,” she said.

Angelo Ishi, a Musashi University associate professor on ethnic matters and mass media, said there is a need to create a system in which vital information can be translated quickly into many languages.

The Japanese-Brazilian said the key to preventing panic is to thoroughly explain the dangers of the situation at the Fukushima No. 1 plant or to what extent it could pose a threat.

Also frustrating foreigners is uncertainty about the schedules for the rolling power outages by plant operator Tepco in Tokyo and its vicinity.

Lilian Terumi Hatano, a Japanese-Brazilian college tutor, calls on the utility to use Roman letters in providing detailed information on the areas covered by its outage plans.

Tepco’s information on rolling blackouts has an English version on its website, but it has no detailed information on the affected areas.

Hatano said information in other languages should be provided to help ease the anxiety of foreigners from non-English speaking countries.

A Tepco representative said the utility has no plans to add other languages, noting the company has yet to receive such a demand.