Local governments increase disaster drills for non-Japanese residents



Local governments are enhancing their programs to help foreign nationals, whether they’re residents or travelers, to prepare for natural disasters and other emergencies.

People from abroad, in the same way as elderly Japanese citizens, are designated as needing assistance in emergencies because of the possible language barrier and unfamiliarity with geography.

Emergency preparedness for such people is more important than ever because a record 2.12 million foreign nationals were residents in Japan at the end of 2014, while the number of tourists from abroad topped 19 million last year, coming just shy of the government’s goal for 2020.

The City Hall in Beppu, a hot-springs resort in Oita Prefecture that was visited by around 340,000 foreigners in 2014, prepared a tsunami hazard map in English in 2013. The area is forecast to be hit by tsunami waves as high as 4.78 meters in the event of a massive earthquake along the Nankai Trough in the Pacific Ocean south of Honshu’s southwestern coast.

The map includes evacuation tips such as “Escape when you feel a big quake near the coast,” or “Escape to a high, rather than distant, place.”

And in 2015, the municipal government distributed a map showing the locations of emergency evacuation centers.

Aaron Geffen, a 27-year-old Dutch student who recently visited Beppu during a short-term study program in Tokyo, said the presence of many maps showing evacuation routes in the city “made me ready to escape if anything happens.”

In 2014, the city also started an emergency drill in a district that has a large population of people from abroad.

“There are foreign residents who have never experienced an earthquake shock,” a municipal official said. “Exchanges between Japanese and foreign residents enable them to help each other in an emergency.”

Sri Lankan student Jude Dilshan, 27, who has experienced a tsunami in his home country, said after taking part in a drill, “Opportunities to learn how to use an AED (automated external defibrillator) and get acquainted with Japanese people are valuable to me.”

In Takahama, Aichi Prefecture, where foreign residents account for more than 5 percent of the population, the first disaster drill for foreign residents was held last November. It was attended by 25 Brazilians of Japanese descent.

Suggestions given by an instructor, such as “Get under a desk when you feel a quake,” were translated into Portuguese. Participants also experienced a simulated intensity 7 earthquake, the highest on the Japanese seismic scale, aboard a special truck. They also practiced yelling “Help!” in Japanese.

In a post-drill questionnaire, all respondents said they would like to participate again.

Satoshi Hagiwara, 40, who took part in the drill with his family, voiced surprise after realizing he had been totally ignorant of important information such as possible flood areas and the locations of evacuation centers.

“Information taken for granted by Japanese people can be important to foreigners,” said Nobuyuki Kurita, head of Rescue Stock Yard, a Nagoya-based nonprofit organization dedicated to disaster relief activities, who served as an instructor during the drill.

Non-Japanese tend to form their own communities and don’t often join traditional neighborhood associations run by Japanese residents.

“We hope that foreign residents repeatedly participate in drills and help us as interpreters in the event of an actual disaster,” said Naohiro Fukaya, a senior official of the Takahama Municipal Government.

When the massive earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region in March 2011, ascertaining foreign tourists’ whereabouts proved a vexing problem as railways and other transport systems failed to convey relevant information in foreign languages.

With the number of visitors from abroad expected to further increase before the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the Japan Tourism Agency has developed a free mobile phone app that offers safety tips for natural disasters.

The agency has also worked out guidelines for tourism-related businesses such as hotels and travel agencies to help non-Japanese.

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