As Typhoon Etau ripped northward across the central part of Japan this week, residents, office workers and pedestrians in Tokyo’s Minato Ward had a surprise when their smartphones abruptly made an unfamiliar ringtone and the screen flashed an alert.

The alert, “evacuation preparation information regarding mudslide disaster,” was issued Wednesday and the first of its kind for the ward, though Tokyoites may be more familiar with alerts for earthquakes or tsunami.

And it is part of a trend as mobile phone alerts against possible floods or mudslides in heavy rain are increasingly issued in various parts of the country, local government and industry sources said.

“I’ve seen a number of alerts by local governments when typhoons hit, but few alerts have been issued in Tokyo,” an industry source said. The source said alerts have been issued hundreds of times outside of Tokyo, mainly against strong typhoons.

Wednesday’s alert was issued at 2:40 p.m. after the Meteorological Agency issued a heavy rain warning at 1:42 p.m.

According to a disaster prevention division official at the Minato Ward Office, such a warning from the agency will prompt the ward to issue its own alert for heavy rain or landslides.

The alert, unlike an evacuation advisory or evacuation order, is targeted at the elderly and physically challenged who may require longer time to evacuate or who may have trouble preparing to evacuate immediately upon a more serious alert.

The ward also decided to issue the alert because a disaster could affect a large number of people given the area had a significant daytime population of office workers.

The alert was sent to any person with a mobile phone who was inside the ward, including passersby. It was issued using a special messaging service, rather than regular email.

“We realized it’s difficult to reach everyone only through the anti-disaster administrative broadcast, which you hear blaring from outdoor speakers on street corners, or what we call information emails that we generally use,” the official said.

While the mudslide warning puzzled many who were inside the ward, seemingly inside concrete buildings, the official explained there were steep hills where “you cannot deny the possibility there may be mudslides.”

Seizing on increased demand for disaster alerts, following major natural disasters in the country, mobile carriers are beefing up services.

NTT Docomo Inc. has started providing earthquake and tsunami alerts in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Portuguese, to users who have set up the service app in foreign languages. The company also has an option of messages written in simple Japanese, for non-native Japanese speakers, said company spokeswoman Madoka Sato.

SoftBank Group Corp. provides the alert services in English.

Both companies said users can opt out of the services, though it is not recommended.


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