FUKUOKA – Efforts are underway by local governments across the nation to support non-Japanese in times of natural disaster as the number of foreign nationals living in Japan continues to grow.
As part of the shift, local authorities are preparing emergency manuals and guidelines that stipulate specific steps, including how to prepare for an earthquake.
Kyodo News surveyed 50 municipalities, including most of Tokyo’s 23 wards, where a large number of foreign residents live, and three other major cities in Shizuoka, Niigata and Kumamoto.
Of those, 32, or about 60 percent, have already formulated some kind of emergency guidelines to support foreign residents. The remaining municipalities have no guidelines or manuals or are in the process of compiling them.
“It’s natural to consider how to support residents regardless of nationality in times of disaster,” a Sagami city official in Kanagawa Prefecture said.
Takehiko Yamamura of the Disaster Prevention System Institute pointed to the necessity for emergency manuals, saying, “It’s difficult for an organization to act without manuals.”
Last April the city of Kumamoto was unable to respond swiftly to calls and questions from foreign embassies and consulates when major earthquakes struck the region as it did not have emergency manuals and guidelines.
Kobe, which has the fourth-largest foreign population in Japan and suffered a deadly magnitude-7.3 earthquake in 1995, has compiled the most detailed manual, specifying ways to gather information, setting up consultation services and dispatching interpreters in a flowchart.
The city in Hyogo Prefecture has also distributed cards to expatriates to help them reach evacuation sites in the event of a disaster. The card says in Japanese, “Please take me to an evacuation shelter.”
Six municipal governments, including Sagamihara in Kanagawa Prefecture, have placed instructions such as “recommendation for evacuation” and “doctor is arriving” written in English, Thai and Tagalog at each shelter.
Yokohama, which has the nation’s second-biggest foreign population after Tokyo, and Kobe have also both offered training for volunteer interpreters and translators to assist foreigners at shelters and government offices.
According to Kumamoto Prefecture, even some longtime foreign residents had problems when the two powerful earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.5 and 7.3 hit because they did not understand some Japanese words such as “water supply” and “aftershock.”
But support for nonnative Japanese speakers is still not enough in the Kyushu-Okinawa region, which includes Kumamoto.
A separate survey of 10 cities in that region with large numbers of foreign residents showed only two cities — Oita and Miyazaki — have formulated some kind of emergency guidelines for foreigners.
In their guidelines, Oita will upload disaster information in multiple languages on its website, while Miyazaki will use illustrations in some cases to help communicate essential information to non-Japanese.
“We’re discussing an upgrade to our manual following the quake disaster in Kumamoto,” said an official of Oita, whose guidelines were formulated before last April’s quake disaster.
Fukuoka, which had the largest number of foreign residents among the 10 cities, hasn’t created any guidelines yet.
“The priority had been low to create such guidelines but we need to prepare them as soon as possible,” said a Fukuoka city official.
There is inadequate recognition among governments that foreigners are taxpayers and residents, said Shizuyo Yoshitomi, a professor at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.
“Comprehensive recognition of residents with diverse backgrounds would lead to building towns that are resilient to disasters,” she said.
When the earthquakes hit Kumamoto last year, it was Kumustaka, a citizen’s group in Kumamoto aimed at supporting foreign nationals in the region, that offered information and other aid to foreign evacuees.
The group offered a total of 1,500 meals in the two weeks after the disaster at Kumamoto International Center, designated as a facility for foreign evacuees.
More than 100 foreign tourists and residents found shelter there after the earthquakes.
Kumustaka, which means “how are you?” in Tagalog, also translated newspaper articles in Vietnamese and Thai and posted them on its website.
“It’s vital to offer evacuation and disaster information in multiple languages immediately after a disaster,” said Shinichiro Nakashima, who heads Kumustaka.
Officials at the international center also translated announcements made by the central government to Chinese and English and responded to inquiries by foreign media and embassies.
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