OSAKA – As the continuing tourism boom packs public transportation systems nationwide, developing multilingual emergency alerts is becoming a top priority.
In public transport emergencies, there are often no emergency announcements in English or other languages, leaving both foreign passengers and the Japanese staff in charge of assisting them in a crisis.
In one case, when a strong earthquake jolted Osaka Prefecture last month, a quick-thinking Japanese commuter who spoke English helped ensure that a bad situation on the Hanshin Electric Railway Co. train did not get worse.
At around 8 a.m. on June 18, alarms from the earthquake early warning system went off, prompting the train to slow down before coming to a halt at Ashiya Station in Hyogo Prefecture. Hikaru Nagano, 52, a Kobe resident who works for a broadcasting station in the city of Osaka, noticed a foreign man standing around helplessly with no clue about what was happening and explained to him in English that the train had stopped due to an earthquake. The man was from India.
Nagano, who has worked abroad on several occasions, thought there might be more foreign people on board struggling to figuring out what was happening. So she rushed to the driver’s compartment and volunteered to make an emergency announcement in English. Although surprised by the suggestion, a crew member handed her the microphone.
“This is an emergency announcement. There was a strong earthquake in Osaka,” Nagano said, adding that the train would be held at the station for a while. Once service was suspended, she directed passengers in English to the exits.
While relieved to see so many foreign riders exit without problems, she was also concerned that she might have overstepped her authority.
“I just did that in the spur of the moment, but I wondered if it might be against the rules for passengers to make such announcements,” she said.
The railway, however, heaped praise on her. Such actions are not considered an infringement of the rules in times of emergency, it said.
“(Her action) helped us a lot. The train attendant was thankful for that as well,” an official of Hanshin Electric Railway said.
Tsunami damage to the rail network might be expected if a strong quake strikes in the Nankai Trough, a sea trench off the Pacific coast that stretches southwest from central Japan. Since the damage is expected to be dire, the ability to issue a multilingual emergency response has become a major issue.
Hanshin Electric holds study sessions and distributes Q&A manuals to its drivers but the efforts have not produced significant results.
Japan received just under 29 million foreign visitors last year, and an estimated 15.89 million visited between January and June, setting a new six-month record and threatening to top 30 million by year’s end, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
In response, other railroads have also been developing emergency communications measures for tourists.
In April, Tobu Railway Co., whose network covers the Kanto region covering Tokyo and the four surrounding prefectures, started an emergency announcement system using four languages — Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean — at nine stations frequented by visitors, including Asakusa and Tokyo Skytree stations.
Tablet computers are installed at the stations to provide announcements in the four languages in the event of accidents and disasters.
The tourism agency has also upgraded a safety app that provides international visitors with disaster information, including early quake warnings, tsunami warnings, weather warnings and volcanic eruption notices in English, simplified and traditional Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
The new information its provides includes data on hospitals and clinics that can treat international travelers, as well as information on heatstroke and weather forecasts.
In late June, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry gathered railway operators for a meeting to discuss earthquake measures, and the availability of disaster alerts in foreign languages was one of the main topics.
“We need to push the necessary measures forward swiftly,” a ministry official said.
The government is aiming to reach an annual target of 40 million visitors by 2020, when Japan hosts the Olympics.