The powerful earthquake that recently hit Hokkaido threw a strong spotlight on how unprepared Japan is to provide foreign visitors with information during a crisis.
With the number of foreign visitors expected to grow ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the government is introducing multilingual emergency information apps and other tools, but a lot more work is needed to train people who can provide direct assistance to non-Japanese during an emergency, experts say.
Hokkaido, a fairly popular tourist destination, gets close to 2.8 million foreign visitors a year.
“The hotel staff only responded in Japanese,” complained a South Korean man who was among many such foreign visitors seeking information following the magnitude 6.7 quake Sept. 6 that caused a massive blackout and transportation disruptions in Hokkaido.
A Chinese man said most information posted on signs in stations and in other public areas was in Japanese and English. “I wish there had been information posted in Chinese, too,” he said.
Many foreign tourists could be seen wandering aimlessly in parks in central Sapporo or stuck at airports, worried and frustrated because they were unable to obtain crucial information due to the language barrier.
The Sapporo Municipal Government set up a special evacuation center on the afternoon of the quake, dispatching staff there capable of speaking English and other languages. But an official in charge admitted that “we were so busy with the response effort at the evacuation center that we were unable to supply information in other languages.”
The Hokkaido government started a phone hotline for foreign visitors in English, Chinese and Korean.
Last year, the number of visitors to Japan hit a record 28.69 million and is expected to surpass 30 million this year. The central government, which sees tourism as a pillar of its economic growth strategy, aims to get the number up to 40 million by 2020.
The large and growing presence of foreign visitors, however, means disaster-prone Japan faces an uphill battle as it tries to better serve non-Japanese speakers in an emergency situation.
As a part of this effort, the Japan Tourism Agency created a guideline on how to deal with foreign visitors in the initial stage of a disaster.
The guideline urges tourist and lodging facilities to respond swiftly and fully to foreign guests to prevent panic as many of them will be unable to communicate in Japanese and may have no prior experience of coping in a disaster.
An app called Safety Tips delivers earthquake information and other disaster alerts in a fairly timely manner to smartphones and other devices in English, Chinese and Korean. The agency has been calling on foreign visitors to download the app, putting up notices at tourist counters and embassies in Japan.
Other popular tourist destinations have been taking their own measures to assist non-Japanese in disasters.
The city of Kyoto, for example, has set up a 24-hour call center that provides an interpreting service in five languages for hotels and other facilities that have trouble communicating with foreign guests. There is also a website that provides non-Japanese speakers with information on evacuation centers.
The city has been holding drills involving locals and hotel workers to ensure they know the procedures on how to evacuate foreign visitors to temple grounds and other safe locations when public transportation is not functioning.
In Okinawa, which is often hit by typhoons, the Okinawa International Exchange & Human Resources Development Foundation is training local citizens to become “supporters,” whose job will be to visit evacuation centers and gather information on foreign tourists during a disaster. So far, 135 people have signed up.
“Even if you cannot communicate by language, it is important to communicate what action people need to take in a simple manner using gestures,” said Masanori Negoro of the foundation.
Still, Negoro said he thinks there are nowhere near enough supporters and worries “how things would be if there is a major earthquake or a massive blackout.”
In Sapporo, still reeling from the impact of the quake and subsequent blackout, an official of the city said, “We need to consider the worst case scenario and act in cooperation with travel agencies and lodging facilities to jointly provide information (to foreign visitors).”
Shizuyo Yoshitomi, a professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, said administrative authorities and hotels must work together to determine the whereabouts of non-Japanese immediately after a disaster occurs.
“They must keep in mind that they should not exclude anyone and they should strengthen the ties with people who do not understand the same language,” she said.