KOBE – The image of a resilient Japan rebounding almost immediately from natural disasters is one that has taken root across the world, but sometimes that image can obfuscate the trauma and the panic of actually living through a disaster.
Roxana Oshiro knows this firsthand. She recalled fleeing her Kobe home on Jan. 17, 1995, and joining the frightened throngs of people in the street as the Great Hanshin Earthquake upended the city and its surrounding area early that morning.
Originally from Peru, she had been living in the city for four years and spoke little Japanese at the time. As Oshiro recounted for attendees at last week’s inaugural Kansai Resilience Forum in Kobe, organized by the Japanese Government in collaboration with IAFOR, she had never experienced anything as terrifying as what happened that morning.
To make matters worse, the one word that Oshiro understood that she repeatedly heard during public announcements was “tsunami.”
“I was in a panic when I heard the word ‘tsunami’ and I took it to mean a tsunami is coming,” Oshiro told reporters at the forum. “Because we were close to the ocean, I thought, ‘I have to run, I have to evacuate,’ but I didn’t know where to go.”
What Oshiro also didn’t know at the time was that the public announcements were informing people that there was, in fact, no threat of a tsunami. Rather, it was the effects of the magnitude 7.3 earthquake alone that caused such devastation, leaving a total of 6,402 people dead, including 148 foreign nationals in Kobe.
Oshiro and Chiaki Kim, who also spoke during the forum, told reporters about their current roles as presenters with Radio FMYY, the world’s first disaster-focused radio station. Both women are part of a team of volunteers formed in the wake of the Kobe earthquake who broadcast information on disaster prevention and relief, as well as a range of other community news and issues in several languages, including Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and English.
As Japan gears up for a series of marquee sporting events, including this year’s Rugby World Cup, which will take place in 12 cities nationwide including Kobe, followed by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the country’s disaster relief infrastructure will be tested in the event of a calamity — or calamities.
Japan is also set to take in up to 340,000 foreign workers over the next five years from April as it sets about plugging yawning labor gaps due to a declining and aging workforce.
In many ways last year proved to be a test case after the nation was hit by a series of deadly natural disasters, including severe flooding, powerful earthquakes and Typhoon Jebi, which shuttered Kansai International Airport for three days, stranding thousands of passengers and staff at the country’s third-busiest airport.
Thomas Mayrhofer, general manager of ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka, remarked at the forum that Kansai was “on CNN for eight consecutive weeks” as it dealt with an earthquake in the beginning of the summer and Jebi in early September. But Mayrhofer, who also oversees ANA hotels in Hokkaido, Kobe and the city of Okayama, said that despite the severe blow to the Osaka hotel industry, the city had reacted exceptionally well. The city’s resilience, he said, highlighted the nation’s capabilities.
“I think Japan is incredibly strong in preparing, preventing and responding (to disasters),” Mayrhofer said.
He also noted that offering shelter during a disaster takes precedence: “A lot of times hotels have been built stronger for longer term use than some local buildings and we have a responsibility to the local community and to our guests to provide shelter.”
One area Mayrhofer pointed to that required attention was getting emergency information to tourists and foreign workers in multiple languages, noting that the country’s emergency broadcast system transmits disaster alerts only in Japanese.
“I think it’s critical that we have to work with the authorities to try to get this into more than one language,” he said.
As an example, Mayrhofer highlighted last June’s 6.1 magnitude earthquake in Osaka.
“For foreign tourists it can be devastating … in some cases it’s their first earthquake they have ever experienced,” he said.
“The language component and how to communicate immediately during a crisis is something here in Japan where we still have work to be done,” Mayrhofer added.
For its part, Kobe has learned from the devastating 1995 quake, especially when it comes to relaying information on disaster prevention, mitigation and relief in multiple languages. Kaori Asada, assistant manager at Kobe’s Crisis Management Office, outlined how the city has taken an active approach to providing aid in times of disaster to its 1.5 million inhabitants, which includes more than 45,000 foreign-born residents, as well as foreign visitors.
Beyond pocket-sized disaster prevention cards issued in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Vietnamese and Portuguese, the city has also posted a list and map of refuge shelters in multiple languages online. Hyogo Emergency Net, meanwhile, transmits emergency information via email and on its website in 11 languages while Kokokuru, a tsunami information website, details how to prepare for an earthquake and tsunami, and what to do in the event of a disaster.
Asada also explained how the Crisis Management Office coordinates with community groups in the city who pass on verified information in languages other than Japanese. Since 2014, Kobe also supports simultaneous interpretation on 119 emergency calls.
As the resilience forum made clear, natural disasters are a fact of life in Japan, but preparing for and dealing with them are a process that is continually evolving, especially as Japan changes.
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