NPO uses traditional Japanese karuta card game to help foreign residents learn disaster-related vocabulary


A Tokyo-based nonprofit organization is using traditional karuta playing cards as part of a disaster-prevention effort to help foreign nationals living in Japan get information and overcome language barriers in times of emergency.

In a karuta game, one person reads out the text on a reading card and players grab a picture card, which usually has a corresponding character and image. The aim of the program is to teach foreign participants disaster-related terms in Japanese such as jishin, meaning earthquake, and hinan, meaning evacuation, and their kanji and kana characters through repetition.

Motoko Kimura, founder and co-executive director of the NPO, WaNavi Japan, came up with the idea of offering such a program after seeing her American friend having a hard time obtaining information when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011.

Kimura learned that there is a gap between Japanese people and foreign residents in terms of knowledge about evacuation shelters and wireless disaster information distribution systems.

“I heard that some foreign residents walked alongside the coast when returning to their homes because they didn’t understand the meaning of the (tsunami alert) sirens,” Kimura said.

As part of such workshops — held at the request of institutions such as municipalities, embassies and companies — the NPO has participants listen to sample evacuation broadcasts warning of a pending tsunami in order to check if they actually understand what is being said.

The NPO also introduces an app to foreign participants that gives evacuation information in English, among other ways to access necessary information.

At a workshop held at Tokyo International University in Kawagoe, Ana Paula Ortiz, a 20-year-old exchange student from Mexico, said that she did not know Japanese words such as hinan. She expressed her eagerness to be better-prepared for possible disasters.

As foreign workers in Japan are expected to increase after the revised immigration control law came into effect in April, which is designed to accept more workers to address the country’s serious labor shortage, Kimura stressed the importance of education to help foreign residents learn the terminology being used when emergencies hit.

“I want people from abroad to learn Japanese disaster-related terms needed for survival right after their arrival in the country,” Kimura said.