National

Japan earthquake task force to redesign hazard maps to aid people with color vision deficiencies

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

A government task force focused on earthquake research intends to redesign its hazard maps to make it easier for those with color vision deficiencies to identify risks, an official said Wednesday.

The move is part of an effort by the government body to comprehensively revamp the maps, which use various colors to indicate the extent to which each area across the nation is susceptible to quakes, said Masahiro Nakade, an official at the Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion.

The redesigned maps will employ nine colors to signify the degree of danger facing each area, from the most urgent red-violet to the safest light gray.

Under the current design, a shade of green, for example, is adopted to indicate areas that have a 3 percent probability of being hit by tremors with a seismic intensity of four to lower-five on Japan’s seven-point shindo scale over the next 30 years.

But the new design, if formally authorized, will discontinue the use of green altogether, because people with color vision deficiencies often have difficulty distinguishing between red and green, Nakade said. The intended revamp of the maps is to be formally proposed to the research body’s policy committee on Thursday, where it is expected to be rubber-stamped, he said.

In Japan, color vision deficiency affects more than 3 million people — about 1 in 20 men and 1 in 500 women. A similar step to differentiate colors more clearly has already been taken by the Meteorological Agency, which likewise avoids using green and employs red violet to indicate the highest-level danger in alerting the public to earthquakes and floods.

Koichi Iga, vice chief director at a nonprofit called Color Universal Design Organization (CUDO), said he basically welcomes the latest move by the government task force.

“The biggest purpose of using different colors to indicate disaster-related risks, I think, is to allow for the public’s fastest, easiest grasp of danger on the way. But if shown in problematic colors, such a method of communication could backfire by misleading some people who perceive colors differently than others,” he said.

The surest way to prevent this, he said, is to take into account the opinions of those with color vision deficiencies, he said.

In April 2016, when a powerful quake struck Kumamoto Prefecture, the CUDO released a statement pointing out inconsistent use of colors among various TV stations in their portrayal of seismic intensity felt by each location within the prefecture.

This, coupled with their failure to hew to the use of “barrier-free colors” adopted by the Meteorological Agency, “prevented correct information from being conveyed” to people who perceive color differently, the organization said at the time.

Now that the government body for earthquake research is to emulate the weather agency in revamping color distributions on its hazard maps, “I hope the media will follow suit, too,” Iga said.

Nakade, however, stresses that the planned redesign of the maps is not just aimed at catering better to the needs of those with color vision deficiencies, but also to improve its overall readability, following criticism by some experts that it is hard to navigate due to a lack of consistency.

“The maps are comprised of a number of illustrations, but the use of colors in those various materials sometimes lacked consistency and clarity,” the official said, explaining that the color black, for instance, has been used to connote “high-risk” areas in some illustrations but not others.

There is a long history of discrimination against people with color vision deficiencies in Japan, especially in terms of marriage, employment and even education.

Elementary schools in Japan were once obligated to test students for color vision under the 1958 law on school health. But the government banned blanket testing at schools in 2003, as critics argued that failing to pass it could lead to bullying and discrimination.

The Japan Ophthalmological Society has called for the resumption of such tests to help facilitate detection of color vision deficiencies at an early age. Elementary schools ultimately reinstated the test in 2016, subject to an education ministry ordinance stipulating that parental consent must be acquired first and that the procedure must be conducted in a private setting.

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