National

Japan's emergency advisories are too complex and hard to understand, even for fluent Japanese speakers, experts say

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

On the eve of Disaster Prevention Day in Japan, communications experts urged authorities using social media to improve messaging targeting foreign residents of Japan and visitors to the country so that what they are trying to convey will come through loud and clear.

Amid an increase in the number of non-Japanese in the country, the government is pushing forward with translation and interpretation services, with many organizations including media outlets launching platforms with simplified Japanese.

But Isao Iori, a professor at the Center for Global Education at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University, believes that the simple translation of terminology and phrases is not enough to help foreign nationals take action in an emergency, as the advisory lacks information on what to do and when.

“Many non-Japanese have never experienced an earthquake and don’t share the common knowledge Japanese people do on what to expect in the aftermath of an earthquake,” Iori said Friday during a talk on disaster communication methods targeting foreign nationals.

Referring to a phrase in which the government advises citizens to “make best efforts to protect themselves,” Iori lamented that many messages the government distributes following disasters “have little content.”

“People who have barely heard such advisories won’t understand the deeper context of phrases like ‘evacuate to higher ground,'” he said, suggesting that such notices should contain a piece of advice on where exactly one should head to.

“In the event of an earthquake or a typhoon, people want to know what they should do if they’re outside … and the government should draft its advisories based on such guidelines that are in place,” Iori said. “The message (non-Japanese) need to hear in an emergency would sound more like: ‘Tsunami and high waves are approaching. Run away to higher ground.'”

Iori, who studies communication methods using a simplified form of the Japanese language, told the event that government officials have said that terminology used in advisories issued by the authorities contain expressions that are too vague even for fluent or native speakers. He added the government’s advisories are too condensed and such messages may be confusing for those hearing them.

Asa Ekstrom, a Swedish illustrator and longtime resident of Japan, who was among the panelists, said she had struggled to comprehend advisories from the government in March 2011. The Great East Japan Earthquake hit the day after she arrived in the country.

She said that disaster-related advisories are often too complex grammatically or contain characters and terminology rarely used on a daily basis.

Satoshi Hattori, who heads the public policy team at Twitter Japan, a co-organizer of the event, said he often asks government officials to tweet conclusive messages and cooperate with communities nationwide to make such posts easy to find, as opposed to attaching links to lengthy documents on the government’s websites. He also asks them to tweet in other languages, too.

“But simplifying words shouldn’t be priority. The most important thing is whether the content of the message is understandable — it requires consideration toward the recipients,” Iori said.