During a natural disaster, the difference between life and death can come down to the availability of information that’s fast, accurate and in a language you understand.
Typhoon Hagibis made landfall on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture on Saturday before making its way north toward the Tohoku region, bringing ferocious winds and record-breaking rain. Left in its wake were flooded cities, overflowing rivers and at least 25 fatalities.
Through it all, phones were buzzing with news about evacuation advisories and updates on the trajectory of the typhoon, but mostly in Japanese. In the wake of Typhoon Hagibis, voices on Twitter and other social media services criticized the lack of information distributed in other languages.
“We struggled to find information,” said Lezel Boyd, an Australian who was in Japan with her husband, Richard, to watch the Rugby World Cup. “It was a bit scary being in the very place where the eye of the storm was predicted to pass over.”
The couple landed in Shizuoka on Friday, which is incidentally where Typhoon Hagibis made landfall the following day. Heeding the advice of their tour guide, they drove up to Tokyo on Saturday morning with the typhoon quite literally on their heels.
As they huddled in their 18th-floor hotel room in Shinjuku, they looked to newspaper websites in Australia and the United States for weather updates. Occasionally, their phones would light up with new information about evacuation warnings.
“Of course we had no idea what they meant,” Richard chuckled. “We know there’s information out there for people like us, we just didn’t know where to look.”
As the typhoon was barreling through Japan on Saturday, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government tweeted that people should “take the best action available to save your life.” Though it could be said the warning reflected the severity of the situation, without the proper context the tweet may have caused some to experience reasonable panic.
Typhoon Hagibis struck Japan as the country is hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The experience could serve as a cautionary tale about the need for multilingual support during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which will be held back-to-back next year from the end of July to early September — covering the sweltering summer and the typhoon season.
Still, the metro government did provide updates on the typhoon throughout the course of the day in multiple languages, albeit translated by machine and with frequently misspelled names. The languages included English, Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Tagalog, Malay, Indonesian and Vietnamese.
NHK tweeted updates using “friendly” Japanese that didn’t include katakana or kanji, while its international counterpart NHK World covered the storm entirely in English.
Several Twitter users criticizing the lack of linguistic diversity took it upon themselves to translate updates into less common languages, pointing out that not all tourists and foreign residents in Japan speak English.