Roxana Oshiro, a Peruvian of Japanese descent, came to Japan in 1991 and was living in a dormitory in Kobe with her husband and child when the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit the region in 1995.
After a violent jolt, she desperately kicked the door open and got out of the dormitory, which was run by her husband’s employer.
“I didn’t understand Japanese at the time, and the only word that I understood from some broadcasts was tsunami,” Oshiro said. “Taking it to mean a tsunami was coming, I panicked and cried.”
With the help of local residents, she managed to arrive at a junior high school used as a shelter. “But I wasn’t sure if I had the right to stay there since I was a foreigner,” she said.
Fearing that she might be told to leave, she could not even line up to receive food at first. She ended up staying in a car for two weeks.
She thought of going back to her home country, but decided to stay after seeing people support each other in evacuation shelters, she said.
After consulting a citizens group about her child, who was in elementary school at the time, she began to realize there were many others like her who faced difficulties because of language barriers and cultural differences.
In 2000, she established Hyogo Latin Community, a support group for Spanish-speaking people, in Kobe’s Nagata Ward. The group publishes a monthly magazine in Spanish to offer community information and organizes Spanish-language classes and counseling sessions.
The group also produces a weekly Spanish program for FMYY, a local multilingual internet radio station.
“We want to be of help to our fellow people,” Oshiro said.
Then came the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Unable to gather accurate information, some of her fellow foreign residents returned to their countries, and the group was flooded with calls from many people looking for information in a panic.
“More than a decade had passed since the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and yet we were totally unprepared,” Oshiro said.
In 2018, the group published a disaster-prevention handbook in Spanish, explaining with illustrations information on evacuation shelters and ways to prevent furniture from toppling.
The group distributed the handbook to 27 prefectures. It also holds disaster-prevention seminars on such occasions as community Christmas parties when many people gather.
When Typhoon Hagibis was approaching Japan last fall, Oshiro provided information including the projected path of the typhoon and the predicted damage on the internet radio program. She showed the map of Japan during the program — which was also shown on YouTube — and described the locations of places such as Kanto and Tokai that are frequently mentioned in weather forecasts. The group’s Facebook page was filled with appreciative comments from South American people living in Aichi and Tokyo.
“It is important for someone like Roxana to speak up and increase the presence of foreign people living in Japan,” said Chiaki Kim, who runs FMYY. “If they obtain necessary information and take action, they can be the ones to help other people and play a role in disaster prevention in communities.”
To provide foreign people with a variety of information in case of disasters, the government encourages local governments to set up disaster-support centers that offer multilingual services.
Although the installation of such centers is not obligatory, some 80 percent of the 47 prefectures and 20 ordinance-designated municipalities have been making preparations to open such centers when hit by natural disasters, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
The Aichi Prefectural Government signed an agreement with the Aichi International Association in the spring of 2015 to jointly operate such a center in case of disasters. Under the agreement, based on requests from disaster areas and evacuation centers, volunteers who speak such languages as English, Chinese and Spanish would offer translation, interpretation and counseling services on disaster-related information.
In Aichi, the cities of Nagoya and Nishio will set up such centers separate from those of the prefectural government.
“Many municipalities have difficulty securing interpreters and translators, so they can only provide logistic support when it comes to helping foreign people,” an Aichi government official said.
The prefectural governments of Mie and Gifu are also planning to set up such centers. In fiscal 2018, the Mie Prefectural Government began holding training courses for local residents who speak foreign languages or who are interested in helping foreign people. After they learn some tips for translating disaster-related information into different languages or simple Japanese, they are registered as supporters who will be dispatched to the centers.
In Gifu, a total of 155 people were registered as volunteers as of last June to offer services in 13 languages.
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Jan. 15.