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Japan now has a record 1.55 million registered foreign residents, representing 1.23 percent of the population. These entirely legal residents are still being given short shrift in government planning, such as disaster-prevention and relief measures. It is two weeks since the nation as a whole — nearly 6 million residents of 33 prefectures — marked Disaster Preparedness Day on Sept. 1 by taking part in government-sponsored earthquake and other safety drills. Few steps were taken on that day, the 77th anniversary of the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, to see that foreign residents were fully informed.

Two days later, Tokyo witnessed a massive disaster-relief drill organized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government under Gov. Shintaro Ishihara that is still a hot topic of comment. To a large extent this is because, at Mr. Ishihara’s urging, the Self-Defense Forces participated on an unprecedented scale: some 7,100 members in uniform, along with more than 1,000 motor vehicles, 80 aircraft and five maritime vessels at 10 sites throughout the capital region. It is inevitable that SDF members should play a major disaster-relief role if a tremor on the scale of the 1923 quake were to strike again. What their assigned duties may be to assist non-Japanese-speaking foreign residents in such an event is not so clear.

On the same day that the nationwide drills were held, the Central Disaster Prevention Council chaired by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori announced its decision to implement a full-scale revision of the nation’s basic disaster-response plan. That plan is a set of guidelines derived from the Disaster Response Law. Local governments base their own plans on the one outlined by the national government. It is not unreasonable to expect that the revision should include specific provisions for guiding Japan’s growing foreign population.

Prominent, and sorely needed, among the proposed changes is one stemming from public criticism of the bureaucratic red tape that led to fatally slow responses by official disaster-relief agencies following the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Kobe and its environs in 1995. Now a new system is to be put into effect to allow the new Cabinet Office that will be established next January to issue direct orders to the Self-Defense Forces, police and firefighters.

The revised plan must contain sufficient measures to both allow swift responses and prevent potential abuses. Three-quarters of a century after the Great Tokyo Earthquake, many constitutional safeguards are in place that did not exist at that time. Nevertheless, it is worth recalling that in the confusion following the terribly destructive Tokyo tremor the government declared martial law and sent nearly 35,000 troops in to restore order.

The most obvious reason that disaster-relief plans at both the national and local government levels must take into account the presence of foreign residents is a shameful part of that same history. Fire was the cause of most of the destruction following the Tokyo quake, raging virtually unchecked for two days. The subsequent mass hysteria fueled vicious rumors that disgruntled Koreans were deliberately setting fires and even poisoning wells. In the resulting organized vigilante violence, several thousand Koreans and many Chinese were attacked and killed.

Despite Mr. Ishihara’s attempts to downplay the incendiary nature of his remarks to SDF troops last April about the possibility of “rioting foreigners” following a major disaster, which he later insisted he intended to apply only to illegal residents, he was at it again during the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s huge disaster-relief drill. Mr. Ishihara insisted on trying to rally the assembled troops with talk about their being “weirdly named” military forces and referring to the need to be always ready to defend the nation against an invasion by foreign powers. The public thought they were engaged in a disaster-preparedness exercise.

Mr. Toshiyuki Shikata, a former Ground Self-Defense Force commander himself and now a special adviser to Mr. Ishihara, believes the scale of the Tokyo drill was important because it could call attention to potential weaknesses in relief planning. Only a few days earlier, he acknowledged in a talk to foreign correspondents that the metropolitan government needed to set up a system to provide information in multiple languages for foreign residents. It is impossible to disagree. The role of some 700 registered foreign-language-speaking volunteers will be indispensable if a major disaster does strike Tokyo. It is inexcusable, however, if Mr. Ishihara and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government are expecting them to assume responsibility as the major lifeline for the capital’s foreign residents.

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