Will Japan be ready for the Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games in the event of a huge disaster? The typhoon that hit Japan last week revealed how vulnerable the Tokyo metropolitan area can be, as evidenced by the wide disruption of transportation, power supplies and water. It also suggested the need to promote flexible work styles in the face of emergencies.
An Egyptian man arriving at Narita International Airport was one of 17,000 people stranded there Sept. 9. After going through the lengthy passport control process, he emerged only to find that all buses and trains to Tokyo were suspended and long lines snaked out from the taxi stands.
Typhoon Faxai caused a total of 124 flights to be canceled on that day, while all East Japan Railway Co. and Keisei Electric Railway Co. services were suspended. Highway bus operations were also knocked out as routes linking Narita and Tokyo were blocked.
The Egyptian ended up staying at the airport for 13 hours. Some announcements were made in English, but the volume of English-language information provided at the nation’s largest international airport was far from sufficient. He was not aware that sleeping bags and food were being distributed by airport officials. Being stranded at an airport without food and water is bad enough, but it is even worse when you don’t understand the language.
What could airlines and the airport operator have done? Some flights were diverted to other airports later in the day, but there could have been more. Airline crews could also have warned passengers about the overcrowded situation before arriving at Narita. Some foreign tourists told the media that they were not even aware of the typhoon and transportation disruptions until after they had landed. If they had been provided with sufficient information in English, they could have at least prepared themselves psychologically.
Much the same could be said about train operations. As a result of a series of natural disasters last year, including Typhoon Jebi that hit Kansai International Airport and flooded a terminal and runway, and the massive blackout in Hokkaido caused by an earthquake, the transport ministry in July hammered out a guideline regarding advance notifications of service cancellations. In case of possible cancellations, the guideline pointed out that railways need to utilize various means to convey information about train services to the public — and that it should be done in multiple languages.
Though JR East displayed information on train operations in multiple languages on various screens in its stations, it failed to fully utilize social media to get the message out.
Providing information in English and other languages is particularly important at a time when more and more foreign visitors are expected to come to Japan as the Rugby World Cup starts this Friday and Tokyo hosts the Olympics next summer.
According to the Mastercard Destination Cities Index, which ranked 200 cities based on visitor volume in 2018, Thailand came out on top with 22.78 million international overnight visitors, followed by Paris and London. Tokyo ranked ninth with 12.93 million international overnight visitors. The number is expected to increase next year.
Train stations in the Tokyo metropolitan area also saw big crowds after operations resumed Monday morning. While trains may have been running, they still suffered severe delays and entry to some stations was restricted to avoid dangerous overcrowding on their platforms.
If information about train delays and station entry restrictions was available in advance via official websites or social media accounts, many people could have adjusted their commuting times or stayed home and worked remotely.
Since many companies are already promoting work-style reforms and telework, they could have done more to encourage employees to work from home. A survey by the internal affairs ministry in fiscal 2018 found that nearly 20 percent of 2,000 companies contacted had introduced telecommuting. And yet when the typhoon hit, many people were asking this question on social media: “Why do we have to go to work on such a day?”
This is partly because some companies failed to properly convey to their employees in advance that they could work from home. Japanese corporate culture, which values conformity, is also likely to have played a role in applying “invisible” pressure on employees to work in the office with others. This pressure is even stronger if they know their bosses will be at the workplace.
It is time for Japanese companies to review their emergency protocols and send out the right message to their employees in case of disaster. Such efforts will help reduce traffic congestion in times of crisis. At the same time, major public transport operators must step up their efforts to provide multi-language information as soon as possible.
While many damaged areas have yet to recover from the storm, people should keep in mind that September is a major typhoon season, and there is always the risk of earthquakes. The lessons of the latest crisis must be taken seriously.