Clear guidelines needed to publicly disclose the names of disaster victims

REUTERS/file photo
An exterior view of the Japanese Diet building in Tokyo August 1, 2000.

Publicizing the names of the dead and missing in the event of a disaster is directly related to prompt rescue efforts. The government should swiftly establish rules that make the release of names a matter of principle.

Two days after the devastating mudslide in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, the prefectural government announced the names of 64 people who could not be reached. The announcement came half a day before the end of the “critical 72-hour window,” after which the survival rate of disaster victims drops significantly.

After the names were released, a number of people, including those who were considered missing, contacted relevant authorities to let them know that they were safe, and by the next day, the number of missing had been narrowed down to 27. By releasing the names and confirming the safety of survivors, rescue teams can concentrate on searching for those who are most likely to need help.

Whether to disclose the names of people whose safety cannot be confirmed at the time of a disaster is left to the discretion of each local government, partly due to the balance between protecting personal information and other factors. As a result, each municipality has had its own way of dealing with this issue, which has caused confusion.

Last year, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association submitted a request to the government and other organizations calling for local governments to promptly publish the names of disaster victims. It is only natural that the top priority should be to save lives. In the case of Shizuoka Prefecture, it can be said that the decision was appropriate, as the search for the missing was highly time-sensitive.

When torrential rain hit the Kanto and Tohoku regions in 2015, Ibaraki Prefecture and Joso City only released the number of people missing and withheld names. As a result, it invited a situation in which police officers and other rescuers had to conduct a broad search, even though some people were actually safely in shelters and other places.

Since 2005, when the Protection of Personal Information Law was enacted, there has been a growing reluctance to disclose personal information, and local governments have also become increasingly reluctant to release such information. However, organizations concerned need to keep in mind that if they delay in responding to a disaster, they will not be able to save lives that could be saved.

One of the reasons the handling of safety information at the time of disasters varied among local governments was that there were no uniform rules across the country. Under the revised Protection of Personal Information Law enacted in May, the central government will supervise the operations of local governments regarding personal information when the revision comes into effect.

As a concrete measure, the government said it will compile guidelines for the publication of names. If different local governments interpret the guidelines differently, confusion may arise again in the event of a large-scale disaster. The government is urged to strive to create clear and easy-to-understand guidelines.

In June, the National Governors’ Association summarized its views on the publication of names in the event of a disaster. As for the missing, the association said it is in the public’s interest in terms of improving the efficiency of rescue operations. As for the dead, the associated cited the significance of responding to the public’s “right to know” and preserving lessons for future generations.

Each local government is encouraged to share these views. The prompt and accurate provision of information will also help raise awareness of disaster prevention and mitigation among residents.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 21, 2021.