Names of People Missing after Japan Disaster May Be Publicized after 72 hrs

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Cabinet Office

The government has drawn up a plan to name people whose safety cannot be confirmed within 72 hours of a major disaster — without the consent of their families.

The Cabinet Office on Feb, 8 released draft guidelines for local governments, provisionally green-lighting the release of such names within three days of a calamitous occurrence. The guidelines aim to make it easier to confirm people’s whereabouts, thus allowing search and rescue operations to be narrowed down and carried out more effectively.

2 categories

The Cabinet Office classifies residents whose whereabouts are unknown at the time of a disaster into two categories: people thought to be missing as a direct result of a disaster, and people whose safety cannot be confirmed because they are uncontactable. The draft says publicizing the names of people in the latter category should be considered within 72 hours of a catastrophic event, after which the likelihood of survival is likely to sharply decline.

Following a fatal mudslide in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, in 2021, the names of 64 persons whose safety could not be confirmed were released after two days. By noon the following day, the whereabouts of 41 of those people had been confirmed, allowing for a quicker focusing of the search and rescue operations.

The draft specifies four types of personal information that would be made public in a major emergency: name, address, age or generation, and gender. However, no information would be released on victims of domestic violence or stalkers, among others.

The draft requires that checks be conducted in advance to discern whether personal information held in Basic Resident Registration records had been restricted by residents’ request.

The Cabinet Office said the guidelines will be finalized after soliciting public opinion through March 1.

Dispelling concerns

In the event of a major disaster, prefectures would collect information on missing people and decide whether to publicize their names. However, since prefectures have been divided on the issue of family consent and other related matters, the National Governors’ Association requested the government to establish uniform standards.

According to a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office in December 2021, 30 of 47 prefectures had rules in place regarding the release of personal information in the event of a disaster, with 17 of those 30 stipulating that family consent was a precondition for publicizing the names of possible disaster victims.

An official of Mie Prefecture, which numbers among those with the precondition, said, “Although it could delay the release of names, we took into account the risk of trouble that could arise from releasing personal information without giving due explanation to families.”

To dispel local governments’ concerns regarding this point, the draft states that the exigent nature of post-disaster circumstances would allow for personal information to be released to third parties without consent under the Personal Information Protection Law’s “special reasons.”

Prompt disclosure of personal information requires cooperation between prefectures and municipalities that manage the Basic Resident Registration records.

Having clarified relevant procedures in consultation with municipalities, Yamanashi Prefecture in 2019 adopted a policy of releasing personal information without the consent of family members. It standardized the format of documents that request human casualty reports and introduced a check box to indicate whether access to Basic Resident Registration records had been restricted.

A further challenge is dealing with cases in which people are impacted by a disaster while outside their home municipality. For example, Shinjuku Ward in Tokyo has a daytime population of about 800,000 — more than twice its residential population. An official of the ward office’s crisis management section said it would take considerable time for the municipality to discern whether viewing restrictions had been imposed in the records of other local governments.