Japan Faces Challenges to Help Foreigners in Times of Disaster

Courtesy of the Soja city government /Jiji Press
People undergo training to be foreign disaster response leaders in Soja, Okayama Prefecture, in June 2022.

TOKYO (Jiji Press) — With the number of foreign residents in Japan having surged about 35 times over the past century, the central and local governments are working hard to ensure the safety of people with different languages and customs in the event of a massive earthquake.

According to Japanese government data, the number of non-Japanese residents stood at about 2.75 million in 2020, up from about 80,000 in 1920, three years before the Great Kanto Earthquake, which hit Tokyo and surrounding areas, leaving 105,000 dead or missing. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimates that the number will increase to around 9.39 million, accounting for about 10% of the total population in Japan, compared with about 2% in 2020.

In addition, visitors to Japan totaled about 31.88 million in 2019, soaring 90-fold since such statistics began in 1964. The government aims to raise the annual visitor number to 60 million by 2030.

The government is endeavoring to provide disaster information in multiple languages. “Language barriers sometimes stand in the way of communicating evacuation information,” an official said.

Disaster response app “Safety tips,” supervised by the Japan Tourism Agency, provides residents and visitors with push notifications of earthquake early warnings and evacuation information in 15 languages.

Some users welcome it as essential for foreign residents in Japan. The total number of downloads since the app’s launch in October 2014 stands low, at 350,000, however, suggesting a need for stepped-up efforts by the government to make it widely known.

Local governments are exploring a variety of other ways to assist foreigners in times of disaster. Some provide disaster information in easy Japanese, such as describing tsunami as “very high waves.”

On support for visitors from abroad, Japan is inadequately prepared. Since 2021, the Japan Tourism Agency has asked local governments and so-called destination management/marketing organizations (DMOs) to draw up “tourism contingency plans” that include disaster responses for Japanese and foreign tourists. DMOs promote the development of tourist areas through wide-ranging cooperation between the public and private sectors.

But according to a survey conducted by the agency in 2022, only 8.8% of 694 local governments and organizations covered in the poll had formulated such plans. Funding and labor shortages are thought to be the causes for the slow responses.

An agency official voiced a sense of crisis. “In line with the increase in visitor arrivals, there are growing fears that more foreigners may fall victim to disasters during stays in Japan. Advance preparation is increasingly important,” the official said.

In some local governments, non-Japanese residents have started to play active roles in disaster response efforts.

In 2013, the city government of Soja, Okayama Prefecture, kicked off a project to train “foreign disaster response leaders,” the first of its kind in the country. Currently, there are 43 such leaders from eight countries. They are tasked with receiving non-Japanese people, including tourists, at evacuation shelters in the event of a disaster and responding to their requests for advice.

The initiative was born out of an offer from a foreign resident who expressed willingness as a member of the community to help others in the event of a disaster.

When heavy rains swamped areas in western Japan, including Okayama Prefecture, in 2018, foreign disaster response leaders took part in volunteer activities in affected areas and received thanks from local citizens, according to city officials.

Similar systems have been put in place in other local governments, including in Sapporo and Sendai. An official of the Soja city government said, “As local governments sometimes have difficulties dealing with foreigners in times of disaster, efforts to train foreigners who will support them are needed across the country.”