Photo/IllutrationForeign visitors ponder their next step in front of JR Kyoto Station on June 18 after a strong earthquake hit northern Osaka Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

More effective systems are urgently needed to protect foreign nationals during natural disasters.

This pressing policy challenge applies particularly to major cities and tourist hubs due to the sharp increase in foreign visitors, as well as foreign workers and students living in Japan.

It is crucial to ensure that accurate disaster-related information is provided swiftly. This requires creating multilingual information systems designed to meet local needs.

A strong earthquake in northern Osaka Prefecture in June left many foreign tourists stranded. Apparently at a loss over what to do, they waited at train stations and on streets as train services were suspended between perennially popular Kyoto and the city of Osaka, the principal transportation hub in the region with its myriad hotels.

Railway companies have taken steps to provide information and support to foreign tourists. They have set up multilingual signboards at stations, hired staff members who are fluent in other languages and distributed tablet computers with translation applications installed to station employees.

But railway operators need to review, for instance, the effectiveness of their train and station announcements in foreign languages to assess areas that can be improved.

Japan Railway companies need to check whether they have done enough to share information concerning Shinkansen and other services, as well as with other railway and subway operators.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, many foreign nationals with little grasp of Japanese turned to their countries’ diplomatic establishments in Japan for traffic and other information.

South Korea’s Consulate General in Osaka was flooded with phone calls from South Korean tourists seeking help. The office responded by dispatching staff members to main stations and using the Internet to provide information concerning the operational status of public transportation services in Korean language.

Diplomatic missions are also responsible for confirming and protecting the safety of their citizens living here.

Local governments and public transportation service operators need to work more closely with foreign diplomatic establishments in Japan and seek their advice on ways to provide necessary information.

During the flooding disaster in western Japan in July, a foreign technical intern trainee living in Hiroshima was unable to understand the Japanese evacuation order on his cellphone and got injured after the corporate dormitory in which he lived was inundated by mud.

In the Mabicho district of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, where flooding submerged wide areas, families of foreign nationals of Japanese ancestry faced a dangerous situation that required evacuation.

The government’s basic plan to prevent disaster damage calls for “sufficient consideration” to be given to the safety of foreign nationals.

The Internet is assuming growing importance as a means to communicate evacuation advice and instructions to people in disaster-hit areas. It is now vital to provide that information in more languages.

It is also important to make foreign tourists and residents aware of the risks that disasters could bring.

The Niigata municipal government and the transport ministry’s Hokuriku-Shinetsu District Transport Bureau have jointly developed a tourist guidebook containing disaster-related information in English, Chinese and Korean.

The booklet offers illustrated advice and information about how to respond to an earthquake or tsunami. It contains a sightseeing and disaster preparedness map that pinpoints key local tourist spots as well as emergency evacuation sites. It should also be useful for foreign residents in the prefecture.

Announcements at tourist facilities, along with notice boards in towns and map instructions, also need to be multilingual.

Such steady and effective efforts are vital for improving our society’s ability to protect foreign nationals when disasters strike.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 17