Photo/IllutrationAbout 80 South Korean tourists stayed inside the gym of an elementary school in Sapporo, which was designated a temporary evacuation shelter, on Sept. 7, a day after a powerful earthquake struck Hokkaido. (Kazumasa Sugimura)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

When American tourist Markhuri Davis arrived at a shelter in Sapporo in the wake of a powerful earthquake that rocked Hokkaido on Sept. 6, he was told bluntly, “No English.”

Davis, 37, couldn’t decide if the staff was just unable to speak English. He had no choice but to go to the Sapporo city government office, which ushered him to a shelter where many foreigners had evacuated.

He recalled that he had to walk for a few hours to get to the municipal office and his smartphone battery was almost dead.

The magnitude-6.7 earthquake, which struck at 3:08 a.m. on Sept. 6, reached a maximum 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale in the southwestern town of Atsuma.

In addition to causing tremendous damage, it wreaked havoc among foreign travelers amid the peak of tourist season in Hokkaido.

Lack of information for foreigners was also highlighted as an issue in the disasters in western Japan triggered by Typhoon No. 21 in early September, as well as a powerful earthquake that shook Osaka Prefecture in June.

The central government set a goal of increasing the annual number of visitors to Japan to 40 million by 2020 when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

Taking measures to assist foreigners in Japan in their time of need is an urgency in a country vulnerable to natural disasters.

POST-QUAKE CHAOS IN SAPPORO

On Sept. 6, central Sapporo was filled with people who had been stranded by flight cancellations.

Foreigners in particular faced difficulties from the sudden natural disaster.

About 80 South Korean tourists took refuge in a shelter set up near Sapporo’s Susukino, the largest entertainment district in Hokkaido.

Some tourists stayed overnight in an underground passageway in front of JR Sapporo Station.

Many foreign tourists had never experienced a strong earthquake and complained that it was scary to face it alone.

Canadian tourist Nick Dawson, 32, along with his wife, Sarah Monnan, 34, were assisted by a foreign resident of Sapporo when they were at a loss of what to do on a street in the Hokkaido capital on the early morning of Sept. 6.

The person took the couple to an elementary school that was being used as a shelter. But the couple said they had no idea if they could even stay the night there.

At the entrance, only the name of the school could be seen, and there was no sign signifying that the place was an evacuation site.

Dawson said it would be helpful if there were notices, online sites or smartphone apps available in English.

The number of foreigners visiting Hokkaido is skyrocketing with about 6.11 million visitors staying overnight in Hokkaido in fiscal 2017, marking the sixth straight annual increase and doubling the number of four years ago.

The Sapporo city government office set up four shelters in the city on Sept. 6. Among more than 1,600 people who visited the shelters, 60 percent were foreigners.

“We had worked out measures to assist residents stranded due to the failure of the public transport system, but we had never imagined that Sapporo would be filled with such a large number of tourists,” said a city government official.

Scarce information for foreign tourists was also raised as a problem when Typhoon No. 21 tore through western Japan on Sept. 4 and the magnitude-6.1 earthquake, which registered a lower 6 on the Japanese intensity scale of 7, hit northern Osaka Prefecture in June.

About 8,000 people including passengers, airport and airline staff were stranded at Kansai International Airport, a gateway to western Japan, when it was inundated with floodwater brought about by high waves due to Typhoon No. 21.

Chan Lyamin, 35, of Hong Kong, recalled that notices at the airport were written only in Japanese and English so Chinese couldn’t understand them.

She said some people pressured the airport staff, asking how long they would have to wait.

2020 OLYMPICS A KEY TARGET

How to evacuate foreign tourists who were affected by a disaster was a priority on the agenda for the Sapporo city government.

The city in 2013 introduced a system to set up a multilingual support center in the wake of a massive disaster.

The center was intended to offer disaster-related information through the website and dispatch staff to visit shelters.

However, the building that was supposed to serve as a base for the center was shut down because the earthquake knocked out power and plunged the northern island into darkness.

The free phone consultation service for foreigners (011-211-2105) was temporarily rendered out of service, resulting in only 28 consultations being received in four days since the earthquake occurred.

Information provided for foreign tourists during past disasters was also far from sufficient.

An interview survey conducted by the Japan Tourism Agency, which covered foreigners living in Japan, showed a list of information they looked for during the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which ravaged northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

Many foreign tourists sought information such as: “How often will aftershocks occur?”; “What should be done to ensure safety?”; and “public transportation schedule information.”

Those from countries where the primary language is English, Chinese or Korean complained that information in their mother tongues was insufficient.

The government is scrambling to work out measures to smoothly provide vital information for foreigners in Japan in times of disasters.

The land ministry in August 2017 set up a website titled “Disaster Prevention Portal,” which compiled information such as how to protect oneself and shelter information.

The website, accessible partly in English, Chinese and Korean, is designed to help foreigners search for disaster-related information with their smartphones. The website is at http://www.mlit.go.jp/river/bousai/olympic/en/index.html