Disaster Message Not Getting Through to Foreign Residents

Society Disaster

Linguistic and cultural differences mean that Japan’s foreign residents often encounter unexpected difficulties after earthquakes and tsunamis. We ask what can be done to help these communities in times of emergency.

In the last few years alone, Japan has experienced a significant influx of foreign visitors and migrants. One hears many different foreign languages being spoken on the street, and tourists carrying Japanese souvenirs are a common sight. This is borne out by statistics—according to data published by the Ministry of Justice and the Tourism Agency, 2.7 million foreign nationals were resident in Japan as of the end of 2018, a year in which 31 million overseas tourists visited the country.

But the rising number of foreign nationals in Japan, either as residents or visitors, leads to the question of disaster preparedness in the migrant community. While natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis are part and parcel of living in Japan, many foreigners have never experienced an earthquake in their home country. And with the severity of recent disasters catching even the Japanese by surprise, we ask whether information on emergencies is actually getting to foreign residents in the way it is intended.

In this article, we talk to residents of Japan with ties to other cultures to try and find out just how well-prepared their communities are for disasters and how the situation can be improved.

Difficulties After the Tsunami

We talked to Sania, a 22-year-old currently doing her master’s degree at the University of Tokyo. Sania was born in Japan and lived here with her Indonesian parents until she was 15. She then travelled to Indonesia to attend high school and university, before returning to Japan seven years later. When we asked Sania about how Japan’s response to disasters differs from that in Indonesia, she said that she believes that there are positive and negative aspects to the way both countries handle disasters.

“Here in Japan, we have regular fire and earthquake drills, and if something does happen, the emergency services are there straight away, which is something you do not see in Indonesia,” says Sania.

“That quick response is invaluable. On the other hand, Indonesians help each other during emergencies. I don’t think we do enough of that in Japan. My mother doesn’t speak much Japanese, and said she felt helpless after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami because the only person she knew was her landlord. My mother had difficulty obtaining information, and I often acted as a kind of interpreter.”

As a secondary consequence of natural disasters, many people experience stress for reasons relating to their religion, Sania explains. Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country where Muslims pray several times a day. However, prayer spaces are not provided in Japanese disaster shelters. Sania told us that the unavailability of halal food at shelters was also a serious issue for Muslims.

“Many migrants do not speak Japanese. I feel that in emergencies, the situation is not sufficiently explained to these people—not only with regard to religious issues, but in connection with all sorts of matters. I realize there is no easy answer to this problem, but I would like to see the authorities put more thought into the way they share information.”

Simply Translating Information is Not Enough

Musashi University lecturer Angelo Ishi.
Musashi University lecturer Angelo Ishi.

If even Sania, who was born and raised in Japan, experiences difficulty after earthquakes and other disasters, how should government and the community work with the migrant community in putting in place preparations for natural disasters? We talked to third-generation Japanese Brazilian, Musashi University lecturer, and 30-year Japan resident Angelo Ishi.

What difficulties do foreign residents in Japan experience at times of disaster? “There’s no doubt that the biggest issue is the language barrier,” says Ishi. “When a disaster hits, people need to acquire all sorts of information, which often doesn’t reach foreign residents. A lot of people think it is simply a case of translating the information, but this isn’t the case. You need to understand the characteristics of the various migrant communities as well.”

For example, notes Ishi, Brazilians really like their cars, and most Brazilian households own a car. “While a Japanese person will take refuge from a natural disaster in a temporary shelter, Brazilians tend to shelter in their cars. This means that, unlike their Japanese counterparts who gather together in shelters, Brazilians become isolated and sometimes do not receive emergency information, let alone learn about the emergency rations or water that are available.” These issues can be solved when the authorities reach out to the migrant community and build links with its leaders, he explains. When a disaster arises, information shared with these leaders is more likely to be disseminated within the community.

Alternativa is a free Portuguese-language periodical widely read by the Brazilian population in Japan.
Alternativa is a free Portuguese-language periodical widely read by the Brazilian population in Japan.

There are several ways to deepen understanding of the characteristics of these communities, explains Ishi. “The best way is to create a space in your municipality where representatives of the various countries can meet. This enables you to share information via key people—and it also means you know if a representative changes. Another approach is utilizing media read by foreign residents, which we refer to it as ‘ethnic media.’ For every immigrant community, there’s a media source that its members use to gain information.” Brazilians in Japan, for example, often read Alternativa, a free newspaper. It is full of information on Japan and can be found in Brazilian-run shops.

Online media provide still more channels to reach out to foreigners in Japan, says Ishi. “Yet another way is to work with YouTubers. One Portuguese language channel that’s popular with Brazilians resident in Japan has 2.4 million subscribers. I think the government should work with these private sector stakeholders to share disaster information with the general public.”

Warnings Lost in Translation

As Ishi points out, there are certain aspects of disasters and disaster preparedness that foreigners may find particularly challenging. “Messages that are readily understood by Japanese are sometimes not understood by foreigners. For example, an earthquake might be reported in Japanese as being ‘5 upper’ or ‘6 lower’ on Japan’s seismic intensity scale. In Portuguese, however, these descriptions translate literally as a ‘major intensity 5’ or a ‘minor intensity 6’ earthquake, causing Brazilians readers to mistakenly think that the 6 quake is less of a threat.”

Ishi also has a message for the public relations staff in Japan’s municipal governments. “I know that there’s more multilingual content out there now than there was a few years ago, but a lot of municipalities think that all they need to do is go through the motions of posting translations on their website. That information is only ever accessed by a handful of foreign residents, and many in the community don’t realize that the translations exist. I don’t believe that you can claim to have communicated your message until it has reached its intended recipient.”

There are untold differences between attitudes to disasters in Japan and those overseas, says Ishi. “The good thing about Japan is that each and every citizen is logistically and mentally prepared for natural disasters. Many households have a disaster kit, and everyone participates in disaster drills. However, a lot of other countries pay scant consideration to disaster preparedness, and the preparedness concept simply doesn’t occur to some people. These people tend to take an optimistic view of life, so when a disaster does come along, they really suffer.”

A study group lead by Mr Ishi interviewed foreign residents affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
A study group lead by Mr Ishi interviewed foreign residents affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

When discussing the question of how foreigners inform themselves about disasters and disaster preparedness, people often say there is not enough information. However, foreign residents sometimes find that they are actually overloaded with information. “A large volume of high-quality information would be one thing,” says Ishi, “but many residents find themselves inundated by a mixture of fact and fiction. Foreign residents in Japan sometimes find that the Japanese media, their own country’s media, and the English language media all tell conflicting stories. When the possibility of radioactive fallout was reported after the time of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, some French nationals studying in Japan were forcibly repatriated on charter flights paid for by their French universities, despite wanting to stay in Japan. They didn’t know which reports to believe. In light of these past issues, I believe that embassies and consulates should work with the private sector to keep information channels open at all times.”

The Importance of Local Information Sources

So what can Japanese people do to help foreign residents? “Whether an emergency is unfolding or not, you can make a big difference by reaching out to your non-Japanese neighbors to make sure everything is all right,” Ishi stresses. “Many Japanese are too reserved or nervous to converse with foreigners, but all you really need to do is learn the person’s surname. That will enable them to approach you for help, and the idea that someone might remember them will be encouraging to them. Foreign residents need to do their part, too. Many are overly reliant on information put out in their own language—they should make more of an effort to obtain Japanese-language information as well. I believe they need to actively become more prepared for, and aware about, natural disasters.”

In 2020, Japan will host the Tokyo Olympics. Ishi believes the Games are a fantastic opportunity to improve the level of preparedness of non-Japanese residents and visitors for natural disasters. “For example, simply putting up more English signs around the place will increase the amount of information available, thereby enabling people to be better prepared for emergencies. The availability of more multilingual information in all areas will be a legacy that benefits Japan’s foreign residents.”

Japan is hosting several international events, including the Rugby World Cup, which is on at the moment, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and the 2025 Osaka Expo. Considering that numbers of foreign residents and visitors are predicted to increase even further, we must use seize this moment to ensure that foreigners are not excluded from disaster preparedness.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on September 30, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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