A stranded passenger lies on the floor as he waits for a flights at New Chitose airport in Hokkaido, after the Sept 15 earthquake. Photo: AP/Eugene Hoshiko
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Quake reveals Japan woefully unprepared to help foreigners in disasters

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Japan is definitely trying to improve this situation. It doesn't happen overnight.

2 ( +10 / -8 )

Quake reveals Japan woefully unprepared to help foreigners in disasters

they don’t do so well helping themselves despite countless drills.

4 ( +9 / -5 )

they don’t do so well helping themselves despite countless drills.

I prefer dialogue to sniping, so please keep that in mind.

Who are you comparing the Japanese people to in your analysis to arrive at this conclusion?

-10 ( +4 / -14 )

But an official in charge admitted, "We were so busy with the response effort at the evacuation center that we were unable to supply information in other languages."

ie We were so busy with our own, we were unable to deal with Others.

Good to know. Best let the tourists know that before they decide to come over.

5 ( +11 / -6 )

What Chip Star said. I think Japan has been doing the best they can but if you're going to be a global powerhouse in the travel industry, all of this will need to be addressed. I look at the recent disasters, putting two the nations biggest airports out of order, as an obvious wake up call.

10 ( +10 / -0 )

@chipstar - Who are you comparing the Japanese people to in your analysis to arrive at this conclusion?

I’m not comparing them to anyone. I have drawn my conclusion from experience of living in Japan for nearly two decades and witnessing many natural disasters. All Japanese people are trained, advised and have regular drills for earthquakes. However, in the 3/11 quake people were running under canvas awnings for cover. Then, let’s consider the infrastructure. The Toei-Oedo line in Tokyo is supposed to be the route for emergency services to get through Tokyo in the event of a major quake, which is why it is built so deep underground. However, it was one of the first train lines to shutdown and one of the last to start again. This is my point, all the drills, seminars, and advice amount to nothing in a real event.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

Chip Star: "Japan is definitely trying to improve this situation. It doesn't happen overnight."

It doesn't happen overnight when you're trying to deal with something after the fact, which is the Japanese way. It's not like this issue is an "overnight" issue; it's been around for DECADES. Like many facets of society, they know it's an issue but just kind of neglect it, hoping they never have to deal with it like in situations they have now. So, yes, NOW they can't deal with something that has already happened overnight, same as they can't restore power because they don't have a national grid -- something they could have done AGES ago, and especially after Tohoku, but stop pretending like this is something new or something unprecedented. Japan is calling for increased tourism EVERY YEAR and wants to hold every single international event under the sun, but clearly they don't want to do the leg-work for the support system. Now look at them panic... not to help, but to save face with the coming Olympics.

17 ( +21 / -4 )

Foreigners are probably not the first order of business when they can't even keep the electricity on at a reliable level.

4 ( +9 / -5 )

smithinjapan; been here for almost 4 decades. Your post is spot on.

9 ( +12 / -3 )

I've only visited every year for the past ten, and I'm with @smithinjapan and @since1981. I've even done some disaster volunteer work, and I hate to say it but Japan is a bit behind.

4 ( +7 / -3 )

Any smart foreigner here knows no to look for the government for support in.. well.. anything! But you gotta feel for the unprepared that come here to see all the ninjas and unicorns...

8 ( +8 / -0 )

This is my point, all the drills, seminars, and advice amount to nothing in a real event.

That's because they are purely for the purpose of photo-ops and perpetual fear-mongering. They have no bones. The people aren't 'thinking' when they sit through these drills/seminars. They are just memorizing and blindly doing what they are told.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

I don't fault Japan with what happened to the tourists, I almost expect something similar can happen in the US.  Japan didn't force them to visit, they went on their own so its on them to know Japanese for whatever situation happens.  Its ludicrous to go to a country and expect them to baby you for every inconvenience, if one can't take care of themselves then they shouldn't go.

-10 ( +3 / -13 )

But an official in charge admitted, "We were so busy with the response effort at the evacuation center that we were unable to supply information in other languages."

This is the core of most businesses in Japan when it comes to "US vs. THEM". Yes you tourists are bringing business to our country, but in case of disasters, we can't help you. We must take care of our people first. Fend for yourself. Hope this mentality changes by "2020"

5 ( +6 / -1 )

What a joke this headline is.... like it is able to even help its own people much. Typhoon 21.... a ship came off its mooring and crashed into the only bridge in and out of Kansai Intl. Airport. More "after the fact" crap. They say the have "contingency" plans but their plans practically involve zero planning and zero investment. If they used just 20% of all the "stimulus packages" money over the years and used it wisely towards real "contingency" planning the country would be better prepared. Instead they fed countless billions to their crony construction friends. They're now talking about a Fuji eruption contingency.... a real contingency would involve the ability to transport hundreds of thousands to a nearby safe location with shelter and food. Are they prepared to do the math and actually execute a meaningful plan.... highly doubtful. But if the economy shows a slight sign of weakness... they'll quickly execute another "stimulus package".

7 ( +7 / -0 )

since1981

smithinjapan; been here for almost 4 decades. Your post is spot on.

I'll second that. Same for Do the hustle. Your comment was spot on as well!

Any smart foreigner here knows no to look for the government for support in.. well.. anything! But you gotta feel for the unprepared that come here to see all the ninjas and unicorns...

Brilliant and so true!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I don't expect a local govt to speak my native language.

Whenever I travel to places where I don't speak the local language fluently, I take steps to communicate in the local language WITHOUT needing a cell connection.

That is a phrasebook, a sheet of paper with common phrases, especially for doctors and emergencies, and a smartphone app. Also pre-loading google translate data for the local languages.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

"I wish there had been information posted in Chinese, too"

Yeah, I wish you could learn English, since you like to go outside your monolingual country too.

-2 ( +5 / -7 )

Minato-ku has excellent services for foreigners including text messages in English, disaster preparedness information in many languages, etc. It sounds like Hokkaido is on a different level (which makes sense).

It seems that Hokkaido can do much more to improve (as tourism is becoming a very big part of the economy there). I also think Minato-ku will get better as well.

If I look at my country of citizenship (the U.S.) there are locations where non English speakers would certainly face the same issues.

I hope the Olympics will at least result in Minato-ku getting better and also result in other parts of Japan improving the ability to help non Japanese speakers.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

same as they can't restore power because they don't have a national grid -- something they could have done AGES ago, and especially after Tohoku, but stop pretending like this is something new or something unprecedented

Apart from this, I agree with your post. Japan can't possibly have a national energy grid. That would make everything too dependent. Any major disaster would effectively be like the North-Eastern Blackout of 2003. It's much more logical, and preferable to localize the systems to allow isolation when any major plant goes offline.

That being said, Japan definitely needs to increase their preparedness for these events to help tourists. However, I'm at a bit of a loss as what much more can be done. There are already warning apps, countless posts online on what to do in the event of an emergency (in multiple languages), and generally most emergency signage is in Japanese and English.

However, the expectations that Japan be able to help every single foreigner in the event of an emergency is just naive. Such is the complaint of the Chinese tourist. I have no sympathy for the intentionally oblivious tourist in Japan. Everyone knows it's a country that has many natural disasters, everyone also knows that the country speaks a different language. Before you come to a country like that, the logical thing to do would be to research what to do in events like these.

The issue I see most here, is that Japan can "fly to the moon and back" and these tourists won't ever be happy. You can't help people who aren't proactive themselves. This is, for the most part, why I despise tourists. The "Im a tourist so you must cater to my every whim" mentality that 90% of them have, the obnoxious disregard for cultural rules, and the unpreparedness for anything that doesn't go according to their itinerary doesn't help Japan offer reliable and meaningful support in emergencies...

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

A few people making comments on a website does not represent the entire foreign population in Japan. However, when a person tends to make nothing but negative remarks about the country they live in, maybe a change of scenery is best for the person's well-being.

A few commenters do not represent the entire community posting here either. I agree some of it amounts to toxic negativity but I got news for you, the same percentage of folks would be the same way if they still lived in their hometowns, where the only people suggesting changes in scenery would be saying things like love it or leave it. In the end, we live and work here, pay taxes, we can gripe if we wanna.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Hokkaido has been a major tourism destination for at least ten years. If this was Aomori or Shimane or Kochi, you could cut them some slack, but not with the number of tourists Hokkaido gets. Lizz is correct to point at the power companies for making this disaster far more widespread than necessary, but as it is, the tourism industry has been given a light test (imagine widespread damage in Sapporo, Furano, Niseko etc. for a real test) and found wanting.

I think it comes down to what omotenashi is, which is "hospitality (on our terms)". Genuine hospitality does not hide behind "oh but we don't speak English/Chinese" type pass the buck victim-blaming. Comments like "why don't you all leave Japan then?" only make my point for me.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

As someone who travels and/or studies (sometimes 2-3 months at a time) in Japan, I feel woefully unprepared for a serious disaster during the time that I am in Japan. I wish the company who rents a furnished apartment to me would include an earthquake kit I could grab when heading out the door. Some instructions such as opening doors so that they won't jam shut would be welcome. That I've gleaned from other sources. I wish hotels provided a kit as well. I'd be happy to provide a refundable deposit for it.

That said, if I am not in the apartment/hotel when an earthquake strikes and perhaps sight seeing some distance away, I have little but my intuition and intelligence on which I might rely. That's not entirely comfortable for me, but I gamble that "nothing will happen" during the interval that I visit.

I have been in 6.9 and 5.something situations which were somewhat alarming for someone who does not usually experience earthquakes when at home; however, I have been able to remain calm and take my cues (no response at all) from others around me. That's the best--and all I can do--with the best information I have.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

A better second language ability would help (English, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Thai, French, Indonesian)...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The government needs to have a designated tv station and other social media sites that foreigners can go to in order to receive information in English. All Europeans understand and speak English as one of their two required foreign languages to graduate from high school. The methods of communications need to be listed and given out when a person passes through passport control with the verbal message, "Read this paper as soon as possible." Everyone arriving in Japan has "jet lag" and just wants to get through the long foreigners' line. Hotels need to have the channel as the start up channel on tv and with an underlying message in Japanese that says, "If you speak Japanese, go to channel X.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

wasn't this article written after the big earthquake and record tsunami preceding? Japan doesn't mind taken advantage of foreigners and can't simple put a translated tape on the announcement box.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

There’s no mention of embassies and consulates in this article. Isn’t one of the reasons for their existence to help their citizens in times of emergencies? They should at least be able to provide information in their countrys’ languages.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

It’s a matter of seeing how far ‘Omotenashi’ extends in difficult circumstances. Not too far I would imagine. Nothing that can’t be remedied though with a bit of awareness , training and will. If done properly of course, not just for a photo op, really doing it. There’s a difference.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

ksteer: "It's much more logical, and preferable to localize the systems to allow isolation when any major plant goes offline."

What I meant is a system which allows transfer of energy from one area to another because they all use the same frequency. They don't, and so it is impossible and you have a blackout for extended periods of time, furthering disaster. This could easily have been remedied after the Tohoku disasters, but instead you have politicians saying yet again, "We could not have known!" and "this is different". I'm not saying power companies should all be nationaliZED and all one company.

psyops: "Japan didn't force them to visit,"

"Force", no, but the government is continually asking others to visit, with Abe only a couple of weeks ago talking about his target of increasing tourism another 4 Million or more/year. I don't know about you, but if I invite someone to my house I don't demand they fend for themselves if something happens after they come; I take care of them first and worry about how the house looks later.

"Its ludicrous to go to a country and expect them to baby you for every inconvenience, if one can't take care of themselves then they shouldn't go."

No one expects anyone to baby them, save maybe Japanese when they go on completely packaged, group tours (and other nations, too), but it is perfectly logical to expect that a nation requesting so many foreign groups to come and spend money and enjoy and take home some of the culture might be prepared for said people if the worst should happen. In fact, Japan has said it is prepared for such things, and clearly it is not. It's better than it used to be, don't get me wrong -- I've seen vast improvements in big cities with information, but when it comes to communication and taking care of others in emergencies, on a national level the nation should not be taking in more people until it is completely prepared to deal with them in the inevitable disasters.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Do the hustle: Fair enough. Thanks for the response.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Maybe the systems aren’t quite ready but if you have seen how local people and individuals all band together in emergencies you could be fairly sure people would also extend their hands to anyone around , no matter what their nationality or language barrier are. Have seen it first hand a couple of times and it’s quite remarkable how people’s hearts open right up in a disaster. Definitely one of the charm points about this place.

Massive systematic disaster relief will always be about getting the majority sorted first , that’s what societies do. Reckon you’d be better off here than in most countries to tell you the truth.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Don't rely on the government. On 3/11, the people in charge where I got stranded couldn't even help the Japanese. Wasn't really a language problem, more like a chicken-running-around-with-its-head-cut-off problem.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@Chip Star - Do the hustle: Fair enough. Thanks for the response

I had had to go to my local city hall this afternoon in northern Chiba. I could not find a single pamphlet or poster in another language relating to evacuation centers or other information about disasters. Nothing! Nada! Zip! SFA! There is absolutely zero attempt made to inform foreigners of procedures in a natural disaster. There is only one staff member who speak English and they only work on Mondays and Tuesdays. This is not a redneck countryside city hall. It is a major city hall of a city of nearly one million people. Nothing!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Foreigners living in Japan should learn to fend for themselves---do they expect to be mollycoddled? Learning enough Japanese to be able to understand whats going on around them is just common sense ,surely.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

20/25 years ago I was often working translating handbooks for living produced by city or prefectural offices. They all included information such as how to call an ambulance, what to do in case of an earthquake etc. as well as a wealth of other useful information. They were free of charge and either distributed to resident foreigners or available for the asking at the relevant office or prefectural international relations office. They often were printed in limited quantities and worries that Japanese who didn’t need the English version would take them by mistake meant they were kept under the counter. Recently I haven’t been looking into the situation in detail but I know some of these are now available online. In any case, people should check out their town/city/prefectural homepages or ask for what is available when they visit such an office.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Some ward offices have drills in English, Roppongi especially, they even have large speakers alerting residents.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Nope nope nope,

tourists and visitors should be contacting their embassy or consulate in times of emergency. It is not the responsibility of local governments to provide language translation services.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

This is BS. Foriegn countries should warn their citizens with an official travel advisory. Japan has an out of control nuclear disaster, expecting massive earthquakes, Fujisan is expected to erupt, other volcanoes all over japan also, tsunami danger, nuclear war with NK or China,

it is not our job to look after tourists.

they should be prepared if they choose such a dangerous country.

but I still recommend...

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I've been here since the 70's, diligently studied Nihongo in college in LA before I came, have Japanese wife,

3 J/A kids so no linguistic problems - am qualified to say Japan ain't prepared for jack.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Mike Wyckoff; Up to a point I agree with you, however, how do you expect them to do so when there is a blackout? Another problem here is that Japanese are reluctant to be flexible and veer outside the manuals they are trained to follow. Japanese need to be more flexible and go with the situation at hand. The manuals they religiously are instructed to follow, do not cover every situation.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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