Services in Japan aim to keep foreigners informed during disasters

/ 05:11 PM September 11, 2018

The Yomiuri Shimbun. The call center at LanguageOne, which supports inquiries in multiple languages, in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Aug. 8

FUKUOKA — “Please pay attention to the following typhoon-related information.”

On the evening of Aug. 14, when the possibility of Typhoon No. 15 hitting the Kyushu region increased, the Kumamoto International Foundation sent the above message to registered foreigners using K-SAFE, a system that transmits disaster information in four languages, including English and Chinese.


In the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake, foreign tourists were thrown into confusion because they were unable to understand disaster information being provided in Japanese. Taking into account lessons learned from that experience, the service began operating in June this year.

Currently, most registrants are exchange students living in the city, but the foundation intends to urge foreign tourists to register for the service in cooperation with tourist information centers and accommodation facilities.


Visitors to Japan are able to obtain an incredible amount of information, mainly due to the spread of smartphones, but the language barrier becomes a major issue during disasters.

“What happened?” “Is the building all right?”

On the morning of June 18, the Daiwa Royal Hotel Grande Kyoto in Kyoto struggled to support rattled overseas guests who were asking such questions in the wake of the earthquake in northern Osaka Prefecture, which measured up to lower 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale and produced many casualties.

The seismic intensity in the area of the hotel was 4. However, the hotel received an overwhelming number of enquiries, especially as many of the foreign guests were from countries unfamiliar with earthquakes.

Confusion gradually subsided as staff members conversant in nine different languages translated and shared information from the latest Japanese-language news.

A 26-year-old Italian staff member recalls, “Lack of information is the most worrying thing for a foreign visitor.”

The government has set a target of 40 million visitors to Japan in 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will take place. For Japan to become a tourism-oriented country despite its many earthquakes and natural disasters, consideration must be given to and preparations made for helping visitors in the event of a disaster.


The Information Refugee Zero Project by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry is one such effort. It calls on local governments and operators of accommodation facilities to create a system for translating emergency phone calls and install digital signs capable of displaying multiple languages by 2020.

In 2017, the Japan Private Railway Association distributed to 56 regional private railway companies a sheet containing dialogue necessary during emergencies. The content is written in Japanese and foreign languages, allowing for conversations to be understood simply by pointing to the sheet.

Kazuyuki Sato, a professor of sociolinguistics at Hirosaki University, says, “Information is necessary to save lives right after a disaster occurs, and simple phrases in Japanese and English that many people can understand are effective.”

Another effort to overcome the language barrier is the translation services offered by LanguageOne, a call center operator based in Tokyo. To assist local governments and other entities in handling foreign language calls, operators accept questions in foreign languages.

After confirming the appropriate response in Japanese with the person in charge, the operator relays the information to the caller in the foreign language. Thirteen languages are currently supported, and their services were available during the heavy downpours in western Japan.

Kohito Miyoshi, the operation manager, emphasizes the importance of preparation.

“It’s difficult to convey accurate information to people from overseas at critical moments. It’s important to make sure that it is possible to provide thorough support,” he said.

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TAGS: Asia, Disasters, Japan, Tourism
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