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Typhoon confusion shows need for foreigner-friendly disaster warnings in Japan

Chura Mani Lamichhane points to where floodwaters caused by Typhoon Hagibis reached in his home in the town of Minato, Tochigi Prefecture, on Oct. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Keina Hagihara)

Among the victims of deadly Typhoon Hagibis that hit Japan in mid-October were foreigners who could not understand what was written in email alerts. They stayed at their homes as they could not make out where to evacuate and why, underscoring the need for a foreigner-friendly disaster warning system.

As the rain got heavier at around noon on Oct. 12, Chura Mani Lamichhane, who is working at an Indian restaurant in the city of Tochigi north of Tokyo, heard his smartphone suddenly emit a piercing alarm sound. It was an early warning issued by the municipal government via email. But the 32-year-old, who came to Japan from Nepal about four years ago, could not understand the sentences consisting of a mix of Chinese characters, or kanji, and phonetic hiragana characters.

The first warning was followed by over 10 emails including an evacuation advisory and landslide warning, which he says frightened him.

Although he saw a Nepali translation of the emails that a friend posted on Facebook, he could not imagine what an evacuation center would be like, and decided to stay at home.

Just after midnight, however, water started coming into his room on the first floor of an apartment complex. Lamichhane, along with his 30-year-old wife and 3-month-old son, escaped from their home, and a resident on the second floor welcomed them to their house. He told the Mainichi Shimbun that his baby's life might have been in danger if they evacuated two or three minutes later, by which time the entrance door may have become unopenable due to water pressure.

Tatami mats and other household items are seen scattered in Nguyen Van Han's dormitory room in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Koriyama on Oct. 14, 2019, after it was struck by flooding caused by Typhoon Hagibis. (Photo courtesy of Yasunori Kumagami)

"Before it was clean, now it's dirty," Vietnamese technical intern trainee Nguyen Van Han said in simple Japanese, as he washed away mud at a factory in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Koriyama. His workplace situated in an industrial park in the northeastern Japan city submerged as the local Abukuma River burst its banks.

The 27-year-old came to Japan in December 2018 to learn welding skills, and had been in charge of repairing and managing scaffolding and other items used at construction sites. He can engage in conversations using simple Japanese, but not yet at a level to read and write in the language.

Nguyen was staying at a single-story dormitory near the factory with two co-workers on Oct. 12, and though he knew a typhoon was approaching thanks to television broadcasts, he did not consider it as something very dangerous.

He also could not understand what was written on the Japanese alert email. Though he tried using a translation app, he could not figure out the location of an evacuation center described in the email.

President Yasunori Kumagami, 45, who felt a sense of crisis over the course of Typhoon Hagibis, came to pick up Nguyen and the other employees before sunset in his own car and took them to his home. "The email was full of kanji, and I was sure they wouldn't be able to read it," said Kumagami.

After the water receded, Nguyen's dormitory room floor was left covered in mud, with a freezer lying on its side, tatami mats turned over and household items scattered everywhere. "It's so sad," he commented.

(Japanese original by Keina Hagihara, Utsunomiya Bureau, and Buntaro Saito, Tokyo City News Department)

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