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Protecting foreign technical trainees in Japan during disasters an ongoing challenge

Nguyen Huu Hong is seen at the funeral service of his second cousin and Vietnamese technical intern Nguyen Huu Toan, at Dai An pagoda in Honjo, Saitama Prefecture on Sept. 27, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiya Nakamura)
A funeral service for Vietnamese technical intern Nguyen Huu Toan is held at Dai An pagoda in Honjo, Saitama Prefecture, on Sept. 27, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiya Nakamura)

Two technical intern trainees fell victim to a landslide in southwestern Japan when Typhoon Haishen hit the area in September, raising the question of how to protect the lives of vulnerable foreigners.

    Following the landslide in the village of Shiiba, Miyazaki Prefecture, a Vietnamese technical intern was found dead while another trainee from Vietnam and two other residents remain missing. As technical interns have difficulties reading disaster-related information in Japanese, and are not accustomed to natural disasters in the country, such individuals require special assistance when calamities strike.

    The funeral service for Nguyen Huu Toan, who passed away at age 22 in the landslide in Shiiba, was held at Dai An pagoda, a Vietnamese temple in the city of Honjo, Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo.

    One post on social media had pleaded, "Toan, please reply," but in the end, the trainee went without being able to answer.

    Nguyen Huu Hong, 23, Toan's second cousin and a vocational school student in Tokyo, attended the service. The two had been playmates from a young age, and kept in touch on social media even after their arrival in Japan. Hong said that he continued to send multiple messages to make sure of Toan's safety immediately following the landslide. Tears filled his eyes as he said, "It's sad to think that I won't be able to see his smiling face."

    The landslide occurred around 8 p.m. on Sept. 6. Although Toan had evacuated with a fellow technical intern to the office of a construction company they had been training at, the pair and the president of the company were swept away after a hill behind the place collapsed. The site was designated as a landslide alert zone, and the village of Shiiba had issued an evacuation advisory to warn residents of the danger. As of 6 p.m. that day, 39 people had apparently been taking shelter at an evacuation center some 200 meters away.

    According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, there were about 420,000 technical intern trainees in Japan as of the end of 2019, with the figure having doubled over the past five years. However, efforts to raise awareness on disaster prevention remain insufficient. The central government implemented the technical intern training and protection law in 2017 in order to strengthen protection measures for trainees. The law makes it mandatory for supervising organizations and other bodies that are the first to accept incoming interns to give them lessons on life in Japan. However, the guidelines on the operation of the law specifying the content of such lessons does not mention anything about earthquakes, typhoons, or other disasters experienced in Japan.

    The site of a landslide following Typhoon Haishen is seen in the village of Shiiba, Miyazaki Prefecture on Sept. 10, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuka Shiotsuki)

    The task of notifying technical interns of disaster-related information is left to the voluntary efforts of the organizations, companies, and local governments that accept them. Erika Japanese language school in the city of Saku, Nagano Prefecture, which provides lessons to technical interns, took measures of updating them on disaster-related information on social media when Typhoon Hagibis hit Japan in 2019, and bringing them to evacuation shelters with the help of acquaintances, among other measures. However, a representative of the language school said, "How the situation is handled varies among each organization."

    Of prefectural governments and ordinance-designated cities across Japan, 32 local governments, including Miyazaki Prefecture, had support systems in place as of June this year, under which the local governments open "disaster multilingual support centers" that provide information to technical interns and others in need in their own native tongues when a major disaster strikes. However, the Miyazaki Prefectural Government had not set up the center in the wake of Typhoon Haishen as it determined that "damages would not grow larger."

    Thich Tam Tri, the nun at Dai An pagoda, commented, "Accepting technical interns means you've been entrusted with their lives. I'd like agencies in charge of accepting the trainees to have them evacuate to safe places in the event of disasters."

    Yoshihisa Saito, associate professor at Kobe University's graduate school and an expert on the technical intern trainee system, said, "Evacuation drills in which technical interns participate should be held by each workplace and community by collaborating with local governments and fire departments."

    (Japanese original by Toshiya Nakamura, Foreign News Department and Yuka Shiotsuki, Miyazaki Bureau)

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