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East Japan pref. working to improve rising foreign population's disaster awareness

Foreign residents in Shizuoka Prefecture are seen experiencing simulation of a level 7 earthquake, the highest level on the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale, at an earthquake simulator in Shizuoka's Aoi Ward on March 6, 2021. (Mainichi/Kaoru Watanabe)

SHIZUOKA -- With increasing numbers of foreign nationals in Japan, local governments are still struggling to convey disaster prevention information despite a decade passing since the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

    Efforts to accept greater foreign tourist and worker numbers have led to more staying or living in Japan for longer periods. In east Japan's Shizuoka Prefecture, foreign resident numbers have in the last 10 years grown from about 82,000 to some 100,000, and local governments face a number of issues when it comes to disasters, including how to communicate and provide meals at shelters.

    At a March 6 disaster prevention seminar for foreign residents in the city of Shizuoka, held at the Shizuoka Prefectural Earthquake Disaster Prevention Center in the city's Aoi Ward, some 40 people from nine different countries took turns experiencing an earthquake simulator.

    When subjected to a jolt at intensity 6 on the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale, they still had room to move, but found that leeway vanished when turned up to 7. A 31-year-old Vietnamese computer programmer looked surprised by the strong tremors, saying, "My country doesn't have earthquakes."

    The seminar was organized by the municipal government and the Shizuoka City Association of Multicultural Exchange. In addition to experiencing the quake simulator, participants learned more about earthquakes and tsunami and also disaster prevention measures through displays and explanations by facility employees. The Vietnamese resident said, "I thought about preparing things in case of a disaster, but it's difficult to understand information quickly when there are a lot of Chinese kanji characters."

    Japan's foreign population reached a record 2.73 million at the end of 2018, leading to issues over how to give them disaster prevention information. Though there were no instances of foreign residents in Shizuoka Prefecture failing to escape when Typhoon Hagibis struck in 2019, there were reportedly some foreign nationals in other communities who remained in their apartments, where they were exposed to inundation above floor level because they could not understand the term for "evacuation advisory" in Japanese.

    The Shizuoka Prefectural Government released a disaster-related app in April 2020, and has been sending information on disaster prevention and evacuation when one strikes in 11 languages including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, English, Portuguese and Vietnamese. The latter two languages especially are used by many residents. A prefectural government official said, "We can lower the language barrier present in emergencies."

    However, it is not clear what reach the prefectural government's efforts have had with foreign nationals. Only 20 people participated in a disaster prevention seminar hosted for them by the prefectural government in November 2020, and the government is struggling to raise awareness. An official complained, "Disaster prevention awareness is lacking among a considerable number of foreign residents."

    Because the prefectural government has never actually had to look after foreigners at evacuation shelters, the official said, "There may be food items they cannot eat due to religious reasons." They also added that in future they want to "strengthen government employees' response ability."

    (Japanese original by Kaoru Watanabe, Shizuoka Bureau)

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