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How disclosure of missing people's names in disasters has changed Japan's rescue efforts

Police and other rescue workers continue to search for missing people in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, on July 5, 2021, where a massive mudslide occurred on July 3. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

OSAKA -- Many people's whereabouts have yet to be confirmed following the huge mudslide on July 3 that struck the city of Atami in central Japan's Shizuoka Prefecture. On July 5, the Shizuoka Prefectural Government disclosed the names of 64 people missing based on resident registration records in the affected area.

    In some past disaster cases, authorities' disclosure of the names of people they haven't been able to locate has allowed them to confirm their safety, thereby relieving some of the burden on rescue efforts. Stormy weather has slowed search efforts after the most recent mudslide, and the announcement of the names of the missing was intended to speed up rescue operations.

    The national government's Basic Disaster Prevention Plan makes no stipulations on announcing the names of the missing in disasters, therefore leaving it to local government discretion. As a result, various local governments have acted differently in the face of past disasters.

    When torrential rains hit western Japan in July 2018, the Okayama Prefectural Government disclosed the names of all 51 people it had been unable to locate five days after the disaster. Until then it had released only a partial list. Complete disclosure came after it was found that the safety of many living in the city of Kurashiki's Mabicho district could not be confirmed. The area had suffered large-scale flooding, and it was imperative to rescue the missing as soon as possible. Following announcement of the names, information on those listed was reported to authorities one after another. In just the first day following disclosure, 33 of the named were confirmed alive.

    In contrast, the Hiroshima and Ehime prefectural governments, which were also hit hard by the same heavy rains, initially did not announce who was missing. The reason cited was that they "had not been able to obtain permission from the municipalities providing the information," and that they "needed to protect personal information." However, two days after the Okayama Prefectural Government list came out, the other two prefectural governments released their lists "in view of the disaster's severity."

    Disclosing missing people's names is beneficial for eliminating wasted time and energy on search and rescue efforts. By releasing the names, authorities can expect people who are safe but listed to come forward, thereby allowing them to focus on searching for people actually embroiled in the disasters.

    In the heavy rainfalls that hit the Kanto and Tohoku regions in September 2015, the Ibaraki Prefectural Government and the Joso Municipal Government in Ibaraki Prefecture kept announcing that there were 15 missing residents who they could not contact. But because their names were not disclosed in the announcements, Self-Defense Force personnel and other rescuers still had to continue search operations even after their safety was confirmed.

    But there have been people disadvantaged by their names being released: those experiencing spousal violence or stalking, and children suffering abuse. Some local governments that do release missing persons' names do not disclose the names of people who have requested restrictions on who can see their resident registrations.

    In June 2021, the National Governors' Association laid down guidelines on the disclosure of the names of people deceased or missing in the disaster cases. It classified three ways for name announcements: to emphasize protection of personal information; to release names as swiftly as possible; or to decide depending on the state of the damage.

    The first method is contingent upon family approval and a lack of restrictions on who can see missing persons' resident registrations. The second allows for the release of names without family approval, and the third is taken based on either the first or second methods depending on the situation at hand. The association believes that prefectures should use the guidelines as a reference to establish their own judgment criteria for name announcements.

    Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa, who was at the center of efforts to establish the guidelines, expressed his thinking behind the association not demanding a uniform disaster response, saying, "It is not a situation in which the response would be forcibly coordinated into one form."

    (Japanese original by Shin Kobayashi, Osaka City News Department)

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