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Editorial: Japan needs standards on releasing the names of the missing in disasters

Shizuoka Prefecture has released a list of the missing in the mudslide that hit the prefectural city of Atami on July 3. Soon after the disaster, the Atami Municipal Government announced that the safety of some 20 people could not be confirmed, based on information from their families and other connections. After consulting the city's resident registry, however, it turned out the number of missing was far greater.

    The official list released on the night of July 5 had 64 names on it, and 41 of these had been confirmed safe and sound by the next morning. The Shizuoka prefectural official in charge had been careful about releasing these names, but the deputy governor ordered them to do it anyway. It was apparently a last-minute decision taken at a time when rescue efforts were sought to happen as soon as possible.

    Whether to release the names of missing persons in a natural disaster is left up to the local governments concerned, and they have responded differently in past emergencies. In the July 2018 torrential rain disaster in western Japan, Okayama Prefecture announced the names of 51 missing people five days into the crisis. Thirty-three people on that list were confirmed safe that very day.

    Meanwhile, in the September 2015 torrential rain disaster in the Kanto and Tohoku regions around Tokyo and northeastern Japan, the Ibaraki Prefectural Government and the prefecture's Joso Municipal Government announced that there were 15 people missing while keeping their names undisclosed. This resulted in Self-Defense Forces search and rescue teams continuing to hunt for people whose safety was later confirmed.

    If lists of suspected missing persons are released and those who are safe or their families can notify authorities that they're fine, emergency responders can be put to work on looking for people who are truly missing. This can also prevent friends and family from getting twisted around by unconfirmed information.

    However, a lot of care is needed when releasing names of missing persons. For example, it is a matter of course that one would not include victims of domestic violence or stalking.

    It is not uncommon for local governments to refrain from releasing missing persons' names for privacy protection reasons. Personal information protection regulations stipulate, in many cases, that in principle personal particulars cannot be released to a third party without the individual's consent.

    Japan's National Governors' Association put together guidelines this past June on how to proceed. While acknowledging the necessity of name releases, the guidelines included examples of cases that required careful consideration in light of personal information protection issues. The association also took into account that there are some local governments hesitant to release missing persons lists, and thus did not establish a single standard for all cases and places.

    Japan's Diet has passed digital information laws which will unite previously varied national and local government rules on personal information protection. Protecting lives must always be the first priority, and the national and local governments should create a unified standard in which releasing the names of the missing in times of disaster is treated as a rule.

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