Earthquakes and Foreign Tourists

Yesterday, a major earthquake hit Japan.


Airports shut down and bullet train service was interrupted. Tourists in Japan answered incessant Facebook inquiries. Although no deaths were reported, each earthquake in the island nation is stark reminder of the destructive possibility. The 2011 earthquake and deadly tsunami took 18,000 lives.

It’s tough to be prepared for a surprise natural disaster, but Japan’s authorities are leading the way.

In 2015, Japan attracted 20 million international tourists. Officials from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport say that by the time of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the total number of foreign visitors will increase dramatically.

This recent article reveals public safety preparations to communicate with non-Japanese speaking tourists during an emergency.

Quake drill at Tokyo Skytree breaks down the language barrier

[Around 115 foreigners acted as tourists at the 350-meter viewing deck and on the fourth floor of the broadcasting tower, following instructions provided by … staff as well as metropolitan and ward government officials to evacuate to ground level. “It was a good experience for me,” said a 30-year-old Egyptian man who came to Japan a year ago. “I hope the free Wi-Fi environment will become more enhanced, because we need to be able to access useful information in English in a disaster.”

Those playing emergency rescue staff in the exercise asked questions … to foreigners playing the roles of injured people. Instructions on where the crowd should gather was channeled through a loudspeaker fitted with an interpretation function for various languages. The drill was carried out based on evacuation guidance for foreign tourists in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.]

Preparing for a disaster is a difficult task on its own. However, when the language barrier is considered, a new set of challenges arise. How do you communicate to the non-native speaking population – residents and visitors? If mass casualty ensues, how can first responders assist those with limited bilingual speaking proficiency?

Those who’ve experienced language barriers while traveling overseas know what it’s like to be “lost in translation.” Add in the reality of public safety scenarios and potential medical emergencies, and the urgency to communicate effectively goes way up. Can mobile devices with or without wireless connectivity be part of the solution? Large cities like Tokyo are exploring these options.