Strengthening Disaster Preparedness Among Foreign Residents of Japan

Authors: David Green, Justin Whitney and Matthew Linley, University of Nagoya

Japan is arguably well prepared for its frequent and devastating natural disasters. After dealing with major earthquakes, tsunamis, and seasonal torrential rains, among other calamities, regular emergency drills and strong education campaigns have helped the Japanese people cope well and recover quickly. after rapid onset events.

But while the Japanese population as a whole may be well prepared and multiculturalism (tabunka kyosei) is considered an integral part of Japan’s disaster preparedness policies, relatively little information is available on how Japan’s growing foreign population copes with disasters. How well prepared are foreign residents in Japan in the event of a disaster? And how do they get their disaster information? These questions have not only been crucial during recent natural and man-made emergencies, but are also key to defining Japan’s response to future major disasters.

Anecdotal accounts of recent events such as the Kumamoto earthquake in April 2016, Typhoon Jebi in September 2018, and Typhoon Faxai in September 2019 suggest that foreign residents are disproportionately affected by the hazards and the government is failing often to adequately inform them of impending danger.

Most local governments in Japan have only recently started disseminating disaster preparedness information to foreign residents, with activities ranging from training volunteer interpreters to creating multilingual manuals, posters and brochures. on disaster preparedness. But in interviews with policymakers and practitioners in late 2019, it was acknowledged that not only did the effectiveness of these efforts remain unknown, but little or no systematic post-incident reviews had been carried out.

Although it is commonly believed that foreign residents are more susceptible and vulnerable to disasters, there is little nuance in understanding how the various foreign communities in Japan prepare for disasters. Although arguably not of the same ilk as earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is another emergency requiring similar public awareness campaigns to influence the behavior of the population, Japanese and non-Japanese. The pandemic has underscored the need to understand how diverse communities prepare for disaster and respond to government outreach efforts.

To shed light on how foreign residents in Japan access information, we analyzed data from the Nagoya Foreign Resident Survey. Through this analysis, we found a surprising amount of variability in the disaster preparedness activities of foreign residents. Although Japanese language proficiency appears to have some influence on disaster preparedness, its impact was surprisingly small. What we found instead was the variability in preparedness activities among the major nationalities that make up Nagoya’s foreign population.

This may have at least some relationship to previous exposure to disasters, as foreign residents from more disaster-prone countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, appear to experience relatively higher levels of preparedness. Similarly, people with prior disaster training experience and those who access disaster-related information are more likely to be prepared for an emergency.

Our study brings up three important points that deserve to be underlined. First, the disaster preparedness of foreign residents in Japan does not seem to depend on Japanese language proficiency as is commonly assumed. With the continuous spread of technology, disaster information is now available in a variety of languages, which can allow foreign residents to be better informed even if they do not speak a high level of Japanese. Accordingly, governments may consider additional ways of raising awareness beyond simply disseminating information in multiple languages.

Second, the different levels of preparedness mean that foreign communities in Japan cannot be treated as a homogenous group. Foreign residents in Japan come from a variety of countries with very different disaster profiles and accompanying cultures of preparedness. Governments could make better use of their limited resources by engaging communities that demonstrate significantly lower levels of disaster preparedness.

Third, since previous disaster training experience is strongly associated with foreign residents’ levels of disaster preparedness, local disaster drills and training initiatives should target foreign residents more heavily. Concerted efforts to inform foreign residents about regularly organized community training activities could go a long way in reducing their vulnerability to disasters.

These discoveries should not be limited exclusively to Nagoya or the Japanese context. Many countries noted that foreign residents were particularly vulnerable to disasters and faced limitations in targeting their various communities. In building future disaster resilience, the different levels of disaster preparedness of foreign residents must be considered in a nuanced way, as should efforts to engage with diverse communities.

Rather than characterizing foreign residents simply as “vulnerable”, it is essential to understand what aspects of residence abroad, such as different life experiences, legal constraints or language skills, make it more difficult for individuals and groups to cope with disasters, and how these can influence levels of disaster preparedness.

David Green is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Graduate School of Law, Nagoya University.

Justin Whitney is a researcher at Nagoya University.

Matthew Linley is a Designated Professor at the Global Engagement Center at Nagoya University.

Support from the Australia-Japan Foundation is acknowledged for funding the research underlying this article.