Authors: David Green, Justin Whitney and Matthew Linley, Nagoya University
Japan is arguably well prepared for its frequent and devastating natural disasters. Having dealt with major earthquakes, tsunamis and seasonal torrential rains among other calamities, regular emergency drills and strong educational campaigns have helped the Japanese population cope well and recover quickly following rapid onset events.
But while the Japanese populace as a whole may be well prepared, and multiculturalism (tabunka kyosei) is considered integral to Japan’s disaster preparedness polices, relatively little information is known about how Japan’s growing foreign population copes with disaster. How well prepared are foreign residents in Japan for disaster? And how do they obtain their disaster information? These questions have not only been crucial in recent natural and anthropogenic emergencies but are also essential in framing Japan’s response to future major disasters.
Anecdotal accounts from 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 hazards and that government often fails to adequately inform them of impending danger.
Most local governments in Japan have only recently begun disseminating disaster preparedness information to foreign residents, with activities ranging from training volunteer interpreters to creating multilingual disaster preparedness manuals, posters and pamphlets. But during interviews with policymakers and practitioners in late 2019, it was acknowledged that not only did the effectiveness of these efforts remain unknown, but few, if any, systematic post-incident reviews were carried out.
While it is commonly assumed that foreign residents are more susceptible and vulnerable to disasters, there is little nuance to the understanding of how the diverse foreign communities in Japan prepare for disaster. 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 behaviour of the population, Japanese and non-Japanese alike. The pandemic has underscored the necessity of understanding how diverse communities prepare for disaster and respond to government outreach efforts.
To shed some light on how foreign residents in Japan access information, we analysed foreign resident survey data from Nagoya. Through this analysis, we found a surprising amount of variability in foreign resident disaster preparedness activities. While Japanese language ability appears to have some influence on disaster preparedness, its impact was surprisingly small. What we found instead was variability in preparedness activities across the major nationalities that make up Nagoya’s foreign population.
This may have at least some relation to prior disaster exposure as foreign residents coming from more disaster-prone countries, like the Philippines and Vietnam, appear to undergo relatively higher levels of preparation. Likewise, individuals with prior disaster training experience and those who access disaster-related information are more likely to be prepared for an emergency.
Our study brings three important points worth noting. First, foreign resident disaster preparedness in Japan does not appear to hinge on Japanese language ability as is commonly assumed. With the continued spread of technology, disaster information is now available in a variety of languages, which may make it easier for foreign residents to be more informed even if they do not speak a high level of Japanese. As a result, governments may want to consider additional means of outreach beyond simply relying on disseminating information in multiple languages.
Second, different levels of preparation mean that foreign communities in Japan cannot be treated as a homogeneous group. Foreign residents in Japan come from a variety of countries with vastly different disaster profiles and accompanying preparation cultures. Governments could better utilise their limited resources by engaging those communities that demonstrate markedly lower levels of disaster preparedness.
Third, as prior disaster training experience has a strong association with levels of disaster preparedness for foreign residents, local disaster drills and training initiatives should more strongly target foreign residents. Concerted efforts to make foreign residents aware of regularly held community training activities could potentially go a long way in reducing their vulnerability to disaster.
These findings should not be limited exclusively to Nagoya or to the Japanese context. Many countries have noted foreign residents as especially vulnerable to disaster and have faced limitations in targeting their diverse communities. In building future disaster resilience, differing levels of foreign resident disaster preparedness should be given nuanced consideration, as should efforts to engage with diverse communities.
Rather than characterising foreign residents simply as ‘vulnerable’, it is crucial to build an understanding of what aspects of foreign residency, such as differing life experiences, legal constraints or language competency, make it more difficult for individuals and groups to cope with disasters, and how these may influence levels of disaster preparedness.
David Green is an Associate Professor in Political Science at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Law.
Justin Whitney is a research fellow at Nagoya University.
Matthew Linley is a Designated Professor in the Global Engagement Centre at Nagoya University.
The support of the Australia-Japan Foundation is acknowledged for funding the research underpinning this paper.
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