The powerful earthquake that hit Japan's popular tourist destination of Hokkaido, the country's northernmost main island, has highlighted a lack of preparedness to provide information to foreign visitors in a time of a disaster.
With the number of foreign visitors expected to grow ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, the government is introducing multilingual emergency information apps and other tools, but a lot more work is needed to train people who can provide direct assistance to non-Japanese in a crisis, experts say.
Hokkaido gets close to 2.8 million foreign visitors a year.
"The hotel staff only responded in Japanese," complained a South Korean man, who was among many such foreign visitors seeking information following the M6.7 quake that caused a massive blackout and transportation disruptions in Hokkaido on Sept. 6.
A Chinese man said most information posted on signs in stations and in other public areas was in Japanese and English. "I wish there had been information posted in Chinese, too," he said.
Many foreign tourists could be seen wandering aimlessly in parks in central Sapporo, the prefecture's capital city, or stuck at airports, worried and frustrated because they were unable to obtain crucial information due to the language barrier.
The Sapporo government set up a special evacuation center on the afternoon of the quake, dispatching staff there capable of speaking English, among other languages. The Hokkaido prefectural government also started a phone hotline for foreign visitors in English, Chinese and Korean.
But an official in charge admitted, "We were so busy with the response effort at the evacuation center that we were unable to supply information in other languages."
(Signs at a temporary shelter in Sapporo for tourists in English, Chinese and Korean)
Last year, the number of visitors to Japan hit a record 28.69 million and is expected to surpass 30 million this year. The Japanese government, which sees tourism as a pillar of its growth strategy, aims to achieve its target of 40 million by 2020.
The large and growing presence of foreigners, however, means the disaster-prone nation faces an uphill battle as it tries to better serve non-Japanese speakers in emergencies such as those triggered by earthquakes and typhoons.
As a part of this effort, the Japan Tourism Agency has created a guideline on how to deal with foreign visitors in the initial stage of a disaster.
The guideline urges tourist and lodging facilities to respond swiftly and fully to foreign guests to prevent a panic as many of them will be unable to communicate in Japanese and may have no prior experience of coping in a disaster.
An app, called "Safety tips," delivers an earthquake early warning, and other disaster alerts to smartphones and other devices in English, Chinese and Korean. The agency has been calling on foreign visitors to download the app at tourist counters and embassies in Japan.
Other popular tourist destinations have been taking their own measures to assist foreigners in disasters.
(Two tourists from France spend the night at quake-hit New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido)
The city of Kyoto, for example, has set up a 24-hour call center, which provides an interpreting service in five languages for hotels and other facilities that have trouble communicating with their foreign guests. There is also a website that provides foreigners with information on evacuation centers.
The city has also been holding drills involving locals and hotel workers to ensure they know the procedures on how to evacuate foreign visitors to temple grounds and other safe locations in situations when public transportation is not functioning.
In Okinawa, which sees a large number of typhoons approach each year, the Okinawa International Exchange & Human Resources Development Foundation is training local citizens to become "supporters," whose job will be to visit evacuation centers and gather information on foreign tourists during a disaster. So far, 135 people have registered as supporters.
"Even if you cannot communicate by language, it is important to communicate what action people need to take in a simple manner using gestures," said Masanori Negoro of the foundation.
Still, Negoro said he thinks there are nowhere near enough supporters and worries "how things would be if there is a major earthquake or a massive blackout."
In Sapporo, still reeling from the impact of the quake and blackout, an official of the city said, "We need to consider the worst case scenario and act in cooperation with travel agencies and lodging facilities to jointly provide information (to foreign visitors)."
Shizuyo Yoshitomi, a professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, said administrative authorities and hotels must work together to determine the whereabouts of foreigners immediately after a disaster occurs.
"They must keep in mind that they should not exclude anyone and they should strengthen the ties with people who do not understand their language," she said.