Foreign tourists and residents in Japan are more likely to find multilingual help regarding the novel coronavirus at the tourism agency and local governments than the health ministry, the central government body tasked with stemming the spread of the disease.
Although the health ministry offers a toll-free phone number for inquiries about the virus, it is available only in Japanese. For non-Japanese speakers, it has designated websites in English and Chinese.
In the English and Chinese pages, a link leads to a page for foreign tourists to call the Japan Visitor Hotline and another link to a page providing a list of medical institutions in Japan.
As the ministry does not have a toll-free line for foreigners, it guides foreign residents to other governmental organizations, a ministry official said.
In the middle of both pages, it displays information on developments in Japan on the coronavirus. "We update the English and Chinese versions every weekday based on the Japanese version," said the official, who was not authorized to be named, over the phone. However, there were days when the information on the English page appeared not to have been updated.
A hotline run by the Japan National Tourism Organization, an external bureau of the Tourism Agency for foreign visitors who need assistance in emergencies, has been made available to field inquiries about COVID-19, the official name of the pneumonia-causing illness.
Information is available in English, Chinese and Korean at 050-3816-2787.
Although the service is aimed at travelers, "foreign residents are also welcome to use it if public health centers in their prefecture only provide information in Japanese," an official from the organization told Kyodo News over the phone.
There has been a surge in calls to the center since the JNTO announced in a Jan. 31 press release it would take coronavirus inquiries, with between 25 to 50 coronavirus-related calls per day compared to just one to four calls before the announcement. The majority of those hotline calls are people seeking recommendations for hospitals due to concerns over virus symptoms, he said.
In addition to the hotline, JNTO also runs a website listing almost 2,000 medical institutions across Japan with foreign-language services. Users can filter results based on prefecture, language and medical department, as well as specify a keyword in the search box.
On the social media front, the organization operates Japan Safe Travel both on Twitter and Weibo, providing foreign visitors with safety tips and disaster information in English and Chinese, respectively. But posts made on the accounts regarding the coronavirus contained only general announcements and prevention guidelines.
"For daily updates on the number of infection cases, people can refer to the JNTO website," the official said.
While the advisory site mentioned is linked to the home page, users need to scroll more than halfway down the page in order to find it. The figures are also based on global situation reports released daily by the World Health Organization, rather than developments specific to Japan.
"If you are a foreign resident living in Japan, we recommend you call your prefectural government as they ought to have a consultation call center regarding the coronavirus," the health ministry official said. Even so, handling of the coronavirus situation might differ for each prefecture.
The Tokyo metropolitan government boosted its capacity at the call center for the coronavirus recently, aimed only at residents in Tokyo and is available at 0570-550571 in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
"We have expanded this because we thought that there were requirements as there are a lot of foreigners living here," said an official from the Tokyo metropolitan government.
The Osaka prefectural government provides a phone number of a foundation for foreign residents or visitors. Osaka Foundation of International Exchange will deliver the information in 10 languages, not including Japanese.
Those with questions regarding possible infections can consult the foundation at 06-6941-2297.
Aichi Prefecture, one of the most populated prefectures, has a phone number for foreign tourists that introduces medical facilities and interpretation for tourists (https://aichi.livecall.jp/en/ipCC/).
As the prefecture does not have a phone number for foreign residents, an official said such people should call the Japanese-language coronavirus hotline, asking for assistance from friends or acquaintances to do so if necessary.
Foreigners can alternatively turn to their country's government sources for the latest updates on COVID-19.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia referred citizens to its bulletin on the government travel advisory website Smartraveller, and advised those particularly concerned to contact its 24-hour Consular Emergency Center.
The U.S. embassy in Japan has an official page dedicated to the coronavirus outbreak with an advisory list for those who are within or are considering visiting the country.
Furthermore, it has been updating its multiple social media outlets according to the situation, with links to various local resources around the country for those who require assistance in English.
"The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad are the Department of State's highest priority," a spokesperson from the embassy's press office said.
And if all else fails, private travel agencies and social news websites can also be a good source of timely information.
A coronavirus "megathread" currently pinned to the top of the r/japanlife sub on Reddit is updated daily with links to the latest news from various sources in English. Registered members of the popular news aggregation site can also discuss issues and get advice from other foreigners living in Japan.