Hokkaido Quake Hinders Overseas Visitors

The powerful earthquake that struck Hokkaido early this month came at a time when the number of overseas visitors to the region is at a record high.

An estimated 2.79 million tourists from abroad traveled to the northern Japanese prefecture in the last fiscal year. Their experience of the quake left them shocked and confused about what to do.

Inadequate Information in English

We went to Hokkaido one day after the temblor and met a Swiss tourist visiting the capital, Sapporo. She told us that she was sleeping when the quake hit, and that she did not know what had happened because she'd never experienced an earthquake before. "It was shocking and everything was in Japanese, so I didn't know what to do," she said. She decided to get up and follow the people heading down the stairs at the hotel.

A tourist from Malaysia said communication from their hotel was very poor. She said her group had to get information from the internet. She said the hotel staff couldn't understand them and just kept telling them to go to an emergency shelter. She said the experience was very disappointing.

When disaster hits, information is of prime importance, especially for visitors from other countries, but many of those visiting Hokkaido said information in English was hard to come by.

Tourists Head to Shelters

The September 6th earthquake forced many hotels to shut down. It cut water and power supplies and disrupted transportation. This left overseas tourists with no choice but to go to emergency shelters.

Sapporo city officials said 2,840 people evacuated to shelters set up for visitors in five locations, and that about 60 percent were from other countries. All the shelters were closed by September 9th.

At the Shelter

We visited a shelter set up at a sports center in Sapporo. At one point, it was housing more than 400 people. We saw evacuees with their baggage placed by their beds. Some were sitting on the floor eating rice balls that had been delivered to the shelter.

We talked with Seo Bo-kyung from South Korea. She said she was in Hokkaido with colleagues, and that they could no longer stay at their hotel. She said her group was helped by their travel agent to get to the shelter. Seo spoke to us in English.

"Most people searched the internet, but internet information is not enough, and some are right and some are bad and not right," she said. "And that kind of information makes people confused." She said no one else around her understood English and that made communication very difficult.

Correct information in English is the least that visitors from overseas should be able to expect during a disaster.

A Message from Seo

Seo is a social worker based in the city of Busan. She said she's interested in social issues because of her work, and that she doesn't view earthquakes as something that happens to other people because a major quake hit the southern city of Gyeongju in South Korea in 2016. She said she would be spending the night at a shelter and carefully observing how people in Japan handle these difficulties.

Two days after the Hokkaido quake, Seo returned home. We later received the following message from her:

"We are home safely now. I'm still worried about all people in Hokkaido. I pray earthquakes will never come back again there. When we were moved to the shelter, Japanese staff and volunteers were trying to help us to stay in the shelter, so we felt safe and calm. Many thanks to Japan's friendly and reliable support!"

Volunteers Helping Visitors

Local high school and unversity students worked as volunteers at the shelters to help travelers from other countries. They were responding to calls from their schools to help non-Japanese evacuees. They were also interested in mingling with English speakers, and many hoped to eventually study abroad.

They drew up a plan to bus evacuees from shelters to an airport, twice a day, for free. They distributed information about it, in English and Korean. They said they found it difficult to provide information verbally. They said evacuees asked many different kinds of questions, trying to get as much detailed information as possible.

A tourist from Taiwan asked if an airport bus he and his companion had initially planned to use was back in service. The student volunteers said they found it difficult to communicate with Thai tourists in English, and that they relied on Thai apps to talk with them. They said another tourist from Taiwan told them that he thought it was very considerate that people were willing to offer help during a disaster like this. He also said the Japanese sweets distributed at the shelter were very tasty.

The students' first free shuttle bus to an airport left one shelter two days after the quake. It was carrying 20 overseas visitors. They smiled and waved to people at the shelter.

Second-year high school student Hia Minato said there was no use having information if you couldn't get it across. "I found it difficult to explain in a foreign language because of the different nuances," she said.

First-year student Karin Gunji said she hoped that visitors would go back home with better memories of Hokkaido after having traveled so far. "Today's experience made me want to learn more language skills," she added.

College freshman Iori Sugawara said communicating with others may look simple, but that it is what matters the most.

Working at the shelters boosted the students' motivation to study languages. This shows that volunteering is a valuable way to learn.

Government Action

Hokkaido officials set up a telephone consultation service for foreigners staying in the prefecture after the quake. Service was available in English, Chinese and South Korean. More than 400 inquiries came in. But the service wasn't quite good enough.

"There was a time lag between the actual event and the information we provided," said one official. "We even told some visitors to go to shelters that were already full. We need more people who can communicate in English, Chinese and South Korean."

More Information an Urgent Task

Hokkaido and other regions of Japan can expect to attract even more visitors from overseas, but they could be affected by earthquakes, typhoons and other natural disasters that Japan is prone to.

The powerful quake in Hokkaido has raised the issue of communicating accurate information correctly. While it is always difficult to provide all the support that is needed, people will naturally help one another during an emergency, and more volunteers should come forward. The enthusiasm of the young student volunteers surely has struck a chord with the international visitors they helped.