When natural disasters happen

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It has been a tough week for Japan. On Tuesday, a typhoon sliced through the Kansai and Shikoku regions, killing a number of people and trapping thousands more at Kansai International Airport. This morning, Hokkaido was the victim of Japan’s latest powerful earthquake, which damaged the island’s main airport in Chitose.

The growth in Japan’s tourism industry is “off the charts.” So is the number of foreign-born individuals resident in Japan. But if Japan is naturally prone to so earthquakes, the odd volcanic eruptions, and now—thanks to climate change—typhoons, is it ready to deal with the foreign-born residents and the 40 million tourists that Prime Minister Abe wants to welcome by the 2020 Olympics?

Some observations.

News Zero / Nippon News Network
  1. During the typhoon, a ship that had lost power crashed into and damaged the access bridge connecting Kansai International Airport and the mainland.
  2. Around 8,000 people waited overnight to leave the airport. They spent the night inside a hot, suffocating glass building with no ventilation as electricity to the terminal had been cut off.
  3. The morning after, they waited in the hot, scorching heat for at least five hours for a tour bus or a ferry to get them off the airport island. (関西空港では、利用客を5日朝からバスや高速船などで空港島の外に運んでいますが、中には炎天下で体調を崩すなどして空港の施設内にとどまっている利用客もいます。)
  4. Never mind that the typhoon will cause inevitable economic impact on the Kansai region, which is very popular with tourists, especially from China and South Korea. The bigger question is why 8,000 people were left stranded at Kansai International Airport with no electricity and no or very little communications or announcements as to what was happening. Why did the flooding happen? Did the airport really not have a contingency plan for dealing with typhoons or even the very extraordinarily small probability that one day something might happen to the access bridge? Will anyone step out to admit responsibility?
  5. How do local and national governments and businesses that provide critical logistics infrastructure like airports, railways, and hotels take care of non-Japanese speaking individuals in emergency situations? The same question was posed by Nikkei Keizai Shimbun during a major earthquake that happened in Osaka in June. Tourists are the people who are (with some exceptions) least likely to be familiar with the local language, let alone what happens during an earthquake or typhoon. Will they be made aware of how governments respond to natural disasters and release information, and of what to do to protect themselves?
  6. This is not the first time that circumstances led to a large number of people being trapped in a small space. In January, over 400 passengers were trapped overnight on a train stalled under 77 centimeters of snow during a snowstorm in Niigata Prefecture. JR East neither gave any information to parents and family members worried about the people trapped on the train nor accepted offers of assistance from the local government to rescue people using minibuses, the Self-Defence Forces nearby to shovel away to snow, or even from taxi drivers, because JR East became myopically obsessed with rescuing everyone at the same time (乗客全員の救済にこだわっていた):


Certainly, there could have other methods of rescue, like asking police to take care of the level crossing while the railway line is closed, or asking the SDF for snow blowers, or, depending on the weather conditions, asking for a helicopter rescue. However, JR East decided to deal with the train itself. This is not a malicious decision. I think this shows the pride of the railway men who run the company. But, during a natural disaster, they should put away their egos and ask for help during. This should not be a humiliating thing to do.

Apparently the people on the train survived the ordeal by swapping seats with each other or reading examination textbooks. I certainly wouldn’t have had the patience. I don’t think Japan’s tourists will either.