A less polite version of Japanese is helping foreigners stay safe during disasters

As torrential rains battered parts of western Japan in July last year, Tan Shun Wai, a long-time employee at Soja’s City Hall, found himself inundated with messages and calls from worried foreigners. Many were unable to understand the government’s disaster notices that were being sent to their phones.

With its use of Chinese characters (kanji) and the honorific style of writing, official notices are often unintelligible to elementary learners of Japanese—the term for “evacuation advisory,” or hinan kankoku (避難勧告), is rendered in four complex Chinese characters written in 54 strokes. As Japanese residents responded to the government warnings about rising water levels by moving into shelters, Tan sent messages in Portuguese, English, and Spanish to worried foreigners in Soja and in neighboring towns, instructing them to follow suit.

The 45-year-old, who has been in charge of multicultural affairs at City Hall since 2009, became interested in how to better assist foreigners during disasters after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The catastrophe made him realize that incidents where foreigners are at a loss following a natural disaster would become increasingly common in a country plagued by earthquakes, typhoons, heavy rains, and volcanic eruptions—especially with the number of foreign residents and tourists steadily climbing.

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