Disaster-zone foreigners feeling linguistic squeeze 
→ Japan Times online / by Nemo's Great Uncle - Flickr Creative Commons -  http://goo.gl/AL3INm

Internationalisation and disaster prevention

Before the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) Sendai was creating multilingual disaster-prevention awareness tools and holding disaster-prevention classes with local residents and schools to raise disaster-prevention awareness among foreigners. We were also training language volunteers and preparing the Disaster Multilingual Support Center.

At the time of the GEJE, we anticipated that it might be difficult for foreigners to receive aid due to language and cultural differences. The Disaster Multilingual Support Center helped foreigners by sending out information in multiple languages and visiting evacuation centres.

Case study

Internationalisation and Disaster Prevention

HFA Priority

3. Use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels.

5. Strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.


There are approximately 10,000 foreign residents in Sendai City. Many of them did not understand Japanese well or did not have sufficient knowledge on what to do when a natural hazard such as an earthquake occurs.


All of Sendai City (tools are available on the internet)

Addressing the Problem 

To spread awareness, we have created disaster-prevention awareness tools aimed for foreigners, including multilingual disaster-prevention pamphlets and a multilingual disaster-prevention manual on DVD.

We have also participated in local disaster-prevention trainings with foreigners and held disaster-prevention classes for them in cooperation with neighbourhood associations and universities.

Moreover, we are explaining disaster prevention at the daily life orientations we hold at Japanese language schools and universities. Since the recent disaster, for example, we have been spreading awareness by creating a new multilingual disaster-prevention video.

In April 2010, Sendai City and the Sendai International Relations Association signed an agreement concerning the operation of the Disaster Multilingual Support Center so that adequate support for foreigners can be provided in a disaster.

It was decided that Sendai City would establish the center and that the Sendai International Relations Association would operate it. At the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the center was open for 51 days from 11 March to 30 April.

At the center, once necessary information had been collected, it was translated and disseminated via radio, websites (blogs, SMS) and e-mail. These activities were completed in cooperation with previously trained and registered disaster language volunteers, international students, radio stations, universities, and other international associations. Staff also visited evacuation centers, focusing on those with a large number of foreign evacuees.


By spreading awareness in multiple languages, we were able to further basic understanding of disasters. During the GHJE, many foreigners evacuated to evacuation centers.  

Due to language and cultural differences, however, at certain evecuation centres, staff had difficulty informing foreigners of the rules of the center and struggled to handle the situation.

In a large-scale disaster, the Disaster Multilingual Support Center proved useful in helping to ease the worries of foreign citizens by delivering necessary information to them in their native languages.

Measuring Success

We are spreading awareness among foreigners using disaster-prevention awareness tools. In addition, during the GEJE the Disaster Multilingual Support Center made use of the network we had cultivated up until that time through regular, face-to-face relationship-building. With the cooperation of numerous people, we were able to disseminate information in multiple languages and visit evacuation centres.

On the other hand, there were also problems at evacuation centres, such as cases where foreigners and the management struggled with differences in language and customs, which we must address in future education and evacuation centre operational training.

Relevance to HFA

Foreigners may be especially vulnerable in a disaster due to differences in language. By providing easy-to-understand information about what to do in an earthquake in various languages, we can offer appropriate education and training as well as prepare support systems for a disaster. These actions contribute to the creation of a culture that is safe and disaster-resistent on all levels, and to the strengthening of preparations for an effective disaster response.

At present, there is a growing movement to set up disaster multilingual support centres all over the country. Our city’s activities have become an example for other cities to follow.

Potential for Replication

With the development of globalisation, it is imperative that we build support systems for and spread knowledge to people with diverse languagues and cultural backgrounds. As our multilingual information is generic in nature, it could be used in other places. There is potential for replication in other regions.

Contribution by

City of Sendai (Community Affairs Bureau)

Sendai International Relations Association