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Disasters and Panic: Foreigners in the Equation of Japan's Response

How will the rising number of tourists and foreign residents impact Japan's response in disasters, which relies on the calm and generosity of local communities?



A long line of domestic and inbound visitors formed at Kansai Airport's bus terminal due to the impact of the 2018 Osaka earthquake. (©Sankei by Tomoichiro Takekawa)

In recent months, since moving to Taiwan, I have been increasingly worried that the Japanese government is not ready for what might be the worst-case scenario following a major disaster in Japan. Such disasters could be an earthquake and tsunami originating in the Nankai Trough, Tonankai, or Tokai areas, or a direct hit under Tokyo

Specifically, I am concerned that China will take advantage of such a situation to seize Taiwan. American forces will be involved in assisting Japan, and the Self-Defense Forces will be heavily (but not exclusively) dedicated to disaster relief in the affected areas. This will have devastating consequences for Japan, the region, and the world.

There is, however, another scenario I would like to reluctantly discuss here. That is the disruption that might be caused by foreigners living in or visiting Japan at the time of one of the aforementioned disasters. In particular, one directly striking Tokyo.

This disruption could be intentional or unintentional. If it is the latter, it can be handled more easily. If it is the former, it too will be detrimental to Japan.

Let me explain.

The Noto Peninsula disaster area is covered in snow. A police officer inspects the fire-hit Wajima Asaichi Market in Wajima City, Ishikawa Prefecture, on the afternoon of January 7. (© Sankei by Kanata Iwasaki)

Japan's Previous Disaster Response

I am often asked to speak about the United States' response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. That is because I was intimately involved in the preparation and implementation of Operation Tomodachi. I served as the political advisor to the Forward Command Element located at Camp Sendai in the Tohoku area. In fact, I drafted the policy recommendations for what became known as Operation Tomodachi. This was back in March 2006 when I was still an associate professor at Osaka University's School of International Public Policy.

During my talks, I emphasize that yes, US forces played a critical role and did so capably. However, the success of Operation Tomodachi is not exclusively attributable to the forward-deployed US Marine Corps and other services alone. The Japanese side is largely responsible for the achievements of the operation.

Specifically, I mention four things. These include the professionalism and skills of the SDF, the quick decision by the Japanese government to request assistance, and the high level of development of institutions and infrastructure in this country. The fourth item I mention, which I usually place at the top of the list, is the patience, calmness, concern for others, and respect for order of the Japanese. It is also the self-reliance of the people and communities affected by the disaster.


Calm and Mutual Generosity

In other words, the areas affected did not descend into chaos and disorder despite the magnitude of the tragedy. Residents remained calm and patient as they waited to be assisted or rescued. Food, water, blankets, clothes, etc, were shared. Communities that had enough asked rescuers to take the supplies to more desperate and isolated areas. 

This calm allowed us rescuers the time necessary to develop the plans and gather and transport the supplies to those areas. Had the communities become chaotic and order broken down, the relief operations would have been delayed. Order would have had to be preserved. This would have diverted police and other resources away from the actual relief operations and recovery of bodies of those killed in the earthquake and tsunami.

The world was astonished by the mutual generosity and patience of the Japanese people in the affected communities. I attribute this to the nature of the Japanese people. Hence, I emphasize this in my talks.

However, in a future disaster, especially one in Tokyo, we may not easily be able to expect such calm. First is the fact that Tokyo tends to be a hodgepodge of people from all around the country. They may not necessarily be long-term residents, might not know their neighbors, and probably do not always participate in community events. 

In other words, the historic bonds and trust that one would find in smaller, rural communities are not there. That not only makes immediate relief operations more difficult but also the rebuilding process. 

Volunteers sort disaster waste from damaged houses in Wajima City, Ishikawa Prefecture, on February 10. (©Kyodo)

Challenges for Tokyo's Diverse Population

A second problem, which is the focus of this commentary, is that there is an unprecedentedly huge number of foreigners in Japan, especially in Tokyo. The official numbers for 2023 have yet to be released but there are close to 3.4 million foreigners living in Japan. This is approximately 2.75% of the Japanese population. Also, it is almost twice the foreign population in Japan in 2011 at the time of the Tohoku disaster.

Within Tokyo proper, more than 600,000 foreigners live, although the number is likely much higher if illegal aliens are included. If Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa prefectures are included, the number more than doubles.

This does not include tourists and other short-term visitors. In 2023, the number of people visiting Japan reached 25.1 million. While this is high, just before the COVID outbreak, the number was 31.2 million. Taking the current number, that means on a daily basis, roughly 70,000 foreigners are traveling in Japan. Over the course of several days, that number would be a quarter million, and over a week's time, nearly half a million.

Would these people, many of whom do not speak the language, be able to remain calm in a disaster like the Japanese? Their reactions, while natural, might cause much chaos unintentionally. Would Japanese officials know how to deal with them? 


Potential Exploitation by Adversaries

In the aftermath of a typhoon in 2023, the bullet trains were canceled for about 18 hours. I happened to be at Tokyo Station and personally witnessed the chaos. Generally, and fortunately, the foreign tourists I saw were well-behaved, just greatly confused.

If a hostile country decided to take advantage of a natural or manmade disaster in Japan, the situation could easily become more chaotic. In 2010, the Chinese government passed the National Defense Mobilization Act. The act obligates its citizens, including those abroad, to cooperate with the government. 

Chinese residents number close to one million in Japan (if those in all categories are included). Under this law, they could be ordered to conduct sabotage or other operations in Japan to cause chaos and disruption. This might allow the PRC to launch an attack on Taiwan, knowing Japan was powerless to respond. 

It is uncomfortable to think about — and even unpleasant to have to write this. Nevertheless, Japan needs to think and plan for this kind of situation when it opens the door to nearly unrestricted immigration and tourism.


Review by: Robert D Eldridge, PhD

Dr Eldridge is a former political advisor to the US Marine Corps in Japan, and author and a 2024 Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellow at Tamkang University.