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Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012

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At the ready: Motoko Kimura, a representative of WaNavi Japan, instructs a group of foreign mothers about disaster preparedness measures in English during an earthquake emergency workshop in Tokyo on Sept. 7. KYODO

WaNavi Japan's workshops teach non-Japanese-speaking residents how to respond

NPO holds disaster training for moms


Unlike Japanese, who begin participating in disaster drills when they are still schoolchildren, many foreign residents have never experienced a powerful temblor before arriving here.

Recalling their experiences of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, many of them have said they had little idea about how to respond at the time, as well as in the aftermath, because of the scant information available in foreign languages.

To help ease their concerns, especially for mothers with young children and those who can't speak Japanese, a citizens' group based in the Tokyo metropolitan area began organizing monthly workshops in May 2011 to help prepare them for future emergencies.

Early last month, about 30 mothers who are foreign nationals gathered in Tokyo for an Earthquake Preparedness Workshop that was held in English by the WaNavi Japan nonprofit organization. WaNavi was established by a group of Japanese mothers who have lived abroad.

The workshop provided basic information on how to respond to a major temblor in various situations, such as if you're in an elevator or a train. It also covered the basics of how to post details about your safety status on special message boards set up at such times by mobile phone carriers, or to check information uploaded by loved ones.

The participants asked numerous questions, such as what is the risk of a tsunami swamping Tokyo, which radio stations will broadcast information in English, and how to pick up their children from school.

In addition to WaNavi members, some foreign mothers who have lived in Japan for years helped answer questions by giving advice based on their personal experiences in major quakes.

Because the language barrier is a huge challenge for many foreign residents, WaNavi used card games and pictograms to help participants recognize key kanji characters and to learn a minimum yet essential amount of Japanese vocabulary to use in the event of disasters, such as "hinan" (evacuation) and "yoshin" (aftershocks).

Lisa Ragon, a 40-year-old American mother of two, said she had given up on the idea of learning kanji but now feels she can at least handle those she learned at the session. Ragon, who has a 5-month-old child and another aged 3, had arrived in Japan only three weeks before the workshop.

Another U.S. mother who took part, Mimi Ishigami, said that while her husband is Japanese, she had never really had the opportunity to learn about disaster preparation measures in detail.

The 43-year-old Ishigami said she used to think that if a massive earthquake were to strike, she should immediately go to collect her children from school. But she said that thanks to the workshop she now realizes the importance of securing her own safety first.

In the future, WaNavi is considering holding workshops in Chinese and Portuguese.

One of the NPO's representatives, Motoko Kimura, recalled that on the day of the 3/11 earthquake, she was unable to return home until the middle of the night because the trains in Tokyo were taken out of service. Kimura, 33, had left home earlier that day and asked her mother to baby-sit her 10-month-old daughter.

"Residents from abroad must have experienced even greater insecurity and uneasiness that day," Kimura said. "So I decided that I wanted to do something to help."

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