TT-955 (Tourism Edition) -- Emergencies as a Tourist in Japan - The "What's Going On?" Moment

Japan Travel
* * * * * * * * TERRIE'S (TOURISM) TAKE - BY TERRIE LLOYD * * * * * *
A bi-weekly focused look at the tourism sector in Japan, by Terrie
Lloyd, a long-term technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan.

Tourism Sector Edition Sunday, Jul 29, 2018, Issue No. 955

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+++ Emergencies as a Tourist in Japan - The "What's Going On?" Moment

Earlier this month, on Friday July 6th, I along with hundreds of other
people was being told to disembark our Shinkansen bound for Tokyo, at
Okayama. In typical JR fashion, there was a terse comment about the
weather, and nothing else. But as someone who travels on the Shinkansen
regularly, I know that if they are getting us to disembark a scheduled
train mid-journey, it's going to be for a serious reason. So, we all get
off, expecting that more information will be forthcoming shortly. Little
did we know...

In the end, we and at least two other train's worth of passengers spent
3 painful hours standing/sitting/slouching on the Shinkansen platform
waiting for information to dribble through. Yes, that's several thousand
people on one little platform. Some passengers were smart and simply
went downstairs to get a ticket refund before finding a bar to wait out
the evening, but most of us had somewhere to get to that Friday night,
and in our hundreds we stood in relatively orderly lines, waiting for
more information on when the trains would start running again.

JR has a generally primitive management ethic - which can be summed up
as not hostility but rather, entitlement and arrogance. Yes, you get the
basics and the front desk staff are trained to be patient, but that's
where it ends. The company's management is distant and directive, and
once they decide on a rule it takes years to change it - even if the
rule doesn't make sense. As an example, because they had their own
credit card, which wasn't linked to any major card companies at the
time, if you wanted to pay for your train fare by Visa or Master, you
had to go to a single ViewPlaza (JR's travel agency) booth somewhere at
the back of the station to get served. The Shinkansen regular ticket
machines only started accepting regular credit cards a few years ago
after many years of grumbling by local and foreign customers.

So JR's attitude on this rainy day was to shut up and say very little,
and to muster and manage the passengers. What announcements there were,
varied between "Suspension due to heavy rain" and "The car on Platform
23 will be preparing for departure shortly" - where "shortly" was a
couple of hours.

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Perhaps worse than the lack of useful announcements was the fact that
almost none of them were in English. Yes, there were a couple of times
when someone announced something non-Japanese into the microphone, but
as a native speaker I couldn't recognize it as English. It was easier to
listen to the Japanese announcements even though some of the terminology
wasn't familiar to me, so I simply looked up the new words on Google's
handy-dandy Translate app (which btw, is getting much, much better).
Luckily my phone was charged up and working... As were the phones of the
many tourists on the train.

After a few minutes of disembarking, which in itself was a mystery for
most of the tourists, I saw many of them go online to see if they could
find more information on what was going on. If they were lucky with
their Google search, they would have found the JR rail network status site.

Which I did as well, and to my disappointment, I found the same equally
terse message that the cars had stopped because of heavy rain. No clue
as to how heavy, how long, or even whether the trains would restart that
evening. I then started Googling around and learned that there was
severe flooding upstream from the rail lines in Okayama, which at least
helped me decide that I should wait for another couple of hours before
giving up and finding a hotel in Okayama for the night. It was only
several days later that we learned just how bad the flooding was - with
over 200 people being killed by drowning or mudslides in Okayama and

In a way, those three hours were a fascinating study in human
psychology. While my fellow Japanese passengers knew to be patient and
endure, the foreign tourists could only wait about 30 minutes before
they started fidgeting and needing more information. Some of the braver
folk started asking Japanese passengers standing close to them, or the
harried conductors, what was going on. Once someone responded in
English, that person became the center of a circle of foreigners hanging
on every word. The overwhelming feeling was one of not knowing what was
going on, and not being used to the fact that JR and similar Japanese
pride-full organizations see no reason to make more than a few terse
messages to their customers.

In the end, the rain let up temporarily and the trains resumed running
long enough to get us out of there.

As I said, we all had lots of time to think, and I started wondering
whether there was any easy-to-find mobile app or website that served
this and other emergency information in a quick and usable way to
foreign tourists. As I got online I found that although various snippets
of information were available in a variety of sites, there is no really
competent single source of information, and more importantly a source
that has real-time information with contextual comments to support that
information. For example, why does "Heavy Rain" have to stop the Shinkansen?

Probably the app that comes closest to fulfilling this very important
emergency info role is one put out by the Japan National Tourism
Organization (JNTO), which is the marketing agency under the Japan
Travel Agency (JTA), which itself is governed by the Ministry of Land,
Infrastructure, and Transport (MLIT). The app is reasonably well
conceived, in that it brings together a range of emergency information
from various government and formerly government-owned organizations,
such as the Japan Met Office for weather, earthquakes, and volcanoes;
Japan Rail for national transport; JTB for airlines schedules; and
separately there was data from a couple of private companies. If you're
a new-to-Japan tourist, you'd never find all of these individual sites

Unfortunately the app also has a ton of drawbacks, which speak volumes
about Japan's bureaucrats being out of touch with consumer needs.
Firstly there's the fact that the app doesn't know what it wants to be
called. MLIT announced its launch as the "Safety Tips" app. Whereas,
JNTO launched it on Google Play as the "Japan Official Travel App"...
small oversights like this would probably only affect someone when they
are in a hurry - which, let's face it, is exactly what happens in an
emergency. So let's just call the name variations a rough edge.

More rough edges manifest themselves as you dig into the app. For
example, you click on the slick top interface, you then find yourself
being connected to some ugly/dysfunctional data sources - such as a
limited data list with a pay wall, or a poorly designed non-interactive
PDF, or a non-responsive web page (the app crashed several times for
me), or worse still, an app announcement saying the intended info is in
Japanese only and then removing the link to that Japanese material. I
think the JNTO folks need to re-think the app, and put someone with a
proper design background on to it. After all, this is a national
standard emergency resource in a country where emergencies are fairly
commonplace, and it needs to easy to use and actually useful during
those emergencies.

Ironically, the feature that users on Google Play were most enthusiastic
about on the app wasn't its emergency data, but rather the train
schedule times. Ironic because this information actually comes from
Jorudan (the norikai annai folks) and it even has a pay section if you
want more advanced information. Indeed, you could just save yourself
75MB of precious smartphone memory by avoiding the weighty JNTO app and
downloading the Jorudan one instead.

BTW, the JNTO app is a massive 106MB. Research has shown that frequent
(Asian) travelers to Japan will put up with 15MB~20MB apps, but not more
than this. No one in their right mind with a roaming account is going to
want to download that size app while they're in the middle of an emergency.

So what's the moral of this story? Quite simply that although the
government has taken it upon itself to provide emergency information,
the way it's gone about doing it is hamfisted. But the basic idea is
good. I feel there is an interesting opportunity for a good UX designer
to hop in and do the job better. The app's business model would be a bit
up and down, in that your main traffic would be extremely "peaky". On
the other hand, when those emergencies did occur, which in Japan with
its recent weather extremes seems to be evermore frequent, you'd get a
ton of visitors trying to learn what their options are.

Indeed, if there is a reader out there with ideas on how to put such an
app together, Japan Travel would be interested in hearing from them.

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