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

Terrie's Take terrie at mailman.japaninc.com
Sun Jul 29 23:52:11 JST 2018

* * * * * * * * 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

SUBSCRIBE to, UNSUBSCRIBE from Terrie's Take at: 

+++ 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.

...The information janitors/


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Written by: Terrie Lloyd (terrie.lloyd at japaninc.com)

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