No matter how well-prepared a country is, and no matter how advanced its infrastructure and technology, no nation could have anticipated the devastation wrought by the recent tsunami and series of earthquakes in Japan. In the race to respond to urgent needs in the aftermath of a disaster, communication across languages is critical.

When disaster strikes, there is always a need to communicate across languages both for internal and external purposes. Within a country’s borders, relief workers must make sure that critical safety instructions can be understood by members of linguistically diverse populations. Like many economic powerhouses, Japan is a “pull country” for immigrants. More than two million foreigners – hailing from countries like Brazil, China, Korea, Peru, the Philippines, the United States, and Venezuela – live and work on Japanese soil. Whenever a disaster takes place, individuals in other countries begin trying to reach their loved ones in the affected location, generating an influx of communications in other languages.

Given the need for language services support, the Japan Association of Translators (JAT) is serving as a central point of contact for requests for interpreters and translators.  The JAT is also welcoming volunteer interpreters to contact them.  Even if you don’t speak Japanese, if you speak one of the languages of the countries listed above, you might be able to help.  In times of emergency, “relay interpreting” is quite common.  In this type of interpreting, a Spanish<>English interpreter renders the words of a Venezuelan worker in Japan into English, whereupon an English<>Japanese interpreter transfers the information into Japanese. In some cases, the second interpretation might not even be needed – for example, if a Japanese doctor speaks English and has a Korean-speaking patient, a Korean<>English interpreter might be sufficient to assist with critical and potential life-saving language support. Read more.

See: Common Sense Advisory


  • The Japanese Association of Medical Interpreters (JAMI) has set up a call center specifically to help out in the disaster.
  • The International Medical Interpreter Association (IMIA) has built a Disaster Relief Database. This international effort lists interpreters in many different language combinations and sends the information periodically to 20 non-profits around the world, including the Japanese Red Cross.
  • Translators without Borders announced that it is ready to assist with requests for translation related to the disaster from humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Also see: Japan Association of Translators (JAT) assembles list of volunteer interpreters to help in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami disaster