Natural disasters in Japan reveal challenges for Taiwan

Tourists from Taiwan looks tired as they have nowhere to go after being moved from the Kanasai International Airport in front of Izumisano Station in Osaka in early morning on Sep.6, 2018. With powerful Typhoon Jubi causing havoc and huge damage in various parts of the country on 4th and 5th, rescue activities for about 3,000 stranded passengers and other people was conducted at the Airport, which sits on a man-made island, on 5th. The life-threating typhoon traveled through the Shikoku and Kinki regions and changed into an extratropical cyclone around the Mamiya Strait in northwest Hokkaido on 5th morning. According to police and local governments, a total of 11 people were known to have been killed by the typhoon as of 1 p.m. on 5th.( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

Over the past week, two major natural disasters hit Japan, the No.1 travel destination for Taiwanese, leaving more than 1,000 Taiwanese stranded.

Typhoon Jebi, the strongest typhoon to hit Japan in 25 years, caused strong winds in the west of the country. Around 500 Taiwanese were among 3,000 passengers stranded at Kansai International Airport due to flooding brought on by Jebi.

Two days later, a magnitude-6.7 earthquake struck Hokkaido Prefecture, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, resulting in 39 fatalities and more than 600 injuries.

According to data from Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, 712 tourists in 23 tour groups from Taiwan were forced to delay their return home because of the quake. The two incidents had little to do with the Taiwan government, but snowballed into a major crisis for the country’s representative office in Japan.

It started with an online post accusing Taiwan’s representative office in Osaka of being reluctant to help Taiwanese in Osaka who sought assistance after massive flooding caused by Typhoon Jebi led to the closure of Kansai International Airport.

The post sparked criticism by netizens who blamed Taiwan’s top envoy to Japan Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) for not doing his job, instead spending his time sparring with his political enemies, just when stranded Taiwanese tourists needed his office’s help the most.

The accusation was referring to a post made by Hsieh Sept. 5 on his Facebook page, in which the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) heavyweight criticized opposition Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), with whom Hsieh has had a decades- long feud.

What made things more awkward for Hsieh and Taiwan’s representative office in Japan was that several Chinese reports said the Chinese embassy sent 15 tour buses to evacuate Chinese nationals from Kansai International Airport.

Chinese state-run Global Times reported Sept. 6 that some Taiwanese asked to board the buses and were allegedly told by Chinese tourists they could only do so as long as they declared themselves to be “Chinese.”

According to the Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Osaka, the consulate helped evacuate 1,044 people, including 32 Taiwanese. It later turned out that other than the airport’s own shuttle buses, no vehicles were allowed to depart from Kansai.

But the damage to the image of Taiwan’s representative office overseas was already done.

Manpower vs Irrational Request

Although Hsieh, as a top envoy posted overseas, has to be held responsible for posting a controversial statement unrelated to his diplomatic work on Facebook, the incident and accusations raised against his office and his staff were not entirely reasonable in many ways.

For one thing, there is a sharp difference between the number of Chinese diplomats posted in Japan and their Taiwanese counterparts. There is also a great difference between the resources the two countries have invested in diplomacy and overseas office operations.

The Taiwanese representative office in Tokyo has 27 staff, Osaka six and two in Sapporo, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). MOFA said the number of Chinese Embassy staff is several times greater than Taiwan’s representative staff.

The number is not enough to cater to the needs of Taiwanese who made more than 4.56 million visits to Japan last year.

Hsieh himself had made several calls before, urging the government to allocate more funds to increase manpower stationed in Japan, but to no avail.

Taking Taiwan’s office in Sapporo as an example, its office only has two diplomats, its office head and deputy head, plus three locally hired staff, yet they had to cope with the needs of nearly 800 Taiwanese stranded in Hokkaido.

Following the quake, although the office was unable to operate for a time due to a lack of power and water, the office staff turned the space into an emergency shelter for Taiwanese who could not find a place to stay due to the earthquake.

A Japanese reporter based in Hokkaido said that Taiwan’s office in Sapporo was the only foreign representative office or consulate in the prefecture to offer its nationals emergency assistance.

Commenting on the criticism of Hsieh and his office, Alexander Huang (黃介正), a professor at the Department of Diplomacy and International Relations at Tamkang University, said it is understandable that Taiwanese traveling overseas can expect assistance from local Taiwan overseas offices, and these offices have the obligation to offer such services.

However, these emergency services are not the priority of Taiwanese diplomats overseas. Their more important task is to engage in diplomatic work with Japanese government officials. With limited numbers and resources, these diplomats are also unable to offer
assistance that satisfy everyone.

Huang, who was previously posted in Taiwan’s representative office in Washington, D.C., accused Taiwanese of being “unreasonable” in asking for help from overseas offices.

A former director of National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations, Arthur Ding (丁樹範), said the Chinese consulate in Japan was offering shuttle buses not out of providing better service to its nationals stranded at the airport but because they were afraid that a potential mass protest of Chinese tourists in Kansai Airport could damage the image of the country.”

Ding was referring to a number of protests by Chinese tourists in Japan over the past several months. Earlier this year, a group of angry Chinese tourists staged a protest when they were stranded at a Japanese airport for 24 hours due to snow in Shanghai in January. One Chinese tourist was detained.

Following the incident, the Chinese embassy in Japan warned its people to deal “rationally” with disputes. The Chinese state broadcaster also said people should not let “patriotism” get in their way in disputes abroad.

Ding said the Chinese consulate’s move turned out that the decision that had “kill two birds with one stone,” giving the world a false image that China is offering better assistance to its nationals than its Taiwanese counterparts in Japan.

Diplomat Calls for Rational Discussion

According to an unnamed Taiwanese diplomatic posted overseas, it is easy to learn from the Chinese consulate’s example in Osaka in offering all kinds of help to nationals traveling overseas is not a responsible and systematic approach in dealing with emergency assistance by Taiwan’s overseas offices.

“We can be the good guys and say ‘yes’ to every request but are the taxpayers willing to pay?” he asked.

“It is terrible that one becomes stranded at an airport in a foreign country, but the Taiwanese government should first learn if the decision is cost-effective or if it is a waste of taxpayers’ money?” he said.

Given Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation internationally, its diplomats already face huge challenges and constant Chinese suppression overseas, he said.

He said Taiwanese should respect a diplomat’s work and if possible, engage in rational discussion rather than complaining about the inefficiency of their responses to emergencies.

Asked to comment, MOFA spokesman Andrew Lee (李憲章) said the ministry has urged its staff posted overseas to show more empathy to Taiwanese citizens who call emergency hotlines asking for assistance.

The ministry will ask its staff to be more active and offer more timely assistance to Taiwanese people’s requests in the future, he added.