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The work of the HM Consul in Japan
Written by Sterling Content
July 30, 2021
Past Event Round Ups
British Chamber of Commerce in Japan members heard how the UK government supports British nationals residing in and visiting Japan, via an interactive webinar on July 12. HM Consul in Japan Martin O’Neill MBE shared an outline of the consular section’s global strategy and details of how the team responds in times of crisis.
O’Neill, who has been in diplomatic service for more than 20 years, with postings including Manila, Jakarta and Tokyo, said he and his colleagues aim to provide British citizens in Japan with a helping hand when they don’t know where to turn.
With a higher ratio of Brits travelling internationally pre-Covid than any other nationality, and more than 6 million living abroad, the global consular team typically deals with all kinds of issues including arrests, sickness and death. In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of Brits abroad suffering domestic violence or child custody concerns. The consular team aims to help cut through bureaucracy and get things done, he explained.
The UK government’s global consular service has four main goals. First is to offer personalised, 24/7 support via a call service manned by consular-trained staff in London. O’Neill says 96% of issues are solved on the call. Second is to provide assistance in the case of death, deportation, disaster, destitution, disease or some other calamity.
“We offer a non-judgemental, impartial and confidential service,” he said, adding that the details of any individual seeking consular support cannot be accessed by anyone outside the consular team.
For Brits arrested or imprisoned in Japan, the consular team lobbies that they are treated the same as Japanese nationals and that international agreements are upheld. Once they have served some time, the team can work with the UK prison service to transfer Brits to conclude their sentence in the UK.
Third is prevention, which involves consular staff providing travel advice and working on campaigns to tell Brits what to expect before they arrive at their overseas destination. The messaging focuses around “respecting local laws, practising cultural sensitivity and thinking before acting,” shared O’Neill. However, the guides also include warnings, such as checking the legality of medicines in the arrival country before departing the UK, as rules vary across borders.
Consular teams are very active in this prevention piece ahead of every sporting event, he added, noting the communication efforts in the led up to and during the Rugby World Cup 2019, which was held at venues across Japan.
The fourth and final area of work is crisis. In Japan, where the risk of natural disasters is high, the team have “comprehensive and robust plans” that are constantly under review and heavily tested by a crisis management team in London, as well as local staff.
“Part of our crisis support here is having a team ready to deploy to any place in Japan,” he said, adding that they are part of a larger rapid deployment team who responds to any incident in any part of the world, for situations such as earthquake, hurricane or even terrorism. “Our rapid response team make assessments … we scale up or down our response based on those assessments.”
For this reason, preparing for crisis response involves a significant period of time spent gathering information and developing contacts with the police, NGOs, airlines and other organisations across Japan, so staff are poised to act immediately.
O’Neill outlined how the consular service has evolved over the past decade to ensure that support is available to those who most need it.
For some years, phone calls made by Brits during the night have not been directed to the consular team. Rather, the calls have been managed by London-based staff, thereby enabling Tokyo-based staff to function better during day-time hours, to focus on vulnerable cases. These include older people, those with sudden or worsening health or people with no health insurance, he said.
Although provision for the most at-risk groups has improved, he said efforts are ongoing to provide even better services. For example, staff have begun to receive training on how to communicate with survivors of rape and sexual assault, and to refer them to further support.
With such high-pressure work, consular staff are also receiving increased support to help them avoid stress or burnout. A key part of ensuring staff are not affected by vicarious trauma, says O’Neill, is offering them volunteer sessions with counsellors every quarter.
“We train people to manage the expectations [of callers], to watch out for one another,” he said. “Conversations around problems can be quite intense and people often speak in a manner they are not accustomed to. We need to know how to handle them, respect them, and have robust parameters on how we ask people to talk to us.”
Engaging with the team
O’Neill pointed to the consular team’s Living in Japan Guide as a valuable resource for Brits resident in Japan. It features information on employment, benefits, medical care and legal support in English, and can be accessed at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/living-in-japan
He encouraged attendees to get in touch with the consular team at the British Embassy, Tokyo if they are faced with a problem they cannot solve. The staff, he added, are multinational with a “very international outset,” which he described as particularly helpful considering the range of issues that they address on a daily basis. “They all have local knowledge and are here to help,” he added.
He invited attendees to provide feedback on consular support to encourage the continued evolution of services.