THOUSANDS of people will be currently jetting off on holiday. The last thing on their minds will be the possibility of anything going wrong.
If it does, South Shields-born Carl Frater, as a foreign Vice-Consul representing HM Government overseas, is the kind of person they could find themselves turning to for help.
JANIS BLOWER has been finding out about Our Man in Tokyo.
At its most rib-tickling, it was going to the assistance of a Brit arrested for punching a snowman.
At its most heartbreaking, it was dealing with the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake that struck Japan.
“The event itself was surreal. I’d experienced a few minor earthquakes before but nothing on this scale. Then there was the shock, shared by many worldwide, of witnessing loss of life on an enormous scale.
“The commitment of colleagues at the embassy and the British Consulate General in Osaka was humbling, particularly in the early stages when many were worried about relatives that might have been affected by the tsunami,” says Carl.
Of all the experiences he has had on his journey from South Tyneside to Tokyo, it is indisputably the one that will stay with him for the rest of his life.
Educated at Boldon Comprehensive School and then South Tyneside College, he is, today, Vice-Consul at the British Embassy in the Japanese capital, where he lives with his Essex-born wife, who is also a diplomat.
Brought-up at Tyne Dock, and later in Boldon Colliery and Cleadon, Carl joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO ) as an operational officer.
“I had been a civil engineer but was looking, somewhat aimlessly, for a different career,” he says. “I saw an advert in a newspaper that talked about challenging jobs in a range of environments and it seemed just the ticket. I applied and, after a fairly long recruitment process, which took about a year, was offered the job.”
He has now been with the FCO for almost 10 years, made up of three years in London working, first, within the Consular Directorate, providing advice and information for British nationals travelling overseas, and then as desk officer for the South Caucasus.
“In plain English, I helped to maintain and develop the relationships between the UK and Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.”
He spent two-and-a-half years in Kingston, Jamaica, as an entry clearance officer processing visa applications for Jamaican nationals.
Finally, he spent more than 18 months learning Japanese, before taking his current position two years ago.
“In a nutshell, I provide support to British nationals in Japan,” he says. This can be as straightforward as registering the birth of a child, but often includes helping British nationals who find themselves in difficulty.
“No two days are ever the same.
“I deal with hospitalisations, deaths, assaults, missing persons, parental child abduction, rapes and sexual assaults – though thankfully such cases are rare – and welfare cases. The latter usually involves British nationals who have had their wallets stolen and need assistance in returning to the UK.
“We can’t give out money or arrange flights, but are usually able to help get in touch with friends or family and advise on how best to transfer funds.”
British nationals who have been arrested represent the heaviest case load.
“What might be considered minor misdemeanours in the UK are taken very seriously in Japan,” says Carl. “You can be detained for up to 23 days before a decision is made about whether or not to prosecute you.
“Around 90 per cent of our longer-term prisoners are detained for drugs importation offences. We currently have almost 30 cases. The penalties are stiff and the penal system very regimented. Prisoners struggle to adapt to the environment and there are obvious language difficulties.”
Occasionally, the bizarre occurs. One case that sticks out for Carl was when a British national was arrested around Christmas time for punching a snowman.
“We had to check several times with the police just to make sure nothing was lost in translation! It seems that the snowman was part of a display outside a shop and had been rather badly damaged in the ‘assault’.” Unfortunately for the culprit, it meant several weeks in detention and about £6,000 in legal bills and compensation.
Carl loves the variety of the work, but there can be a downside.
“It can be very sad, particularly death cases and hospitalisations. I do leave work with quite a heavy heart on occasion.”
No one should underestimate the trouble that they can find themselves in.
Says Carl: “Altercations with taxi drivers and bar staff are not uncommon and this often comes about because of language misunderstandings.
“We’ve also had several British nationals drugged in some of Tokyo’s entertainment districts, taken to an ATM and relieved of considerable sums of money.”
Here are some tips from Carl on how to avoid problems:
* Get the right kind of travel insurance and make sure you are covered for any additional activities you might be doing like skiing, scuba diving and what not.
* Ensure you know the health requirements. Some countries will not let you enter if you haven’t had a yellow fever vaccination for instance.
* Check out FCO travel advice at: fco.gov.uk/travel
Says Carl: “I do a fair amount of travelling and find it’s the first port of call in planning what I need to do.
“It’s not just about the latest security situation, it contains practical information about entry requirements, where to get more detail on vaccinations, local laws and customs.
“One helpful feature is our email updates. They alert you to any changes in our advice and the registration process is straightforward.
“I’ve been told by a lot of people that they don’t sign-up because they believe we’re the taxman in disguise.
“We’re not, we’re about trying to ensure British nationals get the right information to allow them to make informed decisions.
“We do all we can to provide assistance to British nationals who genuinely need it, but we can’t pay medical bills or get them back to the UK.
“If they don’t have insurance and something happens, it could end up costing them, or their family, a small fortune.
“It does happen, quite a lot unfortunately, and on top of trying to deal with the emotions of a family member being unwell, relatives often need to go through the added worry of trying to sort out finances. Parents of one British national who was seriously ill here, went through the process of re-mortgaging their home.”