Foreign Ministry hires interpreters for media

English service great but don't expect scoops or revelations


Staff Writer

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba has begun providing simultaneous interpretation in English at his weekly press conferences to provide more information to the international community about Japan’s diplomatic activities.

At his first bilingual press conference Wednesday, receivers and earphones were handed out and an interpreter provided simultaneous translation from a booth set up inside the briefing room. Two non-Japanese speaking reporters attended for the first time, the ministry said.

Although the ministry is hoping the interpretations will reduce the global community’s mounting distrust of the government, at least one media expert doubted it would have much of an impact on Japan’s poor reputation for disclosure.

Yasuharu Ishizawa, a professor of politics and media at Gakushuin Women’s College, said Thursday that it’s almost meaningless to provide simultaneous interpretation at news conferences because the truly important information in Japan is never provided at such public venues.

“Things like off the record conferences are where the really important information is provided. So it doesn’t mean much if (translation) isn’t provided,” said Ishizawa, a former reporter for The Washington Post.

He said the only thing Thursday’s events shed light on is the fact that the government has been doing such a poor job providing information in English.

“More Japanese politicians must be able to speak in English on a daily basis. Compared with other countries, there are very few (bilingual) Cabinet members,” Ishizawa said.

“Even in China, although official press conferences are held in Chinese, many government executives are now speaking English.

“In terms of attitude, it’s a plus for the government. But, whether that counts as 0.1, 10 or 100 points is something we have to wait for and see,” Ishizawa said.

The Foreign Ministry holds a weekly press briefing in English every Thursday, but Genba’s press conference had only been held in Japanese.

Apart from the ministry, the Prime Minister’s Official Residence has been providing simultaneous translation for news conferences since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck last March.

The ministry spent about ¥9.8 million on all the equipment needed for interpretations, said Kazuhiro Kawase, principal deputy director of the international press division.

The money came from ¥28 million earmarked from the fiscal 2011 second supplementary budget.

By providing simultaneous interpretation, “it will be possible to send out more correct information about Japan’s stance to the international community,” Genba said at his regular press conference Wednesday without elaborating.