Signs of the times: street, building markers get English names

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

Foreign tourists should have an easier time identifying the seat of government in Tokyo when the current sign, “Kokkai,” is pulled down and replaced with “The National Diet,” officials said Tuesday.

In all, 13 street signs will be replaced, including changing “Sorikantei” to “Prime Minister’s Office” and “Sakurada dori” to “Sakurada-dori Ave.”

“Japan aims to be a tourism-oriented country, so together with relevant bodies, we decided to make these replacements to make the nation more foreigner-friendly,” said Hiroshi Mochizuki, a section chief at the Tokyo government’s construction bureau.

The Japanese on three signs will also be changed to make it easier for visitors to comprehend.

“Sangiin tsuyomon” (entrance to the House of Councilors building) will be changed to “Kokkaitoshokan mae,” accompanied by the English name “National Diet Library.” The west entrance to the Upper House building, identified as “Councilors Office” in English and now called “Sangiin nishi tsuyomon,” will become “Sangiinkaikan mae.”

And the current sign “Kokkai ura” (the back of the Diet building) will be replaced with one that says “Shugiinkaikan mae” and “Representatives Office.”

Shinichi Takinami, a deputy director at the Tokyo National Road Office at the transport ministry, said the ministry, which concentrated on sidewalk signs, decided this time to change the language on street signs on a trial basis following discussions at a council with members also from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Tokyo Metro Co. and Chiyoda Ward.

The area surrounding the Diet building was chosen for the trial because of the many street signs showing the locations of government buildings and other facilities, according to Takinami. He also noted the nearby Imperial Palace attracts many foreign tourists.

A 1986 revision to a ministry ordinance on road signs stipulates the signs should be written in Roman letters, along with Japanese, for non-Japanese visitors, according to Takinami.

Eight new signs on national roads should be up by Wednesday morning, according to Takinami. Five signs on metropolitan roads will be replaced by the end of December, said Mochizuki of the metro construction bureau.

Takinami said the ministry hopes to improve road signs nationwide, particularly in regions popular with foreign tourists, after studying the results of the trial.

  • Ron NJ

    It’s an interesting idea, but a better idea would be pulling out of the dark ages and actually assigning street names to the majority of roads so finally people can get where they’re going without needing a map. It’s a bit ridiculous trying to get anywhere here, which is expressed pretty well by the fact that literally everything, from business cards to directions to one’s work binger for that week, has a map attached showing where it is in relation to some (often hard-to-find-themselves) landmarks.
    Or I guess we could just keep using the silly banchi system where everything is numbered by order of registration and giving directions anywhere is a complete pain – everyone has GPS anyways, right?

    • JeanPaulJ

      Not only should the road/address numbering system be completely overhauled, as you rightly suggested, but a few more reforms should be implemented to make life easier for tourists:

      1 . Create a national railway and bus ticketing system, as is the case in Switzerland. This kind of system already exists within the JR Group, which allows for effortless travel between the various parts of the network. This should be extended to include private railway lines. So, for instance, if I wanted to travel from Tokyo to Senzu (Shizuoka Pref), I would be able to purchase one ticket for the entire journey – for the Shinkansen to Hamamatsu, for the JR Local to Kanaya and then for the (private) Ooigawa Line to Senzu. Simple, effortless travel right there! Now some of you will, rightly, point out that SUICA, PASMO, PASPY and other related systems are becoming more widely accepted across all of Japan, but the average tourist cannot make use of these services as they lack a Japanese credit card/bank account, which brings me on to point 2

      2. Encourage financial institutions (I’m looking at you, Mizuho!) to accept foreign cards in their ATMs. The current dependence that many tourists have on 7Bank and JPost Bank is unhealthy for competition and makes it especially difficult for visitors if an institution chooses to block a certain card type, as 7Bank did with MasterCard following a spat over rates/fees. Alternatively, mightn’t businesses wish to consider implementing a cash back system (this could also, I presume, apply to transactions using SUICA et al)?

  • Jeffrey

    “Japan aims to be a tourism-oriented country, so together with relevant bodies, we decided to make these replacements to make the nation more foreigner-friendly,” said Hiroshi Mochizuki, a section chief at the Tokyo government’s construction bureau.

    * * * * *

    Well, maybe Tokyo. But apparently not Osaka.

    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/08/19/voices/abe-and-his-ministers-give-anti-foreigner-rallies-tacit-green-light/

  • nanka

    I think, it is going the wrong way as Japan is giving away part of it’s, if not identity so at least flair: Japanese names have a very exotic and fascinating sound in other languages, so translating them takes away the best part. And, as a tourist, when I make a photo from myself in front of a sign saying “Sakura-dori Ave”, everybody would ask me, where in the USA I have been. And the better informed ones with some curiosity for Japanese culture and language woud even argue that “Sakura-dori Ave” is as funny as “Mt. Fujiyama” because dori is ave as yama is mountain, so it is all doubled. Why then don’t they go the whole way and translate it as “Cherry Lane”? At least, any time, whe I went to Japan, I wanted to see Japanese original sings and names to dive into the mood and the flair of Japanese culture and life style, and no English, or I would have gone to US in the first place.

    The second thing is: Is Japan only aiming at English speaking tourists? With those English-ization, I bet, you chase away most of the tourists of all other coutries, especially central Europeans, who always somhow struggle against more and more Anglicisms watering their own language and are traditionally more after the “pure origin” of everything.

    • Guest

      The simple fact is that you can get your message to about a quarter of the world’s population via English. The ideal solution would be to cover at least the UN working languages in anything aimed at non-natives in every country, but that’s realistically a bit much to ask in most situations; using English is a workable option that is easy and affordable to implement and also widely used and understood, which no other language can really begin to approach at this point in time. Hopefully one day the world will have a real global lingua franca that is nation-neutral, but that day isn’t today.

      • Ān Qìdàn

        I believe we already have a national-neutral lingua franca. It is called Esperanto (エスペラント語). Pity, no more than a couple of million people speak it.

        (Mi pensas ke jam ekzistas nacio-neŭtrala komuna lingvo. Oni ĝin nomas kiel Esperanto. Bedaŭrinde, malpli ol du milionoj personoj parolas ĝin.)

    • Christopher-trier

      To an extent it makes sense — English is the most commonly spoken language when native and secondary speakers are counted. Many do not bother to learn what Japanese terms and names are — they’re on holiday, not scholars.

      By the way, more countries speak English than the USA and what is spoken in the USA can, at times, be difficult to even accept as English. Do not forget New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Belize, Barbados, India — yes, English remains an official language of India, etcetera.

      • 思德

        “what is spoken in the USA can, at times, be difficult to even accept as English”

        That’s what happens when a language goes global. As an American, I can sometimes barely understand some Indians and a lot of Scottish folk say. Sometimes, it’s what you’re used to.

  • Mark Garrett

    “Japan aims to be a tourism-oriented country, so together with relevant bodies, we decided to make these replacements to make the nation more foreigner-friendly,” said Hiroshi Mochizuki, a section chief at the Tokyo government’s construction bureau. “Foreign tourists should have an easier time identifying the seat of government in Tokyo when the current sign, “Kokkai,” is pulled down and replaced with “The National Diet”. Eight new signs on national roads should be up by Wednesday morning, according to Takinami. Five signs on metropolitan roads will be replaced by the end of December, said Mochizuki of the metro construction bureau.

    Yeah, because visiting the National Diet Library, and renting a car and hitting the open roads are at the top of everyone’s bucket lists when visiting Japan! Geesh, I honestly cannot think of two less effective means of assisting foreign tourists.

    How about burying a few power lines, losing some of the concrete, and dealing with a few of the MANY vacant derelict buildings?

  • Maranyika

    Its long over due!!

  • Jameika

    I disagree with the premise. Sometimes it’s helpful, but people often don’t know when to stop translating. Sometimes you need to know the *name* of something and not what it might mean in English. It’s not helpful to translate “kokkaigijidomae”, for an extreme example to “in front of the national diet”. I see intersection names that are translated instead of transliterated which helps no one with place names.
    Besides, a lot of those names in the article don’t sound like English to me. What’s up with the “OO-dori Avenue” thing anyway? How is that helpful to anyone? I bet they have asked exactly zero tourists.

  • Miura_Anjin

    I can see this being a complete disaster from a practical point of view. As it stands, we are given the Kanji, with the romaji underneath, the ideal situation in my opinion. As long as some hapless tourist (or indeed lazy resident) can pronounce the romaji, he can communicate where he wants to go to a taxi driver, or use guidebook Japanese to ask a passerby.
    Now we will face a situation where a tourist is faced with (presumably) indecipherable kanji, and some arbitrary English name. Good luck asking Taxi driver Taro to take you to the Representatives Office!!

    “Taxi driver! To the Field of Autumn Leaves please!”

    • tau_neutrino

      If the tourist is already at the sign, there’s no need to take him anywhere. If he’s giving an address, presumably he already has it in romanji.

      • Kirk Masden

        Don’t sign’s and maps go together? If you are going to change signs, you need to make sure that the maps show the corresponding names. If the maps list English place names, the problems Miura_Anjin points to will probably occur. If not, more confusion. Another point is that, in addition to taxi drivers, if you are searching for a place on foot, you may need to ask people on the street as well. Good luck getting ordinary people to understand you if you can only identify a place with an English name. Finally, the romaji serves also to indicate the readings for the kanji. This is undoubtably useful information for people from countries that use kanji but pronounce them differently. This “improvement” sounds like a step back for many.

  • Spudator

    Representatives Office? Tut tut! So much for English education in Japan. Representatives’ Office, surely.

    • Mark Garrett

      No, it’s not possessive. Think of it as “the office of representatives”.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Given that tourists to Japan as well as the foreign residents of Japan are overwhelmingly Chinese followed by Koreans, the push on English seems wasted effort and money. If you look at the signs on the private Keikyu Line, you’ll see that they know who butters their bread. It’s not the people from Anglophone countries.