Disaster prep to be 2020 focus: Masuzoe

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

To help ensure that foreign visitors can enjoy the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics without concern, Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe says he will focus on making the city safer from disasters, improve access to public transportation and even encourage residents to brush up on their English conversation skills.

“Above all, we have to make solid preparations for disasters to avoid casualties,” including retrofitting facilities to make them more quake-resistant, the 65-year-old Masuzoe said in a Wednesday interview with The Japan Times at the metropolitan government building in Shinjuku Ward.

“I’d like to eliminate possible problems for visitors from abroad coming to Tokyo (for the Olympics) in six years, one by one,” he said.

For starters, Masuzoe said transportation guides at Narita Airport should be improved so that visitors can better find their way to their hotels and sports venues by public transportation.

“I think it’s quite difficult for guests who don’t understand or read Japanese to reach their hotels using public transportation,” Masuzoe said.

He added he would like to review the schedules of public transportation systems linking central Tokyo and nearby Haneda Airport to make sure they align with late-night flight arrival times.

The newly elected governor has pledged to hold “the best ever” Olympics and Paralympics, with the goal of hearing visiting athletes and others say upon leaving Japan that they were the greatest games they’ve ever seen.

To lower the language barrier, Masuzoe is calling on Tokyo citizens to at least pick up some simple English phrases.

“If you’re in a foreign country and can’t speak the local language, it’s very helpful that somebody guides you, even if it’s in broken English,” said Masuzoe, who speaks several languages, including English, French, German and Spanish.

“I’d like the public to serve as volunteer interpreters,” he said.

Specifically, he urged seniors to study English conversation.

“The elderly have plenty of time once they retire from jobs. They are quite healthy. I suggest they study simple English conversation,” the former health minister said. “It’s also good in terms of possibly warding off dementia as studying language increases brain activity.”

The metro government will provide financial aid to municipalities that offer English conversation classes, Masuzoe said.

A draft extra budget for fiscal 2014 that Masuzoe announced Tuesday includes some ¥45 million to nurture “language volunteers” for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

Further touching on education, Masuzoe stressed he would like to strengthen English classes to cultivate globally minded students as well as support those who wish to go abroad to study.

“The number of young people who study abroad has decreased. . . . It’s critical. I encourage (them) to go overseas,” said the former scholar of international politics who studied in Paris and Geneva.

Masuzoe ran for office on a pledge to reform education, including putting more money into foreign language studies. About ¥2.6 billion was set aside in the draft supplementary budget to place more native English instructors in public high schools.

A metropolitan education bureau official said native English teachers will be increased in the 2014 academic year, which begins in April, while instructors at public schools in Tokyo in the Japan Exchange and Teaching program will be hiked from five to 100.