Although Asian tourists are flocking to Japan in greater numbers, many are at a loss in railway stations, where few signs are written in languages other than Japanese and English.
Several railways, including East Japan Railway Co. (JR East), are making modest efforts to present station names in Chinese and Korean, but Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), which operates the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, has decided to offer announcements in English only.
The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry criticized JR Tokai in 2009, pointing to a need for multilingual signs. JR Tokai’s position is that “adding multiple languages to the board means having smaller words”.
Back in 2006, the land ministry released guidelines that recommended distributing information in languages other than English as part of an “omotenashi” (hospitality) campaign.
“Other companies had signs in Chinese and Korean, but JR Tokai does not,” the ministry said during JR Tokai’s operating audit in 2009.
“Since 70 percent of foreign tourists come from other parts of Asia, it should consider the needs of those foreigners as well,” the ministry added.
The railway said, “our main policy is to display English, the global language, in a large font.”
For those who do not speak English, brochures in French, Chinese and Korean are available at information counters. And some directions on signs are given in the form of symbols rather than words.
The company believes that given the limited space on the boards, adding multiple languages means having to reduce the size of the letters, thus making them harder to read.
Currently, other languages are used on signs warning people not to open emergency doors and to act with care when carrying luggage.
Some of the vending machines have also gone multilingual, but the railway stopped expanding the use of such signs, suggesting it believes that what now exists is sufficient.
“We decided to use a larger font for Japanese words, given the country’s aging population,” it said.
“If JR Tokai finds it difficult to add different languages in stations and trains, it could at least print information on transfers in the Chinese- and Korean-language pamphlets in bullet trains. It is important that they do something to address the issue,” said Yoshihiko Iijima, a professor at Toyo University’s department of international tourism studies.
Other railways in the Chubu region started adding multilingual services in 2005, when Chubu Centrair International Airport opened and the World Expo was held in Aichi Prefecture. However, the languages used vary from company to company.
In 2005, Nagoya Railway, which provides transport to the airport, began adding Chinese, Korean and Portuguese to signs at seven stations commonly used by foreigners. These include Central Japan International Airport Station, and Meitetsu-Nagoya Station and Inuyama Station — all destinations for popular tourist sites.
A company spokesman said Portuguese was important because “many Brazilians live in the surrounding area.”
The Nagoya Municipal Subway offers information in Chinese, Korean and Portuguese.
Ever since the World Expo, station announcements have been delivered in all three languages at Nagoya and Fujigaoka stations, where passengers transfer to reach the venue.
“We selected the languages most commonly spoken by residents and visitors,” said an official at Nagoya’s Transportation Bureau.
Kintetsu Railway, which serves the Ise-Shima region, provides information in Chinese and Korean at six stations close to popular tourist destinations, including Kintetsu Nagoya Station, Iseshi Station and Ujiyamada Station.
“Due to limited space, we usually only provide Japanese and English, but at those six stations we use four languages,” a company spokesman said.
“The fonts have to be small to fit four languages, so we plan to install larger boards,” the spokesman added.
This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on May 6.