Tokyo to boost foreign-language signs, info ahead of 2020 Olympics


The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is stepping up a joint project with the central government to add foreign languages to guide boards and other information sources for the 2020 Summer Games.

Some 10.36 million people came to Japan from abroad in 2013, topping the government’s target of 10 million, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

That number is expected to jump dramatically for the Olympics and Paralympics in six years, but a survey conducted by JNTO has found that the biggest complaint among foreign visitors is a shortage of foreign-language information.

The metropolitan and central governments set up an association in March made up of 56 public and private organizations related to transportation, tourism, lodging and dining in the Tokyo area to make information more accessible to foreign tourists.

Initially, the association will work to provide information in English, in addition to Japanese, on signboards in airports, train stations, sea ports and lodgings as well as street signs and restaurant menus. Information in Chinese, Korean and other languages will also be enhanced.

For this year, the association will set up three subgroups focusing on transport, roads, and tourism and services, and research advanced initiatives for foreign-language information systems.

A Tokyo official said the association plans to promote multi-language information services at museums and other cultural facilities to help foreigners understand the culture better when they visit Japan for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

The association will study overseas museums such as the Louvre in Paris, which makes booklets available in 12 languages, and the Palace Museum in Beijing, where visitors can listen to audio information on exhibits in 35 languages, the official said.

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    “Standardized English for road signs to help foreign tourists,” April 3, and “Tokyo to boost foreign-language signs, info ahead of 2020 Olympics,” May 29 raise the seemingly commendable goal of making Japan a more tourist-friendly, sightseeing-assisted travel destination. The objective is to attract cash-spending visitors, welcome them with Japanese hospitality (“omotenashi”) and milk the travel business for as much revenue as possible. The 2020 Olympics are framed as the target, but I think there is a further goal than 2020. The government wants to attract visitors after the Olympics as well.

    I’m not very impressed, but I want to be careful about criticising the effort. Instead, I worry about how signs will be standardized because Japanese are apt to standardize English incorrectly. Then we will be stuck with awful signs saying ridiculous and incorrect things like “Aoyamadori avenue,” or “Kandagawa river,” or “Mt. Fujiyama,” or “Tokyo eki station” for years to come. I see/hear incorrect English signs/announcements in Tokyo every day, from local ward offices, police, fire departments and hospitals, public transportation companies, boards of education, and private businesses. I think it’s sad, because there are so many native English speakers here it should be an easy thing to ask some of us to be kind enough to quickly proofread a bit of English before it is used. The same goes for Chinese and Korean, because I imagine errors occurring in those languages, too. I’d be happy to casually take a look at an English sign if anyone asked me to, but I doubt that native speakers or authentic native speech figure anywhere into the standardization plan.

    Japanese confuse effort with accomplishment, and a lot of experts are preparing to work hard to contribute to the standardized sign project. The results might be generally good. But the mistakes that will occur will be persistent old ones, glaring ones, easily corrected by a quick proofread by a native speaker. I wish the government luck in its standardization project. They can call me if they need me.