Can I get a discount on this vase? How do I get to the ABC Hotel? Where can I find a Chinese-speaking doctor?
Getting simple questions understood can often be difficult for international tourists here, where bilingual or multilingual speakers are hard to find.
To address this problem amid an explosion of foreign tourists, local governments are introducing multilingual call services to address the needs of visitors not familiar with the Japanese language.
The latest to join the fray is Shiga Prefecture, where the local government and an affiliated tourism promotion body have jointly launched a 24/7 multilingual interpretation service available in such places as hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
“In the case of hotels, guests often ask simple questions such as what time is breakfast or dinner, what time checkout is, and they often ask, ‘How can I send baggage home.’ These are common questions the service is often used for,” said Toshiharu Kimura, a spokesman for the Shiga Prefectural Government.
After seeing a 77 percent jump in the number of tourists last year, the prefecture decided to join the service framework, which was initially started by Kyoto Prefecture. Nara Prefecture later hopped on board.
Providing the call center for these Kansai prefectures is Bricks Corp., a Tokyo-based company that specializes in call-based interpretation services.
Bricks offers clients — who include major businesses, banks, central government agencies and local governments nationwide — translations in 13 languages, including Indonesian, Vietnamese and Russian.
“We are seeing increasing needs for call interpretation services for railways, theme parks and tourism promotion by local governments,” CEO Kenichi Yoshikawa said.
Anticipating a rapidly increasing number of visitors, Saga Prefecture started a similar call service in August 2014 on an experimental basis.
This year it launched Doganshitato? which means “what’s the problem?” in the local dialect, a tourist information app for smartphones. The app, which can be found at saga-travelsupport.com/en/, uses Skype to call the service, which is available 24/7.
With visitors totaling 90,940 in 2014 and this year’s total already topping 83,000 by June, tourism is providing Saga with a lucrative economic boost.
In addition to hotel and restaurant staff using it to interpret clients’ enquiries, the Kyushu prefecture’s service is offered directly to tourists. They can, for example, contact the call center and ask the operator for information about local events, who can do the necessary research, such as calling the local tourist office, and respond with an answer.
Jointly run by Kyuden Infocom Co., responsible for infotech aspects, and BeBorn Co., operating the call center, the 24/7 service is being used by over 160 people a month, said a spokeswoman for the Saga Tourism Federation.
“We are now focusing on informing shops to expand the service’s use,” she said. “We’ve gotten the fire department and the police on board as well, so you can use the service for help if you are involved in a traffic accident in a rented car or you need urgent medical help.”
The app is available in Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean and Thai.