As the Rio Olympics enter full swing, Japan is also gearing up for another kind of competition, namely the race to nurture volunteer interpreters for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Next month, seven universities specializing in foreign languages — including Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Kobe City University of Foreign Studies and Kansai Gaidai University — will jointly hold a four-day intensive seminar in Chiba Prefecture so students can brush up on their translation skills.
With their sights set on the Tokyo Olympics, the universities launched the program last year to allow students to deepen their knowledge about the Olympics, foreign culture and hospitality.
About 400 specially selected students are expected to take part in the September workshops.
Elsewhere, other foreign language aficionados are expressing a desire to volunteer their skills for the games, including on Twitter, where some have called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take part in the Olympics.
“I will study English and Chinese harder from now on because I want to take part in the Tokyo Olympics as a volunteer,” said a Twitter user who went by the name @saho81.
According to the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, some 80,000 volunteers will be needed to run the event smoothly.
A draft last month detailing the requirements for someone to become a volunteer said applicants must be aged 18 or over as of April 1, 2020, and they should be able to work eight hours a day for 10 days.
Desirable skills include foreign language abilities, knowledge of Olympic sports, and experience in working as a volunteer at sporting events, according to the committee.
Still, as with the Rio Olympics, volunteers will not be paid and must shoulder their own travel and accommodation expenses, causing some people to question the committee’s plan.
Noriyuki Nishiyama, a language policy professor at Kyoto University, said some of the tasks left to volunteers will apparently require interpretation skills, and asking such professionals to work for free showed the committee’s underestimation of the hard work that goes into becoming proficient in a foreign language.
“It takes years of effort to gain the mastery of a foreign language to work as an interpreter. It’s not something people can learn in a short period of time,” said Nishiyama. “But they think it is OK not to pay for such significant skills. That shows (the committee’s) ignorance toward foreign language skills.
“Japan has been pushing English education, saying gaining language proficiency provides huge economic benefits,” Nishiyama said. “But it doesn’t make sense if such people with foreign language skills are not paid.”