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Tokyo is squandering resources on its 2020 Olympic English drive

by Mark Buckton

Like many others, I dared to dream that Tokyo had turned a corner when Yoichi Masuzoe took over the Tokyo governorship from scandal-tainted Naoki Inose in 2014. Having lived in Japan 18 years at that point and paid millions of yen in taxes to city coffers over the years, I was interested to see how things would change, how the city I loved would better itself.

When Masuzoe moved into the governor’s office in February 2014, the decision to award the city the 2020 Olympics was just five months old. The public was still buzzing.

And when Tokyo was selected as host over Istanbul and Madrid, I was happy for purely selfish reasons: I wanted to witness the Olympics up-close and personal at least once in my lifetime. Burden to the taxpayer — myself included — notwithstanding, is that so wrong?

As one of my day jobs for the previous few years, I had been preparing Japanese of a range of ages to take the official Guide Interpreter test. The Olympics was certainly going to help them find work as licensed guides as the number of foreign visitors increased. Also, I had advised a number of tour companies about how to introduce foreign tourists to sumo and Japanese forms of theater — kabuki, noh and Takarazuka, primarily.

So, when the opportunity to teach English to workers at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in the buildup to the games arose, I was at first intrigued, then excited about just how much this could benefit the city — my city for most of my adult life. The company contracted to run the training program was ECC, a household name in English education in Japan that I had worked with before, albeit in the private sector.

The format was pretty simple: Students would take a couple of 2½-hour classes a month over the course of a year. Classes were held in the metropolitan government’s “second” building, a couple of hundred meters from the iconic twin-towered structure in Shinjuku affectionately known to some as Tax Towers.

“A definite step forward,” I remember thinking, recalling all the times I’d had questions for various departments of the city government over my years in Japan, only to be met with “Japanese only” spokespeople, documents or websites. (Interestingly, though, advice for foreign residents on how to pay tax is always offered in perfect English.)

What I didn’t realize at first — and was not told until five or six months into the course — was that the students were required to go out into the city to learn about a particular neighborhood and, at the end of the course, make a presentation in English about that area. Students were made aware of their “area of responsibility” around three months before the end of the course. This would seem to suggest that Tokyo’s municipal workers are being groomed to serve as unlicensed, unqualified guides to the 2 million tourists expected to roll into town for the Olympics.

And all this studying was happening between 9:10 and 11:40 a.m. — during work time, when they should have been toiling on behalf of Tokyo’s millions of taxpayers. Instead, the city was forking out tens of millions of yen from public funds to teach them a subject they had already studied for at least six years at school, and probably a couple more at university.

I contacted the metropolitan government for comment about the amount of public money involved in this project but neither the Bureau of General Affairs nor the Office of the Governor for Policy Planning had responded by the time of going to print. ECC’s salesperson in charge of the Tokyo government account also declined to comment.

The significance of all this did not hit me at first, but what did raise eyebrows in the makeshift teachers’ room was the number of students attending — around 200 each month — and the fact that few had any direct relationship with the various Olympic-related positions in the city government. The scheme effectively meant the loss of around 1,000 work-hours a month by attending students. Questions I sent to the Tokyo government about how staff were selected for the English course have also gone unanswered.

I was assigned two classes at first but that soon doubled to four. The classes were very small, so even then, this only meant 16 students in total. But just two of these students were related to departments charged with helping the city get ready for the Olympics, and none were serving in senior positions. Indeed, when I spoke with the students candidly about Tokyo’s biggest sporting event in six decades, many of them confessed to being uninterested.

All, however, seemed bemused at the prospect of being trained in English for a year, then being left in posts in which they would barely use the language for the next four years, before finally being trotted out come 2020 to “guide” foreign visitors.

The irony is that all this is happening at the same time as a crackdown by Japan’s central government on unlicensed guides. At least one foreign guide has been deported this year, and the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) states clearly on its website: “A Licensed Guide Interpreter must first pass the Licensed Guide Interpreter Examination administered by the Commissioner of the Japan Tourism Agency and apply to the governors of the relevant prefectures for official registration. A fine of up to ¥500,000 can be levied on unlicensed, paid guides.”

True, Japan does have “systemized goodwill guide (SGG) groups,” but the JNTO says these individuals offer free, pre-set tours — and they must be volunteers. None can be paid, and certainly not from public funds, as would be the case with Tokyo municipal workers from bureaus as varied as Port and Harbor and Social Welfare, whose “training,” it would seem, consists of one day of walking around a single Tokyo neighborhood and a three-minute presentation.

It took a lot of soul-searching before I could bring myself to write this article. I have, after all, been the beneficiary of public funds myself, when I was dispatched to teach the city government staff last year.

When I was offered the chance to do so again this year, though, I refused. I spent almost a decade teaching students in preparation for the Guide Interpreter test, after which they would go on to become full-fledged licensed guides. I didn’t want to abet a system that would end up taking money out of their pockets.

But that’s only half the problem. Over 200 city workers — the numbers have increased in 2016 — skipping work to the tune of 1,000-plus hours a month is bad enough. Worse still, this absenteeism is costing the citizens of Tokyo untold millions more in payments to a private language school. Worst of all, however, is the fact that none of this expense is apparently geared toward any improvement in day-to-day services for Tokyo’s citizens once the Olympics have been and gone.

At least when the 2020 games are all over and Tokyo is struggling to pay the bills, I’ll be able to look my children in the eye and say I did my bit to protest the financial madness of the Masuzoe era.

Mark Buckton covers sumo for The Japan Times. The views expressed here are his own. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp