One of the longtime complaints of English-speaking foreigners visiting restaurants in Japan is that few of them offer menus in English. Well, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is doing what it can to help eateries translate their menus into English and other languages, to help them become more hospitable to expats and tourists.
A website run by the metropolitan government’s tourism division, named Restaurants with Multilingual Menus (www.menu-tokyo.jp/menu), lists 263 restaurants with menus in English, Korean, traditional and simplified Chinese, German and French. While this is far from comprehensive, you can search for eateries by area (such as Ginza, Tsukiji and Roppongi), type of cuisine (like sushi, noodles, eel and monja pan-fried snacks) and by language.
Takashi Kitajima, director of the tourism division at the metro government, says his office started offering translation assistance to restaurants in the capital in 2002, starting from such basics as how to explain the difference between nigiri (hand-formed sushi) and makimono (rolled sushi).
“We want to make the dining experience in Tokyo more enjoyable for foreigners,” says Kitajima. “The truth is, not many restaurants in Tokyo have menus in languages other than Japanese, and not many restaurants welcome foreign visitors. It’s not that they don’t want business from foreigners. They just don’t know what to do.”
Thus the metro government has held numerous workshops around Tokyo over the years, through which thousands of establishments have received computer-based tutorials on how to create multilingual menus, Kitajima says.
Hidenori Kiba, owner of Erika, a German restaurant in Ikebukuro, who attended one of the workshops this month, says he found the program very helpful. While his restaurant has a Polish employee who speaks English and German, he hopes that the restaurant’s now-fully-multilingual menu will also make it easier for Chinese and Korean customers to stop by.
On the other hand, three other Japanese-cuisine restaurants contacted by The Japan Times this week were surprisingly reluctant to share their views, saying bluntly that they were either busy serving customers or that whomever in charge was not available.
Kitajima acknowledges that more work needs to be done for foreigners to feel comfortable visiting restaurants in Tokyo, saying that the key is to “nurture a welcoming attitude.”
He adds that he hopes to expand the program, noting that the somewhat shabby current website will soon be merged with another tourism-information portal run by the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau, and will go through a major revamp around June. Hopefully by then the metro government can increase the number of restaurants, fix the site’s many dead links and make it more visible through searches. But as our quick phone calls to the eateries suggest, what’s missing in the menus of many restaurants in Tokyo is probably not just foreign languages, but an all-embracing marketing mentality and a true sense of hospitality.