An emergency call for an ambulance could easily result in an unnecessary tragedy if the caller doesn’t speak Japanese fluently.

It’s a possibility the city of Kyoto has faced many times, officials there said.

“In the past, we have experienced great difficulty pinpointing the location of foreign callers because of the language barrier,” said Miki Watanabe, a spokeswoman for the city’s fire department, whose command center operators receive emergency calls.

To counter this potentially life-threatening problem, on Oct. 1 the fire department introduced a multilingual translation system to handle emergency 119 calls for ambulances.

Until then, when a call from a non-Japanese came in, operators relied on a simple conversation guidebook to communicate in foreign languages. But this often led to misunderstandings, and even dispatch delays of more than 10 minutes, Watanabe said. On average, ambulances in Japan respond within six to seven minutes.

Watanabe said the Kyoto system is similar to one used by the city of Saitama since May last year that was developed by NEC Networks & System Integration Corp.

The firm’s chief business planner, Akira Takayama, hopes to outfit 400 ambulance command centers in three years, which is about half the existing facilities nationwide.

With the system, foreigners who call in, at any time of the day or night, get put through to a team of trained interpreters proficient in five languages: English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Portuguese.

The translators act as go-betweens in a three-way conversation between the caller and the operator.

“So far we have been hearing numerous cases where operators who used the system have been able to act more promptly to arrange an ambulance and understand foreign callers’ condition in greater detail,” said Keisuke Takahashi of NESIC.

Operators also appear to have found the service “quite a reassurance,” Takayama said, “because they can now rest on the knowledge that no matter what sort of language they’d have to deal with, they always have someone professional to fall back on.”

Meanwhile, the two lamented that the number to call an ambulance — 119 — is not widely known among non-Japanese residents.

The Kyoto fire department receives only around 10 calls a year from non-Japanese, according to spokeswoman Watanabe.

The same is true in Tokyo and Saitama. Officials there say they get only about one call a month from a non-Japanese.

In most cases, it seems a Japanese on hand makes the call for them.

Saitama and Kyoto are the only cities with formal full-time multilingual emergency translation services.

The official in charge of the Tokyo fire department’s command center said there are always “two or three” operators available who speak English, but acknowledged that at the moment no other languages are covered.

This has not resulted in any serious problem so far, the official stressed, adding a caller’s location can easily be traced if a land line is used.

Nonetheless, Takayama believes the translation business will expand throughout the country, including in Tokyo.

“I think the need for such multilingual translation for emergency calls will further grow as more foreign tourists are likely to visit Japan as the (2020 Tokyo) Olympics draw closer,” Takayama said, adding it is imperative city officials take more aggressive steps to introduce it.

“With Japan’s domestic labor force thinning rapidly, we need to attract more foreigners so they can take up the slack,” Takayama also said.

“In order to do that, we first need to show them that our social infrastructure is good enough for them to live safe and sound. That’s how our society should change.”

Where to call for medical information


Provided by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Himawari medical counseling service takes inquiries in English, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Spanish. Its primary purpose is to refer non-Japanese to clinics and hospitals in Tokyo with doctors who can speak their particular language. In the event of an emergency, a user can use the service to request a call to 119, but this hasn’t happened yet, a spokeswoman said. The service is available from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. The number is 03-5285-8181. The website at www.himawari.metro.tokyo.jp/qq/qq13enmnlt.asp includes a hospital and clinic search function.

AMDA International Medical Information Center handles inquiries in eight languages. Interpreters are available full time for English, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Spanish from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. On a part-time basis, interpreters are available for Portuguese from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; for Tagalog from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays; and for Vietnamese 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursdays. AMDA’s chief aim is to help non-Japanese in search of doctors who can speak their language. However, in emergency situations the service can find physicians who will make house calls, instruct foreigners how to call 119 or under the most urgent circumstances call 119 directly. For more details, call 03-5285-8088 or visit eng.amda-imic.com/index.php.


In cooperation with local municipalities and nonprofit organizations, Kanagawa Prefecture can dispatch to hospitals members of a team of interpreters proficient in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Tagalog, Thai, Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese.

At the request of hospitals, they will be sent to interpret between non-Japanese and doctors. No multilingual translation service in emergency situations is available. Non-Japanese have to pay a direct visit to one of 35 member hospitals or clinics first so doctors can decide if they really need the translation service. For more details, visit www.pref.kanagawa.jp/mlt/f417316/.


The prefecture does not offer any translation services, but the Chiba Convention Bureau and International Center can dispatch a volunteer interpreter for English, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian or Tagalog at the request of a doctor. No emergency translation service is available, and non-Japanese need to arrange an appointment with their doctor and an interpreter after their first visit. For more details, visit www.mcic.or.jp/e_index.html.

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