Standardized English for road signs to help foreign tourists


Staff Writer

Foreign tourists in Japan will have a less confusing time trying to identify roads and landmarks thanks to the introduction of standardized English words and eradication of “Romanized” Japanese words on public signs, transport ministry officials said.

Revised transport ministry guidelines that took effect Tuesday require that signs showing the name of a street, avenue or boulevard use those words or their abbreviations, instead of relying only on the word “dori,” the catch-all Japanese equivalent.

In the case of an established road name, such as Tokyo’s Aoyama-dori, the new guidelines allow use of the traditional Japanese name but requires that “Ave.” be added to make it “Aoyama-dori Ave.”

A notable exception will be road signs pointing to hot springs, which are now required to use the word “Onsen” instead of variously being called hot spring or spa, as is currently the case. This is because the word onsen is internationally known, according to Ryo Takata, an official in the Road Bureau of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

The new guidelines were introduced as part of the government’s drive to attract foreign tourists, Takata said. The ministry is considering ways to make use of multiple languages in museums, parks, tourist sites, roads and public transportation, a subject discussed by an advisory panel of experts commissioned by the ministry. The latest revision reflects the outcome of this discussion.

In addition to the panel’s advice, the revisions reflect the results of a ministry survey of foreign tourists, in which many respondents expressed difficulty in interpreting road signs and reading maps due to the use of inconsistent translated words, according to Masaki Kojima, another Road Bureau official.

Standardized translations for street signs, which include words like “station,” “airport,” “city hall,” “hospital” and “river,” will be implemented by the transport ministry, which is responsible for national roads, as well as prefectural and municipal governments.

Updating road signs could take decades depending on the area because implementation of the new standards can wait until signs are scheduled for replacement. Even so, the ministry is encouraging early usage.

In fact, roads in 48 areas that are popular with foreign tourists, including Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and Beppu, a noted hot springs resort in Oita Prefecture, have already implemented them, according to Kojima.

“We are hoping that local governments motivated to promote tourism will act early,” he said.

The new guidelines are only a first step toward setting a standard for both road signs and maps, Kojima said.

“That’s the most important point, but this time the target was road signs only,” he said. “In the future, we’ll have to think of strategies to reflect these changes on guide maps and websites.”

Other mandatory English words for road signs include port, parking, tunnel, bridge, castle, museum of art, prefectural office, town office, post office, hospital and mountain.

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    At first I thought the story “Standardized English for road signs to help foreign tourists”sounded like a good idea. But then I read it.

    My objection is that labeling a street sign “Aoyama-dori Ave.” as described in the story is redundant, since “dori” means “Avenue.” So the suggestion is actually to label the street “Aoyama Avenue Avenue,” which is ridiculous. Similarly, the Kanda River which passes through my Tokyo neighbourhood is identified by a bilingual sign as the “Kandagawa River” which annoys me because unlike a clueless tourist I know that what it is saying is “Kanda River River,” which is again ridiculous. Also, I have never heard it, but I fear to hear someone say, or see a printed guide report “Mt. Fujiyama,” which means “Mount Fuji Mountain.” Ouch!

    Don’t call me stupidly pedantic. I am correct in this language matter and I am being economically efficacious with words, and therein lies truer virtue.

    What is at play here is the sacrifice of utility on the altar of effort in the (mistaken) belief that the appearance of effort amounts to actual accomplishment. It’s impossible to avoid it, though, because the motive behind the move is a deeply cultural one. Japanese culture values appearance over everything.

    A sad precedent was made in the 200 Japan-Korea World Cup when some body – government or business, or a poor marriage of the two? – made the decision to add numbers to local commuter station names with the noble intention of making the transportation system easier for foreigners to negotiate. The result was to sow more confusion than clarity since telling visitors that they are at Station M12 in Tokyo is an insufficient substitute for telling them they are at Yotsuya Station on the Marunouchi Line when confused or lost foreign passengers want to know where they are. Since then we’ve been stuck both with spoiled signage as well as the painfully lame explanation for it.