Baffled foreign tourists get little help on trains

Chunichi Shimbun

Although Asian tourists are flocking to Japan in greater numbers, many are at a loss in railway stations, where few signs are written in languages other than Japanese and English.

Several railways, including East Japan Railway Co. (JR East), are making modest efforts to present station names in Chinese and Korean, but Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), which operates the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, has decided to offer announcements in English only.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry criticized JR Tokai in 2009, pointing to a need for multilingual signs. JR Tokai’s position is that “adding multiple languages to the board means having smaller words”.

Back in 2006, the land ministry released guidelines that recommended distributing information in languages other than English as part of an “omotenashi” (hospitality) campaign.

“Other companies had signs in Chinese and Korean, but JR Tokai does not,” the ministry said during JR Tokai’s operating audit in 2009.

“Since 70 percent of foreign tourists come from other parts of Asia, it should consider the needs of those foreigners as well,” the ministry added.

The railway said, “our main policy is to display English, the global language, in a large font.”

For those who do not speak English, brochures in French, Chinese and Korean are available at information counters. And some directions on signs are given in the form of symbols rather than words.

The company believes that given the limited space on the boards, adding multiple languages means having to reduce the size of the letters, thus making them harder to read.

Currently, other languages are used on signs warning people not to open emergency doors and to act with care when carrying luggage.

Some of the vending machines have also gone multilingual, but the railway stopped expanding the use of such signs, suggesting it believes that what now exists is sufficient.

“We decided to use a larger font for Japanese words, given the country’s aging population,” it said.

“If JR Tokai finds it difficult to add different languages in stations and trains, it could at least print information on transfers in the Chinese- and Korean-language pamphlets in bullet trains. It is important that they do something to address the issue,” said Yoshihiko Iijima, a professor at Toyo University’s department of international tourism studies.

Other railways in the Chubu region started adding multilingual services in 2005, when Chubu Centrair International Airport opened and the World Expo was held in Aichi Prefecture. However, the languages used vary from company to company.

In 2005, Nagoya Railway, which provides transport to the airport, began adding Chinese, Korean and Portuguese to signs at seven stations commonly used by foreigners. These include Central Japan International Airport Station, and Meitetsu-Nagoya Station and Inuyama Station — all destinations for popular tourist sites.

A company spokesman said Portuguese was important because “many Brazilians live in the surrounding area.”

The Nagoya Municipal Subway offers information in Chinese, Korean and Portuguese.

Ever since the World Expo, station announcements have been delivered in all three languages at Nagoya and Fujigaoka stations, where passengers transfer to reach the venue.

“We selected the languages most commonly spoken by residents and visitors,” said an official at Nagoya’s Transportation Bureau.

Kintetsu Railway, which serves the Ise-Shima region, provides information in Chinese and Korean at six stations close to popular tourist destinations, including Kintetsu Nagoya Station, Iseshi Station and Ujiyamada Station.

“Due to limited space, we usually only provide Japanese and English, but at those six stations we use four languages,” a company spokesman said.

“The fonts have to be small to fit four languages, so we plan to install larger boards,” the spokesman added.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on May 6.

  • phu

    Even as an English speaker, trains in Japan can be a real hassle. It’s frustrating, because they are typically very convenient and efficient, IF you can figure out what the heck is going on.

    A larger part of the problem is that you absolutely cannot expect just one line to get you where you’re going, and with varying states of internationalization at different stations on different lines (and in areas that vary in their tourist appeal), you may or may not find ANY language other than Japanese on the maps you need to use to navigate.

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect all of Japan to show every possible train sign in four different languages (or even two, really, in most places), but the lack of translations does make it a bit nasty sometimes as a foreigner, particularly when you aren’t necessarily interested in just going to major tourist spots or seeing things and places that happen to lie on a single line or in highly-populated places.

    • I’m pretty sure one could get a booklet which had each and every single stop for every JR and private rain line printed in Japanese and another language – in the case of the booklets I took, Japanese and English.

      Using these booklets it was a trivial matter of figuring out which station “that one printed only in Japanese” was when looking at the boards as I could take the booklet out and match the Japanese on the board to the Japanese in the booklet, then check the romanized/furigana version.

      As for having to switch lines – I don’t see why this is a ‘problem’? Do you expect there to be a dedicated line from every single location to every single location out there? Do you have any idea how many trains that would require and how many lines you’d have criss-crossing all over the place?

      • phu

        I don’t have any context on your experiences, but navigating Japanese trains is not as simple as “find the right kanji for your station.” Figuring out what connects where and when and to which train in which direction you should be heading is not so black and white as you make it seem, particularly in Tokyo and when using both JR and private lines.

        And I certainly do not expect “a dedicated line from every single location to every single location out there.” I stated very specifically that it’s unreasonable to expect all lines to even list multiple languages, so what possible grounds could you have to assume I meant something as asinine as expecting all possible lines to exist? I said nothing like that; it came entirely out of your head. Don’t try to pin it on me.

        The point I think I clearly expressed regarding having to switch lines is not that it’s intolerable, but simply that it inevitably happens, and different lines (very reasonably) have different levels of internationalization. If you found some holy grail of station name references, good for you! Go write a blog post so the rest of us can search for your insight. Obviously, not everyone has managed to find this thing that’s served you so well. No need to assume we’re all idiots because of it, though.

  • Honda

    As an English speaker I have to say Japan’s train system was amazingly easy — I though it would be impossible since I can’t read 1 word of Japanese – but I did fine travelling all over. When I did make a mistake – like boarding on the wrong coach – the staff was very helpful to resolve the problems. I am impressed by how good the system was for an English speaking foreigner like me.

  • itoshima2012

    get your iphone out and stop winging and starts translating for yourself. Jrs train network is damn easy to understand even if you don’T speak Japanese.

  • QR codes and a letter-and-number system. Create an app for smartphones and tablets which people can use to scan signs to know what the boards say, and provide optional booklets in each station which correspond to the same boards.

    This way they don’t have to make the words on their signs smaller and can stick to the languages spoken by the majority of residents and foreign visitors in the country (though it’s still odd that the other rail companies could pull off four languages as mentioned by the article yet JR Tokai maintains they couldn’t)

  • W

    There are so many train lines in the big cities around here I can’t blame anyone from getting confused.

    Shinjuku station for example has about 10 lines going through it and to add to the confusion there are multiple train stations with the name Shinjuku e.g. nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku sanchome etc.

    I don’t blame anyone for trying to simplify this for any traveller of any language origin.
    However adding even more information to the overload may not help in all cases.

    The bigger and fewer signs there are, the more attention you can pay them (or it).
    What if there is ALREADY so many signs you don’t know which one to look at?
    Have you seen the maps on the Tokyo metro that where they show how each car and each exit and toilet will match up at each station?

    I encourage multilingualism but I have the same concerns about adding more to the signs.

    Your smartphone and travel planning app is your best friend moving through the big cities.

    For a tourist in 2014 and beyond….I’d encourage the same.

  • Kong An Lan

    I love Japan’s railway system. Hard to figure out at first but very very easy once you get it. People and staff are very courteous too and helpful. Got to love the Japanese people.

  • dawnshine

    Wow… some people really expect SO much of the Japanese! The world is pushing the Japanese to be the most accepting of all foreigners culture, while noone else in the world is!! In USA there is not even a national language, yet most things are in English only, and even though that has changed a lot in recent years… the cultural idea, if you can say we have one, is that if you don’t speak and read English, too bad!! It is very recent (by my idea of time passage) that people have been allowed to take nationalization oaths, or drivers license tests in a language other than English. And when McDonalds has Spanish instead of English first in the Southwest, where a Majority of peoples are Spanish speaking, the yet dominant English speakers complain and make racist remarks.

    Seriously, though speaking as a traveler and about travelers not residents, it is ABSURD to expect the country one is visiting to have signs all over the place in the travelers tongue. It is Much more Reasonable to expect a traveler to learn some BASICS of the country they are visiting language so that they better handle their traveling experience there. That’s what I do, and why virtually EVERY traveling guide suggests and is created even for the purpose of helping with this.