Japan car insurer sets up translation service amid rising numbers of foreigners at the wheel

by Atsushi Kodera

Staff Writer

A major insurer is offering interpretation in five languages for motorists reporting accidents by phone, amid an influx of foreign visitors and the expectation that the fender bender rate will rise.

Under what Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance Inc. says is the first service of its kind in the industry, simultaneous interpretation in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish or Portuguese is offered to policyholders who need language assistance after an accident.

The company’s 24/7 call center is equipped with a three-way system so that operators can bring an interpreter into the conversation, said a company spokeswoman.

“The service can be used various ways. The caller may be a Japanese national who has caused an accident, or a foreign national in the same situation, for example,” she said. “He or she could also be someone, Japanese or otherwise, who was involved in an accident caused by someone else.”

The company expects the service to reveal the number of customers with language-related difficulties to be double or even triple the number noted last year.

The spokeswoman called it an enhancement of the company’s existing call-center service in anticipation of growth in the number of foreign visitors ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

So far, typical cases include those in which a policyholder has hit a foreign national or those in which a taxi carrying a foreigner has been hit by another car, according to the company.

It also anticipates that the service will be useful to foreigners using rental cars and buying insurance through rent-a-car agencies.

Visitors to Japan have increased dramatically in recent years, with this year’s total surpassing last year’s full-year figure by the end of September, at a record 14.5 million. The figure further grew to 16.3 million by the end of October, up 48.2 percent from the same period last year, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

The rental car industry expects higher numbers of tourists to lead to a rise in the use of rental cars, which in turn will result in more accidents.

According to the All Japan Rent-A-Car Association, the number of foreign customers at member companies in Okinawa Prefecture jumped 130 percent from a year earlier to 85,000 in the year ended March 2015.

Accidents involving such customers totaled 2,900 in the same period, although there are no previous data with which to compare this figure. Many of the association’s 52 regional branches have started to tally such figures only this year, having sensed increases.

“South Koreans and Taiwanese can experience accidents because theirs are right-hand traffic countries,” said an official of the association’s Okinawa Prefecture branch. Traffic in Japan drives on the left.

The individual said rental car outlet staff believe the accident rate for foreigners “may be three times as high as that for domestic customers.”