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Aiming to attract 40 million annual inbound tourists in 2020 when Tokyo will host the Olympics and Paralympics, Japan hopes to overcome a language and cultural gap of similar proportions within the next three years.

Amid a growing mood to welcome foreign visitors with the spirit of omotenashi (hospitality), hundreds of students are already seeking opportunities and preparing themselves to provide linguistic support as interpreters or tourist guides during the international festival of peace and sports.

Meanwhile, the government could replace some of the country’s standard pictograms used in public facilities to bring them in line with international standards — a move resisted by some who say signs such as the one for hot springs should remain as they are easy to understand.

According to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Organizing Committees, roughly 78,000 volunteers were recruited for the 2012 London Olympics and 50,000 for the 2016 Rio Olympics. The committee is looking to accept more than 90,000 nonpaid workers in 2020.

A committee official said although the type of opportunities that would be available is yet to be confirmed, interest among college students studying foreign languages to work as volunteers has been surging.

Nearly 400 students attended a four-day program in September at Kanda University of International Studies that aimed to educate them for participation in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as language volunteers. | COURTESY OF KANDA UNIVERSITY OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
Nearly 400 students attended a four-day program in September at Kanda University of International Studies that aimed to educate them for participation in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as language volunteers. | COURTESY OF KANDA UNIVERSITY OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES

“The Olympics is going to be an outstanding experience for the students. They get to take part in an international sports event,” said Takumi Okado of Sano Educational Foundation, which operates Kanda University of International Studies. Kanda will hold classes to prepare students for volunteer positions starting in summer 2018, with applicants expected have knowledge of sports and language skills.

Seven language schools — Kansai Gaidai University, Kanda University of International Studies, Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies and Nagoya University of Foreign Studies — have joined forces to conduct special programs biannually to get students ready for the opportunity.

Okado, who heads the association of the seven universities to run the programs, said the number of students interested in becoming language volunteers at the Tokyo Olympics has exceeded expectations. The recent program in September saw nearly 400 students take part.

The special four-day program is centered around language-related lessons to improve students’ translation and interpretation skills.

The lectures are available in five languages: English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Portuguese, with basic and intermediate levels.

Lecturers include experts from the sports field, such as Shu Nakasone, who has experience providing translation services for “CNN World Sports” and who has worked as an interpreter for Bobby Valentine, a former manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team.

On top of the language lessons, Sophia University professor and executive director of Japan World Games Association Fumio Morooka taught students about career opportunities as translators in the sports field, while Koichi Watanabe, who was a doctor for the Japanese swimming team at the London Olympics, lectured on the importance of anti-doping.

The program also had courses on both domestic and foreign cultures, as well as a lesson on “hospitality skills.”

“Manners are very different among countries, depending on religions and cultures. It would be ideal (for students) to be able to understand others and at the same time be able to offer good omotenashi,” said Okado.

Some students are also looking to link the Olympic experience to further their careers in the sports industry, including in sports media or sports event organizing, Okado said.

Meanwhile, medical students are also seeking opportunities to provide language support during the 2020 Games.

“Since it takes place in Tokyo, many medical students are looking forward to getting involved in the Tokyo Olympics” as volunteer workers, said Ami Suzuki, 22, a third-year student at Nihon University School of Medicine, who founded volunteer organization Team Medics.

“Most of us learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation as a first-year student. Having English skills means we should be able to provide greater medical assistance than those without this experience,” she said.

Team Medics was formed in July 2015, seeking ways to provide medical support in English to foreign patients.

Members of student volunteer group Team Medics provide medical help at the Global Festa Japan event in October 2015. | COURTESY OF TEAM MEDICS
Members of student volunteer group Team Medics provide medical help at the Global Festa Japan event in October 2015. | COURTESY OF TEAM MEDICS

“I became interested in providing medical support to non-Japanese patients in Japan. After living and studying in Switzerland, I thought it must be tough for foreigners who become ill in Japan,” said Suzuki.

The group, guided by International University of Health and Welfare associate professor Takayuki Oshimi, who has taught medical English at Nihon University, and Dr. James Thomas of Keio University, has 329 students from 61 universities nationwide.

It is sponsored by the Japan Institute for Global Health, and holds monthly study meetings to improve communication skills with foreign patients.

“Joining a medical school, I felt it lacked courses in English. Most of the students join us because of that,” said Suzuki.

Study topics include “describing medical examinations in English,” “translation of clinical department names,” and “access to health care in Japan.”

When the topic was on “Islamic medical principles and ethics,” the students were lectured by a Malaysian doctor on etiquette for examining Islamic female patients.

The group has participated as volunteer members at international events such as Global Festa Japan 2015 and the White Ribbon Run.

Suzuki said there are many students in lower grades who hope to be helpful when foreign visitors suffer from sudden sickness at the 2020 Games. But they are still inexperienced, said Suzuki, who will be a medical intern at the time of the Olympics.

She said Team Medics plans to incorporate how to take care of patients in emergency situations in its monthly meetings to be more prepared.

Meanwhile, Japan is seeking to renew a legacy from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the form of pictogram signage, such as the bathroom mark that features a design of a man in blue and a woman in red, the green box with a running man for emergency exits and the cigarette with rising smoke for smoking areas.

Such icons were first introduced for the 1964 Games. The original Japanese pictograms were made by a design group led by influential art critic Masaru Katsumi.

Only about 140,000 foreign visitors came to Japan in 1960, according to Justice Ministry data. “At an international event where people from all around the globe gather and use multiple languages, visual language plays a huge role, even if an official language (for the Olympics) is decided,” said Katsumi, stressing the importance of pictograms prior to the games.

To prepare for the Tokyo Olympics, industry ministry Hiroshige Seko formed a committee to amend the current Japan Industrial Standards (JIS) pictograms to meet modern needs.

The committee was formed to consider whether it’s necessary to amend pictograms “to make travel easier for foreign visitors during the Olympics in 2020,” said ministry official Kunihiro Nagata.

Nagata said a set of new pictograms may be introduced, including marks for Wi-Fi, prayer rooms and cash dispensers that accept overseas credit cards.

The ministry is also considering replacing some current pictograms with International Standardization Organization (ISO) options that are more familiar to people overseas.

Among those under review is the onsen hot springs symbol, though any potential change has sparked debate over whether it is necessary.

Onsen operators in the city of Beppu, Kumamoto Prefecture, a popular hot springs resort area, say the mark “is already familiar,” and “we are fond of the (JIS) mark.”

Nagata said the committee will hold another meeting in late January, with a final decision expected by the end of March. New pictograms are scheduled to be used from the upcoming summer.

He added that any changes will not be legally binding, but it was hoped tourism operators use the designs.

The JIS onsen logo features a circle with three lines of steam coming out of it, whereas the ISO symbol features three people bathing inside a circle.

“There is no need to change the onsen logo since it’s simple and clear,” said graphic designer Atsuki Kikuchi, who took charge of art direction and designed signage and pictograms for the Aomori Prefectural Museum.

“If the image becomes too descriptive, it gets buried in scenery. When a symbol is supposed to stand out, it is necessary for it to be simple,” said Kikuchi, pointing at the ISO onsen symbol.

This New Year’s series — Gearing up for the Games — examines how Japan is preparing for the Olympics and Paralympics.

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