National / Crime & Legal

Japan's prisons set to upgrade foreign-language translation system for inmates

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

Non-Japanese prison inmates outside the Kanto region and major cities will soon have greater access to translation services with the launch in November of a new system that uses video phones and smart tablets, according to the Justice Ministry.

Currently, translators, who are typically based in major metropolitan hubs, are dispatched to prisons nationwide upon request. However, such services are not available at all times required, such as when inmates need to communicate with prison officials and doctors, an official with the Justice Ministry said Wednesday.

The new system would also make it easier for family members to meet with non-Japanese speaking inmates. Such conversations are required to be translated into Japanese for prison guards to monitor, the official said.

As of the end of 2015, 3,226 out of 58,497 inmates in the country were non-Japanese. The number topped 6,000 in 2006, but has gradually decreased since.

“If more visitors from overseas come to Japan, it’s possible that the number of (non-Japanese) inmates will increase,” Dai Tanaka, an official in the ministry’s prison services division, said while providing one reason for introducing the new video phone service.

Since the number of approved translators are limited, prisons have sometimes faced challenges when responding to visitation requests by inmates’ families, Tanaka said.

Currently, there are 22 translators working in the nation’s prisons who can interpret languages including English, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and Persian. However, most of them are based in cities such as Fuchu in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya and Tochigi.

Language experts at Fuchu Prison have been testing the new video phone translation system since last August.

According to Tanaka, there are currently 76 major detention facilities in the nation, including prisons, facilities for juveniles and detention centers.

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