Tokyo police grapple with growing demand for foreign-language services


Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department is facing a surge in demand for foreign language services in line with the rising number of overseas travelers seen arriving in Japan in recent years.

In one such case, in around April last year, the Kabukicho police box in Shinjuku Ward received an inquiry from a Chinese traveler via his accommodation regarding his mother having gone missing. An officer interviewed the man in Chinese about his mother, who was in her 60s, including her features and the clothes she had been wearing. She was located in a matter of hours after searching nearby areas.

While the Kabukicho box is staffed by many officers adept in English, Chinese and other foreign languages, most other police boxes and stations are not so well-equipped for such situations. Instead, services for foreign citizens are routed through the MPD’s interpreter center.

The center has logged a steady climb in the number of cases needing interpreting assistance, which last year reached about 45,000 — some 60 percent higher than the figure seen in 2013.

Of last year’s total, approximately 22,000 cases involved interpreting over the phone to assist police boxes with communication. Many such cases involve travelers losing their passports or finding that they cannot unlock the doors to their minpaku private lodgings.

The center has about 60 police interpreters and also outsources work to an additional 200 civilian interpreters. As well as interpreting over the phone, center staff members also sit in on suspect interrogations and witness interviews that involve foreign citizens.

“It is important to convey the intensity of the questioning,” Daisuke Hashimoto, an English interpreter from the center, said. “You need to pick up even the slightest slip of the tongue and translate everything accurately.”

As well as the growth in the number of cases needing interpreters, the police are also seeing a wider variety of languages in demand. Attracting visitors from a more diverse array of countries means that languages never previously used in police services, such as Uzbek, are becoming necessary.

To meet the growing demand, the MPD is looking to contract additional civilian interpreters, as well as conducting language classes for officers stationed in police boxes.

The MPD also plans to introduce a translation app for officer smartphones by around this summer. The service will be equipped with audio translation features for English, Chinese and six other languages, as well as text translation features for roughly 30 languages including Arabic.

“If police officers on the ground become able to handle cases involving foreign individuals by themselves, the center staff will be able to focus on interpreting for interrogations,” said Kenichiro Kinoshita, the officer in charge of interpreting management at the center.

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