With Japan targeted by an ever increasing flood of visitors, the plain form of Japanese is spreading as a more inclusive means of communication in situations ranging from disasters to tourism.
“Every language must be respected, and when we communicate with people who don’t speak Japanese, responding in their native language should be a priority,” said Akira Yoshikai, head of Yasashii Nihongo Tourism Kenkyukai, a group that promotes plain Japanese and its potential in tourism.
“But when it’s not practical to do so at an individual level, plain Japanese could be another option,” he said.
This form of the language targets those who can use Japanese to navigate tasks like shopping and making plans with friends, according to a research group at Hirosaki University in Aomori Prefecture. It uses all three components of the writing system — hiragana, katakana and kanji — but at the second- or third-grade elementary school level.
In this style, sentences can be written completely in hiragana to ease understanding. Hiragana will also frequently appear above kanji to explain pronunciation. These pronunciation aids are called furigana.
Difficult terms will often be rephrased. Evacuation shelter, for example, will be replaced with a phrase like “a place where everyone can stay for safety.”
In Yanagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture, the municipal government created badges in 2016 that both tourists and residents can use to signify they prefer to speak in plain Japanese. The badges have messages in Japanese saying either, “Plain Japanese please” or “Hosting in plain Japanese.”
Yoshikai, who was involved in making the badges for his hometown, said he first got the idea of utilizing plain Japanese for tourism during a conversation with his mother.
“She said she wasn’t able to talk to foreign tourists because she can’t speak English. But many of the tourists to Yanagawa were from Asia, including Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea,” Yoshikai said.
Ad agency Dentsu Inc. estimated in 2016 that 8 million people from the three Asian neighbors were learning Japanese, either at school or as a hobby, and that over 60 percent of them wanted to speak the language when they visited the country.
“Not many people are aware that there are so many tourists who want to speak Japanese,” he said.
Municipalities including the city of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Setagaya Ward and the city of Kodaira in Tokyo, and Kagoshima Prefecture have organized lectures about plain Japanese and how to use it in tourism situations.
Japan surpassed 30 million tourists for the first time last year, but the government’s goal for 2020 is 40 million, which it hopes to achieve with the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.
In the first 11 months of 2019, there were about 29 million arrivals, according to the Japan National Tourism Agency. The three leading sources were China, South Korea and Taiwan.
As a reference, the Olympic Games preparation bureau has set up a portal site for municipalities that offers information and case studies of how to provide multilingual assistance, including in plain Japanese.
But many Japanese still believe the stereotype that foreign people all speak English, Yoshikai said.
“The problem is not that Japanese people are not good at speaking English,” he said. “Rather, it’s that the everyday Japanese used by native speakers is difficult for beginners to understand.”
Some of the factors that make Japanese difficult to learn are its honorific modes and expressions, as well as the importance of context, which often leads to abbreviating the constituents of sentences, according to Yoshikai, who has a license for teaching Japanese as a second language.
“Daily Japanese is difficult to deal with just by learning from textbooks,” he said. “While the government is beefing up Japanese-language education, shouldn’t we, the hosting side, be doing something too?”
There were 2.73 million foreign residents in Japan in 2018, up 6.6 percent from a year ago, according to the Justice Ministry. Chinese accounted for 28.0 percent, followed by South Koreans at 16.5 percent and Vietnamese at 12.1 percent.
According to a survey by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, 62.6 percent of the foreign residents said they understand Japanese and 44 percent said they understand English.
With the introduction of new visas for skilled workers in April 2019, “Japanese society will be more multicultural at a pace we have never experienced,” Yoshikai said. “Being able to use plain Japanese will be a must for native Japanese speakers.”
The idea of using plain Japanese originally developed after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which killed more than 6,400 in Kobe and the surrounding areas and left many foreigners in the dark on how to survive the ordeal.
Among foreign people in the area, 2.12 were injured for every 100 people. The ratio for Japanese people meanwhile was 0.89, according to a survey by the Urban Disaster Research Institute in Tokyo. The data suggested that lack of information resulted in greater danger for foreigners.
The use of plain Japanese for disaster mitigation has since been evolving with the help of new technologies, including social media.
Last October, when Typhoon Hagibis made landfall on Honshu, a plain Japanese tweet written entirely in hiragana by the Nagano Prefectural Government went viral. The typhoon left more than 90 people dead after flooding tens of thousands of homes.
The tweet, which carried the official phone number for getting disaster information in 15 languages, was retweeted more than 40,000 times and drew a number of thank you comments, with some Twitter users even voluntarily translating the post in their own languages.
“We didn’t expect this much impact,” said an official in charge of disaster response in Nagano, one of the prefectures hardest hit by Hagabis. “We didn’t think it would be translated into multiple languages and we couldn’t be more grateful for the support.”
He said the decision to tweet in plain Japanese was made in response to followers of the prefecture’s Twitter account.
“With more people using different languages in Japan, it’s definitely necessary to give consideration to them when offering disaster information,” the official acknowledged.
Simpler Japanese is not only helpful for visitors, their children and Japanese returnees from overseas, but also for Japanese with hearing disabilities, Yoshikai said.
Those who grew up using sign language as a major communication tool could face challenges similar to foreign people because Japanese grammar is different from that used in signing, Yoshikai said.
“(Using plain Japanese) will be an opportunity for the majority of Japanese people to rethink what their language and society is like,” he said.
“When you become aware of one minority group, it makes you realize other minority groups around you,” Yoshikai said. “I hope the idea of plain Japanese leads to a society where a diverse group of people can live as they are.”