National

Health ministry struggles to provide COVID-19 updates in foreign languages

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The health ministry, which is at the heart of the nation’s ongoing battle with the coronavirus outbreak, is struggling to keep non-Japanese updated on the rapidly escalating situation in a timely manner, hampered by a dearth of staff proficient in foreign languages.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the English version of the ministry’s website made no mention of the COVID-19 infection anywhere prominent on its top page, relegating any coronavirus-related links to midpage or lower, with those all directing viewers to original press releases written exclusively in Japanese.

“Since our main job has been to update our Japanese website, it has inevitably led to difficulties in providing English-language information in a timely way, so one option is to use machine translation for now,” ministry official Takuma Kato said. The official said a future redesign of the English website to better highlight updates pertaining to the new virus is not guaranteed, citing the need to overcome technical difficulties.

“Our ministry doesn’t have a dedicated team of staff specializing in English-language communication in the first place, so the situation at the moment is that our Japanese staff has been utilizing what little resources they can find to deal with any English update,” Kato said.

Aside from the English version, the ministry’s website features a “language switch” option using machine translation, which automatically renders every Japanese sentence in foreign languages such as English, Chinese and Korean.

But the English version, for one, not only can take a few minutes to complete, sometimes leading to a “gateway timeout” error message, but it is also reportedly ridden with gibberish.

Reports emerged earlier this week that the machine translation of the ministry’s key Japanese webpage providing up-to-date information on the outbreak leads to nonsensical English phrases such as “implementation in the restroom,” which purported to be the translation of “washing hands.” Multiple attempts to confirm such an error were answered with the “gateway timeout” message on Tuesday.

However, the ministry has set up special coronavirus webpages offering information both in English and Chinese, the former being titled “About 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Infection.” These, Kato said, are the most official source of foreign-language information the ministry has at its disposal at the moment regarding the crisis.

But even so, the webpage, although written in a much higher standard of English, is several days behind in its updates on the number of confirmed infections at home and stops short of providing anything beyond rudimentary health tips and guidelines.

With Japan home to one of the world’s highest concentrations of confirmed infections, the English site of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases has been given relatively frequent updates in response to strong demand from academia overseas, Kato said, although he admitted information there tends to be technical.

Rochelle Kopp, a management consultant working with Japanese firms, said both the language switch option and the special coronavirus webpage provided by the health ministry could easily escape the attention of a non-Japanese audience because they are accessible either only in Japanese or through a Japanese website.

“Anyone who does not read Japanese would be unlikely to find” them, Kopp said.

“The Ministry ought to be in the lead in informing people about the coronavirus, what actions the Japanese government is taking, but instead it is not even making an effort,” she said.

For tourists from overseas, the Japan National Tourism Organization offers the Japan Visitor Hotline, which it says is available 24/7 in English, Chinese and Korean to answer inquiries on the COVID-19 virus. The number is 050-3816-2787.

The JNTO also has a website, titled “For safe travels in Japan. Guide for when you are feeling ill,” that enables foreign tourists to search medical institutions equipped to accommodate patients in foreign languages.

The city of Fukuoka, meanwhile, has initiated an around-the-clock hotline available for non-Japanese residents of the city in as many as 18 different languages — reachable at 092-687-5357 — for coronavirus-related inquiries. Callers from outside the city will be redirected to a medical institution in Fukuoka Prefecture, a city official said.

Kopp, for her part, recommends a website called Inside Japan Tours, which is run by a small private company she said is “doing a much better job” than the health ministry at sharing useful information.

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