• Kyodo

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Several prefectural governments around Japan have raised concerns about a shortage of volunteer interpreters and translators to support foreign residents and tourists during disasters, after making limited progress with addressing the problem, a new survey has shown.

The massive floods that were caused by typhoons in 2019 and other disasters in recent years have brought to light the difficulty of gathering enough language professionals to assist non-Japanese speakers at such times.

The problem has been made more urgent as Japan has been promoting inbound tourism to boost the economy, and is also seeking more foreign workers to alleviate its labor shortages.

In the Kyodo News survey, conducted across all 47 prefectures, 70 percent said they didn’t have enough registered volunteer linguists to provide information on safety, relief services and other important matters in different languages.

Thirty-two prefectural governments said they expected to fall short in providing Vietnamese-language interpreters and translators. Japan has seen a sharp rise in Vietnamese residents in recent years due to an increase in technical intern trainees from the Southeast Asian country.

The number of Vietnamese nationals living in Japan stood at about 370,000 as of June 2019, having risen more than fourfold in five years. Officials say this has been due largely to more Japanese companies entering the fast-growing Vietnamese market, resulting in increased interest in Japan among young people there.

Government-affiliated foundations that work with prefectures to promote international relations at the local level typically enter volunteering arrangements with people who speak foreign languages. Around 8,000 foreign language volunteers are registered with foundations across the country to offer assistance to prefectural governments during disaster relief efforts.

In Chiba Prefecture, for instance, 635 people have registered to provide English-language interpretation or translation for free and 116 have offered assistance in Chinese, but there are only seven Vietnamese-speaking and two Nepali-speaking volunteers.

Local governments are generally in need of more Tagalog and Indonesian interpreters and translators, too, the survey showed.

Minoru Naito, an associate professor of global studies at the graduate school at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said prefectures need to establish arrangements to mutually dispatch volunteers and provide interpretation though online video systems.

Local governments will be better prepared if training programs are provided for such volunteers so they can help non-Japanese speakers with legal, medical and public service matters, he said.

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