Commentary / Japan

Japan needs to establish guidelines and infrastructure for multilingual support to foreign residents

by Keizo Yamawaki

To accompany the December 2018 revision of the immigration control law, the government adopted a “comprehensive policy to accept foreign talent and to live with them.” A package of measures designed to “admit foreign talent properly and to realize a cohesive society” includes efforts to provide information on administrative services and those useful in daily life in multiple languages.

A key feature of the policy is to help 100 regional and local governments — prefectures, major cities, and municipalities with large foreign populations — set up one-stop centers for “intercultural general consultation,” which will be given in at least 11 languages. In addition to establishing such centers, the policy calls for use of multilingual voice translation apps at the counters of these administrative institutions.

Local government support

In fact, local governments and civic organizations in areas with large foreign populations have long pursued providing information on administrative services and daily lives in multiple languages. In the 1990s, the number of foreign workers soared mainly in the Tokai region, and local governments and citizens’ groups started offering information and consultation services in their native languages.

When the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake hit in 1995, several local citizens’ groups provided telephone consultation services in multiple languages. At the time of the Niigata Chuetsu earthquake in 2004, such civic groups, plus other organizations including international associations from Yokohama and Musashino in Tokyo, provided logistical support for the municipal office of Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, in its effort to offer useful information in multiple languages starting right after the disaster.

Thus the importance of providing relevant information in foreign languages in times of big disasters was gradually shared among local governments. What is also important is to use “yasashii nihongo” (“easy Japanese”) for foreign residents. It means to speak Japanese with clear articulation, using short phrases comprising words easily understandable for people who may not fully understand the language. In 1999, the sociolinguistics research lab of Hirosaki University compiled a manual on how to assist foreign residents when major disasters happen — to make sure they have access to relevant information — on the lessons learned from the experience of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

In the 2000s, easy Japanese began being used not only in times of disasters but also in the regular supply of information to foreign residents. For example, a multilingual guide to local life posted on the website of Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, in 2004 used seven languages, including easy Japanese. A guideline for multilingual public relations set by Yokohama in 2010 calls for the use of six foreign languages plus easy Japanese.

Immediately after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, civic associations and other organizations provided information services in several languages including easy Japanese. Local governments and international associations in disaster-hit areas offered multilingual telephone consultation and information services. However, information provided by the Prime Minister’s Office and relevant central government ministries was mainly in Japanese, with limited foreign language service given only in English.

National government’s policy

This time, the national government has finally begun its efforts in earnest to offer multilingual information to foreign residents. The above-mentioned comprehensive policy called for compiling a guidebook on daily life and employment for foreign residents in 11 languages. In April, the Justice Ministry launched a portal site in Japanese and English for aiding the daily lives of foreigners as the first step and posted the contents of the guidebook in the two languages. A Vietnamese version of the guidebook later became available online.

A policy package adopted in June to improve the comprehensive policy calls for preparation of the guidebook in 14 languages (English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Thai, Nepalese, Khmer, Burmese and Mongolian, plus easy Japanese).

It also mandates that the Meteorological Agency’s website and the guide for safety and hygiene measures for foreign workers become accessible in 14 languages, and that the maternal and child health handbook be published in multiple languages.

A council set up in 2001 by municipalities in areas with large numbers of foreign workers has long called on the national government to take the lead in disseminating multilingual information on such national matters as the tax and social security systems as well as the outbreak of big disasters and infectious diseases.

So far, the municipalities with large foreign populations and their international associations have taken charge of translating necessary information in the absence of multilingual information provided by the national government. But it is inefficient for each municipality to translate the nationally uniform information. There is also the challenge of accurately translating the information across the country.

It is high time that the national government formulated guidelines on what information it should disseminate in what languages, including easy Japanese, so that national government ministries can provide relevant information in multiple languages.

In doing so, the basic principle should be to provide necessary information in multiple languages for short-term visitors as well as foreign residents who have recently arrived in this country, and to promote Japanese-language education for long-time residents. On the other hand, demand for multilingual information services is strong — both among short-term visitors and long-term residents — when it comes to providing information on matters of life and death, such as medical services and big disasters.

As for local governments, many of them have offered multilingual consultations as mentioned above, but in only five or so languages, and it will be difficult for them to start offering consultation in as many as 11 languages immediately. There are hopes that artificial intelligence-based machine translation will become more accurate day by day. However, there will be limits to relying on AI translation in offering consultations.

The national government should build an interpretation and translation infrastructure (including call centers) — particularly in relatively minor languages used by foreign residents — and making it accessible to local governments.

Keizo Yamawaki is a professor at the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University and a leading scholar in immigration policy in Japan who has advised national government ministries and local governments.