Commentary / Japan

Communicating with foreign residents in 'plain Japanese'

by Keizo Yamawaki

With the December 2018 amendment to the immigration control law, the government created a new visa category to admit more foreign workers. It expects up to 345,000 workers from overseas to enter Japan in five years under the new visa program to work in 14 sectors such as care giving, restaurant services and construction.

The government also adopted a set of comprehensive measures to “accept foreign talent and to live together.” Many of them were aimed at improving multilingual information services for foreign residents. Especially noteworthy is the Justice Ministry’s attempt to help open “one-stop centers for intercultural general consultation” at 100 local governments across Japan.

In addition to the provision of multilingual services to foreign residents through these centers, national government ministries and agencies have set out to improve the content of information services provided in foreign languages and make it easier to understand. Thus the government sector is ready to upgrade information services in a larger number of languages, with the Justice Ministry compiling a guidebook for daily life and employment in 11 languages for foreign residents.

The comprehensive measures did not include the use of yasashii nihongo (plain Japanese). Using plain Japanese means to speak Japanese clearly by using easy-to-understand words and short sentences when communicating with those with limited Japanese competency. The Japanese word “yasashii” carries two meanings: easy and caring. The principle of yasahii nihongo is to use easy-to-understand Japanese with a caring attitude in communicating with foreign residents.

At the time of the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, foreign residents suffered from a lack of relevant information in the wake of the disaster. This experience led to the development of plain Japanese in order to provide information during and after an emergency. Later, local governments started using plain Japanese to provide information related to administrative matters and everyday life to foreign residents.

Recently plain Japanese came to be used for communicating with foreign tourists as well. A research panel set up last year by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said in its report that if Japanese sentences are converted into plain Japanese and then fed into translation programs, accuracy in the translation improves greatly.

The follow-up to the comprehensive measures, compiled in June, made it clear that the Justice Ministry will increase the number of languages to be employed in its daily life and employment guidebook from 11 to 14 and that conversion into plain Japanese will be made in its Japanese edition. The 14 languages will consist of English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Thai, Nepalese, Khmer, Burmese and Mongolian as well as plain Japanese. The Meteorological Agency’s website and the textbooks for foreigners on work safety and hygiene will also appear in the 14 languages.

While the national government has finally become serious about using plain Japanese in services for foreign residents, some local governments have begun to take new initiatives. They are encouraging the use of plain Japanese among citizens to promote harmonious intercultural relations.

In June 2018, Tokyo’s Minato Ward started classes to teach plain Japanese not only to its municipal officials but also to residents. This program was initiated in accordance with the ward’s Internationalization Master Plan, which aims at facilitating foreign residents’ participation in community activities and cooperation with the host community.

In August 2018, Ikuno Ward in the city of Osaka started a project called “Let’s start with plain Japanese and connect with each other,” which aims to build intercultural cohesion through the use of plain Japanese. For that purpose, it has made badges and stickers with logos promoting plain Japanese.

Furthermore, in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, where Meiji University is located, students of my seminar class started a project to promote plain Japanese last year. They made a short video introducing plain Japanese and organized workshops on how to use it for local residents. They also made badges and stickers carrying plain Japanese logos and distributed them to stores and restaurants in local shopping districts.

Most of the national government’s comprehensive measures are aimed at assisting foreign residents in their daily life and work, but few of these measures are designed to raise intercultural awareness of the host society.

As Japan admits more foreign workers, it will become more important not only for members of local communities but also for employees in companies that hire them to speak plain Japanese with a caring attitude. Now is the time for leaders of the national and local governments as well as the business sector to send out positive messages about intercultural cohesion and call on citizens to use plain Japanese to facilitate communication with foreign newcomers.

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 ministries and local governments.

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