The outbreak of COVID-19 has rapidly expanded across the globe since the first cases of infections with the new coronavirus were confirmed in Wuhan, China, in December. In Japan, the number of domestic infections has continued to increase since mid-January. The World Health Organization, which declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30, raised its threat assessment for COVID-19 to the highest risk on Feb. 28.

The cases in Japan drew intense international attention after more than 700 of the 3,711 passengers and crew aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess, which arrived in early February in Yokohama, became infected with the virus. People aboard the ship included some 760 foreigners from 56 countries and territories.

The government has carried the latest information on the coronavirus outbreak on the website of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry — mainly in Japanese. The English, Chinese and Korean versions of the website ran machine-translated information — and many translation errors were pointed out by domestic media last month. The ministry has since put up links on its website to special pages on the new coronavirus in English and Chinese carrying information supposedly compiled by professional translators.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry’s portal site for foreign residents, created in April 2019, not only has links to related pages on the health ministry’s website but carries basic information on the new coronavirus in “plain Japanese” — easy-to-understand Japanese intended for learners of the language.

The portal site also has a link to the “intercultural” portal site set up by the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations. The council’s website has a multiple-language template (in 17 languages including plain Japanese) to help the government and other groups disseminate basic information on the coronavirus.

On Feb. 25, the government’s headquarters to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, adopted a set of basic policy guidelines that called for “appropriate and prompt” supply of information to Japanese citizens, foreign governments and inbound tourists, so as to contain domestic infections and counter the damage from false rumors. What’s worrying here is that there’s no mention of some 2.8 million foreign residents who live in this country.

According to the guidelines, people who have fever and other symptoms are urged to first make phone calls to each prefecture’s consultation centers for those with potential exposure to COVID-19, that is, local health centers. If infections are suspected, they need to take the virus tests at medical institutions designated by the health centers, and be hospitalized if necessary. One wonders if foreign residents who cannot speak fluent Japanese will be able to consult with the health facilities over the phone.

The city of Nagoya on Jan. 28 started its telephone translation service in eight foreign languages for foreign residents making phone calls to the local consultation centers, probably the first such measure taken by a local government, while Saga Prefecture last week set up a phone line exclusively for foreign residents to help them speak to the consultation centers in 18 languages. Meanwhile, the metropolitan government of Tokyo, which has the most foreign residents, has set up a coronavirus call center, separate from the consultation centers for those with the potential exposure, to deal with people making general inquiries about COVID-19 in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean.

In April 2019, the national government established the Immigration Services Agency at the Justice Ministry, tasked with matters related to support for foreigners and building a cohesive society, in addition to immigration control. The agency has started helping some 150 local governments launch and operate multi-language consultation centers for foreign residents (giving services in at least 11 languages). Other government ministries and agencies have also begun their own multi-language information services. This summer, the national government plans to set up a center for foreign residents in Tokyo to assist the operation of the local consultation centers throughout the country.

In fact, some local governments started multi-language services as far back as in the 1990s. The council of municipalities with large foreign population, established in 2001, has long called on the national government to take charge of disseminating multi-language information that can be shared nationwide such as social security and tax systems, as well as crisis response in times of big disasters and outbreak of infectious diseases.

Up until now, local governments and international exchange associations in areas with large foreign population have translated necessary information when there is no multilingual information service from the national government. But it is quite inefficient for each of the local authorities to translate information that must be shared across the country. There is also a problem in terms of accuracy of the translation.

According to a newspaper report, the initial delay in the health ministry’s disclosure of coronavirus-related information came under fire from the overseas media, which prompted the Foreign Ministry to provide the foreign media with PDFs of the health ministry’s Japanese-language documents released to the local press.

Ideally, the health ministry should prepare both Japanese and English versions of its documents for release to the media simultaneously. When the government adopted the basic policy guidelines on the COVID-19 outbreak, at least its summary version (in Japanese) should have been released at the same time, so that the summary in English would be prepared as promptly as possible.

Now is the time for the national government to work out a basic guideline for providing information in foreign languages — what kind of information should be provided in what languages (including plain Japanese). It should sort out basic ideas as to which section should supervise and promote the government’s work in disseminating multilingual information, what should be the division of labor between national and local governments, where to use professional translators or machine translations, and so on.

It also must be decided what tasks the national government’s planned center for foreign residents should take on. The center should be given a multi-language translating and interpreting service function that can be accessed for use by local governments.

In general, demand for English services is high, but services in other languages are particularly important for information pertaining to matters of life and death, such as medical care and disaster response. To translate into multiple languages, the original text must be written in plain Japanese in the first place. Utilizing multi-language call centers for foreign tourists as well as closer cooperation with the embassies of other countries in Tokyo is also worth considering.

The government should create as soon as possible a basic guideline on how to disseminate information and give consultation services in foreign languages on COVID-19. It is absolutely necessary if Japan wants to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games and welcome visitors from all over the world this summer. Then the government should work out general guidelines on multi-language services on the basis of that experience.

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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