Monday, January 19, 2015

Creating a gaijin friendly Japan for the Olympics

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics beginning to raise its profile in the national consciousness, a broad debate has commenced in the press as to how to make Japan more user friendly for foreigners. The lack of English usage and ability in the general populace combined with a written character system that prevents non-readers of kanji from penetrating even the simplest of messages are being seen as issue for the smooth operation of the games. And those who argue that if you come to Japan you should try to be Japanese could simply be paraphrased as saying "Don't come".

Solutions are being mooted to increase the use of English language signs and menus in restaurants. Indeed taxis now carry translation sheets (though these are often kept in the trunk though a sign in the window at least alerts you to their existence) but the proposals so far are essentially cosmetic. Japan has an opportunity to genuinely re-invent itself as being an accessible country with the wave of support that will grow as the games approach. Jet lag, perceived high costs and the lack of English on the web are all against the governments plan to move from 13 million tourists a year to 20 million but this is the opportunity.

The irony is that the Olympics will be confined to Tokyo, and predominantly central Tokyo, probably the only location in Japan that has a basic semblance of international support. However 2019 will also see Japan host the Rugby World Cup. And that will be hosted across the entire country. English is the world's default language, like it or not. It's time for Japan to stop thinking of it as an exam subject and view it as a communication subject. The Olympics is an opportunity for change, miss it and it'll be a generation before another comes around. And in the meantime, invest heavily in augmented reality...

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