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Editorial: 'Easy Japanese' spurs communication with foreign residents

Japanese has an abundance of expressions, but this can cause headaches for foreigners when it comes to communicating in and understanding the language.

This is why the use of "easy Japanese," in which terms that are considered complicated are converted into simple words and phrases, has recently been gaining attention.

When using easy Japanese, the notice "dosoku genkin" (footwear strictly prohibited) at the entrance of a school, for example, could become "kutsu o nuide kudasai" (please take off your shoes). And instead of using the honorific term "meshiagaru" (to eat), the everyday word "taberu," which means the same thing, would be used. Furthermore, the word "kyukyusha" (ambulance) would become "byoki ya kega o shita hito o tasukeru kuruma," (vehicle to help people who are sick or injured).

Such easy Japanese was devised by a research laboratory at Hirosaki University in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan following the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. The Kobe and Hanshin areas of western Japan, which were significantly damaged in the quake, accommodated many foreign residents. But according to the Tokyo-based Urban Disaster Research Institute, the proportion of foreigners injured or killed in the disaster was higher than that of Japanese.

Even for foreigners accustomed to living in Japan, language related to disaster prevention can be difficult to understand, and it emerged that this may have hindered the evacuation of some non-Japanese residents. It was suggested that phrases such as "hinan" (evacuation) should be changed to the easier phrase "nigete kudasai" (please flee).

As of June last year, there were over 2.63 million foreign residents in Japan -- the highest figure on record since statistics started being collected in 1959. And last year more than 31 million non-Japanese visited Japan. More foreign residents are expected to reside in Japan following the introduction in April of a law for new statuses of residence for foreign workers.

Naturally, the Japanese language ability of foreign residents differs from person to person. The government compiled comprehensive measures to address this issue at the end of last year. To further a multicultural society, steps included enriching Japanese language education and providing multilingual assistance at counseling centers.

Such measures are indeed needed, but they cannot simply be implemented overnight.

Now, easy Japanese that can easily be adopted has started to seep into society, not just in the field of disaster prevention, but in administrative services, education and tourism.

Osaka's Ikuno Ward, where one in five residents is of foreign nationality, last year pushed ahead with the implementation of easy Japanese, designating a number of cooperating stores in the area as local community hubs for easy Japanese.

There have also been moves in Tokyo's Sumida Ward to implement easy Japanese in schools to try to reduce the number of foreign children who are not in education. Meanwhile, the city of Yanagawa in Fukuoka Prefecture has designated easy Japanese as a means to welcome foreign visitors.

Using easy Japanese will lead to people showing kind consideration to non-Japanese living as fellow residents in the same community, and will be a means to lower the barrier between foreign residents and Japanese nationals.

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