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Revised law on interpreter-guides seen as opportunity by travel agents, risk by others

English interpreter-guide Narumi Ikezawa, center, is seen showing inbound visitors around Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi)

For the first time since 1949 when the licensed interpreter-guide system was established to show tourists around Japan in foreign languages, a legal amendment that would increase the number of people who can serve as interpreter-guides is set to go into effect before the end of the current fiscal year to deal with surging numbers of inbound tourists.

    Interpreter-guides are paid guides who provide tours in Japan to visitors in any one of 10 languages, including English, French, German, Italian and Chinese. Those aspiring to receive certification from the Japanese government are required to take a test given once every year, for which the pass rate is low, at around 20 percent.

    Some in the tourism industry see the deregulatory move as a step toward resolving the problem of not having enough interpreter-guides to meet demand, but others worry that it will lead to lowered quality and skill levels of interpreter-guides.

    One day in late May, interpreter-guide Narumi Ikezawa was on a sightseeing bus in Tokyo with some 20 tourists from the U.S., the Philippines and India, explaining in English the difference between the Emperor and shogun on their way to the Imperial Palace. A 29-year-old visitor from Chicago remarked that Ikezawa's explanations and commentary were humorous and interesting.

    Ikezawa, who has 25 years of experience on the job, emphasizes the importance of showing people around Japan in foreign languages. "We live in a time in which everything can be looked up on the internet, but things you hear about directly from people leave a greater impression," she says.

    The number of inbound tourists exceeded 10 million for the first time in 2013. Just three years later, that number had more than doubled, to 24 million. Of those visitors, some 70 percent were from East Asian countries such as China and South Korea. According to the Japan Tourism Agency, however, those like Ikezawa, who show visitors around in English, account for 70 percent of the approximately 22,000 interpreter-guides in Japan, while Chinese language guides account for around 10 percent. Moreover, some three-fourths of those registered as licensed interpreter-guides are based in metropolises such as Tokyo and Osaka.

    The current Licensed Guide Interpreters Act stipulates that interpreter-guides who are paid for their work must have a license, obtained by taking and passing written and oral tests given by the government. Deeming that the number of licensed interpreter-guides was not sufficient enough to meet the demands of inbound tourists, the Cabinet Office initiated the latest law revision to allow for those without the license to operate.

    Opinion on the government's move to deregulate for the first time in 68 years has been split. The Japan Association of Travel Agents, whose members comprise approximately 1,300 travel agencies, is optimistic about the impending change, saying it will bring more tourists to Japan.

    Even as things currently stand, however, tours by unlicensed guides are rampant, and in some cases these guides cause various problems.

    Licensed interpreter-guide in English, Genichiro Ueyama, who is also the head of Hello Guide Academy, which offers classes for people preparing to take the exams to obtain interpreter-guide licenses, is worried about the impact the relaxed regulations will have. "The new rules will allow the increase in low-quality tour guides to go unchecked."

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