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'It's OK not to use English': 'Simple Japanese' pushed as common language with foreigners

"Simple Japanese" pins made for foreign tourists, left, and local residents, right. (Photo courtesy of the Yasashii Nihongo Tourism Kenkyukai)

"Simple Japanese," devised to convey information to foreigners during emergencies, has recently been repurposed as a promising communication tool between Japanese people and foreign nationals, leading to training sessions in popular sightseeing spots and areas with high concentrations of foreign residents, and use by some municipal governments.

    "Yes, it's OK not to use English!"

    This is the new catchphrase the municipal government of Yanagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture, created with advertising giant Dentsu Inc. for their "yasashii nihongo (simple Japanese) tourism" project that began last year. Volunteer guides and others involved in the tourism industry are undergoing training to use simpler wording, like refraining from using compound verbs.

    Yanagawa is known for its scenic rivers, attracting more foreign visitors every year for boat tours and other activities. Over half of Yanagawa's visitors come from Taiwan. In a survey of 1,000 people carried out in Taiwan by advertising giant Dentsu, 40 percent of respondents said they "could speak a little Japanese." The city's tourism division thought that many of these visitors might want to test out their language skills at their travel destinations, so they created pins for foreigners who want to speak in Japanese and for Japanese residents who want to use simple Japanese in return. The pins were distributed at travel agencies and other tourism-related businesses, and the city requested cooperation from boat operators and others to actively speak in Japanese to foreigners wearing the pins.

    Meanwhile, in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, where many foreign nationals come for on-the-job training programs, the "yasashii nihongo tourism Mie" project -- which aims to spread simple Japanese to restaurants, the textile dyeing industry, the Ise tea industry and other areas in the region -- is being led by Kumiko Sakamoto, president of NPO "Aidensha," which provides guidance to the city's foreign citizens and other services.

    Because of the language barrier, the majority of the trainees tend to stay away from local businesses and instead spend their free time at family restaurants and large shopping center chains where the handling of foreigners is carried out according to company manuals. "Regions where it is easy for these trainees to live will also please foreign tourists as well," says Sakamoto, whose goal is to make the trainees feel at home. "I would like to start with creating a hospitable environment for the foreigners already living here."

    As the nationalities of those living in Japan continue to diversify, there are many municipal governments across the country where the translation of documents into major languages such as English or Chinese is not enough. It's in these places, such as the prefectural governments of Kyoto and Osaka, where simple Japanese is being utilized to convey even general information about daily life.

    In Yokohama, where citizens of roughly 160 countries reside, the municipal government teamed up with Hitotsubashi University professor of Japanese language education Isao Iori to create 562 example translations explaining complicated government terms this April, and released them online. Along with making efforts toward rewriting official public documents like application forms in a more easy-to-understand fashion, the city is also training its staff to use the simple explanations as well.

    "The majority of foreign nationals living in Japan are not native speakers of English, and for many of them, their second language is Japanese," says Iori. "In order to welcome the growing number of foreigners residing in Japan as equals, we first must establish a common language. In local communities, the only language that can possibly perform this function is simple Japanese."

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