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'Easy Japanese' developed for disasters now expanding into tourism, education

A participant in a Kodaira Municipal Government program, right, uses Easy Japanese and VoiceTra to show a foreign national around the Tamarokuto Science Center in the western Tokyo suburb of Nishitokyo. (Photo courtesy of the Kodaira Municipal Government)

TOKYO -- "Easy Japanese," first devised as a linguistic tool that could be used to assist foreigners with an elementary understanding of Japanese in times of disaster, is now being adopted by municipal governments in light of increasing inbound tourists and workers, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

"As the diversity of languages spoken in Japan rises with the surge in foreigners living in and visiting Japan, we want to make Easy Japanese a common language," say people involved in various fields in Japan that are seeing an increase of foreigners.

Easy Japanese was developed by a research group led by Kazuyuki Sato, a sociolinguistics professor at Hirosaki University, following the Jan. 17, 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, when it emerged that many foreigners with little to no understanding of Japanese were unable to receive crucial information on evacuation and relief services. Though there is no hard and fast definition on what constitutes Easy Japanese, in general, honorific forms of Japanese phrasing are avoided, as well as the passive voice, regional dialects and double negatives. The language is kept easy enough that third-graders at Japanese elementary schools can understand.

The Fukuoka Prefecture city of Yanagawa, which sees many tourists from Taiwan, has been running an Easy Japanese Tourism program since 2016. Tourists wearing buttons that read, "Easy Japanese, please," and Japanese volunteers wearing buttons that read, "Hospitality in Easy Japanese," converse in -- you guessed it -- Easy Japanese.

"If people aren't able to communicate when more foreign nationals come to Japan due to the changes in the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, it may not be because those who come to Japan have not worked hard enough on their Japanese, but because our Japanese is too difficult," says Akira Yoshikai, 52, the executive director of an Easy Japanese Tourism association that promotes the implementation of programs like that in Yanagawa. "Many people believe that it's important to use English to communicate, but I want more people to know that Easy Japanese can get the point across, too."

The western Tokyo suburb of Kodaira has begun to use Easy Japanese and a multilingual translating app called VoiceTra ahead of the 2020 Games to provide services to foreigners.

This move was prompted by the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games. Naoki Hagimoto, 34, the head of the Kodaira Municipal Government's culture and sports section was on temporary assignment at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's Bureau of Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 Preparation. While on an on-site visit to Rio, he tried using VoiceTra to speak, but there was some Japanese that the app was unable to translate well. Stumped, Hagimoto tried using simple Japanese in an attempt to communicate -- and it worked.

Based on Hagimoto's experience, Kodaira, since fiscal 2017, has incorporated Easy Japanese and VoiceTra into a program that teaches how to offer good service and hospitality to foreigners. Participants get the experience of guiding foreigners at museums and other sightseeing spots. "By combining Easy Japanese and VoiceTra, we can communicate more smoothly with people from around the world."

Tokyo's Minato Ward uses Easy Japanese to offer information relating to day-to-day life through social media and email newsletters. This past January, it began providing foreigners with information through chats using artificial intelligence. It also accepts questions in eight categories, such as disaster prevention, how to dispose of trash, education and child-rearing, and medical care, in both Easy Japanese and English.

The adoption of Easy Japanese is progressing in the field of education as well. In response to the growing number of foreign children at its elementary and junior high schools, Tokyo's Sumida Ward held a training session for the use of Easy Japanese in schools. Teachers who oversee foreign students were introduced to examples of how Easy Japanese can be applied to school situations and prompted to use the linguistic tool in their respective schools.

A representative of the Minato Ward Board of Education said, "Unless we take creative ways of communicating in school using simple language, we risk isolating foreign students. We want to use this as an opportunity to think about what steps can be taken in the classrooms."

(Japanese original by Tomoyuki Hori, City News Department)

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