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Researchers band together to combat Japanese officialdom's odd English

A poster for the "Go To Travel" campaign is seen at a travel company in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Oct. 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)
Professor Chikako Tsuruta, the head of association for the consideration of Japan's English, is seen in this image she has provided.

FUNABASHI, Chiba -- Frustrated by the strange English they see on public signs and official web pages in Japan, eight researchers and interpreters have come together to try and fix the problem.

    The association for the consideration of Japan's English, led by Tokyo Woman's Christian University professor Chikako Tsuruta, launched a website in October and has begun putting out information on its activities. Tsuruta told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We're in a situation now (in Japan) where we can't get correct information to foreign nationals."

    The association primarily comprises volunteers who graduated from New York's Columbia Business School, including interpreters, researchers, and employees at foreign firms. American researchers living in Japan are also involved. The members had been wondering for some time what they could do about what's commonly referred to as "wasei-eigo," or Japanese-style English, and unnatural English arising from machine translations. Then in June, they decided to form the association as a way to exchange opinions on how to improve the situation and publicize information.

    "Hello Work, Go To Travel, My Number Card; the English used for government programs is strange and doesn't make sense to native speakers," said Tsuruta. The association is also concerned by the numerous cases of mistaken and unnatural English created by machine translations that stay unchanged on municipal authorities' official websites. Although they don't condemn the use of automated translation, they do call for the content to be checked by native speakers or professional interpreters.

    "Surely the minimum level of respect is to confirm whether or not the messages are understandable for native speakers?" said Tsuruta.

    The group's proposals have led to some concrete results, with the municipal government of Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, deciding to set up a committee to improve its English. The city's former international association head, Masayo Shiraki, is an executive board member of the new association. In mid-October she met Urayasu Mayor Etsushi Uchida, and extracted a promise from him to look into fixing the city's English-language information.

    Urayasu's official website uses automated translation software provided by a private company, and each city department uses the machine service to render their latest updates in a number of languages. It can provide eight languages in all, including English, Chinese and Korean; the city government said that due to staff shortages it hadn't had a chance to have the English checked.

    What particularly concerned Shiraki was that there are unclear and poor translations among the information pertaining to disasters and emergency medical facilities open at night and holidays. "There's a possibility that people won't be able to get information that affects their lives. The residents' safety isn't guaranteed," she said.

    Along with Shiraki, foreign residents, experts and others, the Urayasu Municipal Government convened a review committee which it intends to start before year-end. It intends to review not just its official government website, but also web pages pertaining to public facilities and community buses. An official said, "Urayasu has Tokyo Disney Resort and many hotels, so there are many foreign people visiting Japan who come here. We want to make this a city which is easy to visit and live in."

    Tsuruta said, "We want this movement to go national. The association doesn't wish just to point out strange English; it wants to be involved in offering advice on how to improve it."


    Examples of "wasei-eigo," Japanese-style English, used in official government names and initiatives

    Go To Travel: The government's scheme to encourage domestic travel following a depressed period caused by the spread of the new coronavirus.

    Overshoot: A term used to describe the sudden and exponential spread of an infectious disease.

    With Corona: The concept of co-existing with the risks presented by the new coronavirus.

    Hello Work: Publicly funded employment and unemployment support services.

    My Number system: The number ID system used for social security and other purposes.

    (Japanese original by Tamiko Kobayashi, Funabashi Local Bureau)

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