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Japanese conversation practice app 'Sail' popular with elderly amid pandemic limits

This image provided by Kazuo Shirane, upper right, shows him speaking to Vietnamese man Nguyen Van Toi via online communication service "Sail."

TOKYO -- The online communication service "Sail" that allows Japanese people and foreigners to converse in Japanese is becoming popular as a tool to practice speaking the language, but it's also attracting attention from local governments as a means to provide older people with opportunities for interaction that had been reduced by the coronavirus pandemic.

    "Nice to meet you. Please call me Toi," said Nguyen Van Toi, 22, from Vietnam on a video call on a computer using Sail. "I see you live in Vietnam. How long have you been studying Japanese?" asked Kazuo Shirane, 65, from Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. The city is expending efforts to make full use of the service. "Six months now," Toi answered. Shirane then asked if he had ever been to Japan, Toi replied, "No, not yet."

    Toi said he had planned to come to Japan as a technical intern trainee to learn reinforced concrete works, but was continuing to study Japanese in Vietnam because the COVID-19 pandemic has made it unclear when he can come.

    Shirane has been hooked to Sail after he began using the service in September. Now, he has about 20 conversations on it a week. Among the people he spoke to, a young man from Myanmar, where a military coup recently took place, said he had no work and was farming at home.

    "I had never experienced being able to talk to people from all over the world while at home. It was a way to feel refreshed and not lonely when I couldn't go out because of the pandemic," said Shirane. He says the key to smooth communication is adjusting how he talks according to the level of Japanese the other person speaks.

    Kazuo Shirane, left, and Mikai Inoue are seen using the online communication service "Sail." (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Tanaka)

    Mikai Inoue, 75, from the same city, also enjoys using Sail at home in her spare time. She applied for and received training as a City Cast volunteer for the Tokyo Olympics this summer, but didn't get to work as one because the sailing events were held without spectators at the venue in Enoshima, Kanagawa Prefecture.

    "I'm glad Sail was there when my motivation (for international exchange) was low. I feel comfortable because I can speak in Japanese, and it's exciting, too," she said.

    Officially launched three years ago, Sail was developed by startup firm Helte Co., based in the city of Kashiwa in Chiba Prefecture. It was intended as a cultural exchange tool connecting foreigners learning Japanese to people in Japan. Anyone can use it, but developers apparently hoped it would give purpose to elderly people especially as they reflect on their past to share their experiences and wisdom.

    The Fujisawa Municipal Government signed an agreement with Helte this past August to utilize the app. When the city invited citizens to participate, registrations came from about 150, mainly older people. Seminars supporting beginners are also being held.

    Sail is easy to use. First, users register their profile and what their interests are, such as arts and traveling. Then they set which dates and times they are available to chat. Foreign users can then see the potential conversation partners' open slots, and choose to book them. If the two successfully match, they can talk via PC or through the dedicated app for smartphones and tablets. One conversation lasts 25 minutes.

    Japanese people can use the service basically for free. Depending on the country, it costs about 500 to 1,500 yen (roughly $4 to $13) per month for foreign users. There are cases in which companies that dispatch people to Japan subscribe as a group, or foreigners living in Japan use the service. Demand has risen amid the pandemic, with the number of registered users on Sail now exceeding 16,000 from 128 countries.

    In Fujisawa, the University of Tokyo and the Nara Women's University are researching whether Sail is useful for social participation and preventing frailty in older people.

    Some users have said they've gotten used to handling computers and can now talk to their grandchildren living far away via Skype. It suggests Sail could also lead to improved computer literacy. Sail can be accessed via its official website:

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Tanaka, Political News Department)

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