Plain Japanese Could Relieve Communication Issues as the Number of Foreign Workers and Tourists Rises

A focus on the use of plain Japanese has been suggested as a solution to communication issues presented by rising tourism and foreign employee numbers in Japan

Tourists Japan
Tourists visiting Japanese temple

The plain form of the Japanese language is being considered by many as a more inclusive version of communication for spreading information, particularly in relation to tourism and natural disaster announcements.

Akira Yoshikai, head of Yasashii Nihongo Tourism Kenkyukai, a group that promotes plain Japanese, believes that this simpler version of the language may be the best option when it’s not possible to communicate in a foreigner’s native language.

Plain Japanese could save lives

The idea for using plain Japanese arose in 1995 after the Kobe earthquake which killed more than 6,400 people. A lack of accessible communication at that time left many foreigners unaware of critical emergency measures.

In contrast, when Typhoon Hagibis made landfall last October, a plain Japanese tweet by the Nagano Prefectural Government went viral. The tweet, which contained an emergency phone number, was retweeted 40,000 times with many Twitter users translating it into their own languages.

According to the Justice Ministry there were 2.73 million foreign residents in Japan in 2018. With the introduction of new visas for skilled workers that number is predicted to rise even further along with the need for simpler communication.

Plain Japanese does require people to have a basic level of Japanese. However, legislation introduced to promote Japanese language education for foreigners, both in Japan and overseas, makes the language available to many more people.

As well as that, the Immigration Services Agency created a guideline for using plain Japanese when communicating with foreigners.

The idea for using plain Japanese arose in 1995 after the Kobe earthquake where a lack of accessible communication left many foreigners unaware of critical emergency measures

Action being taken to promote plain Japanese

The majority of tourists visiting Japan come from South Korea, China and Taiwan. Most have a basic knowledge of Japanese from school or learning as a hobby and want to practice what they know when they travel to Japan.

However, honorific modes and expressions as well as context, which leads to abbreviations in sentences, make Japanese difficult for someone not proficient in the language.

In an attempt to make things easier, municipalities including city of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Setagaya Ward and the city of Kodaira in Tokyo organised lectures on plain Japanese and how to use it in relation to tourism.

Minato ward, Tokyo and Ikuno Ward, Osaka in 2018 started projects to encourage Japanese citizens to learn this simpler form of Japanese. The municipal government in Yanagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture, created badges for tourists and residents to indicate they prefer to speak in plain Japanese.

Overcoming language hurdles at the Olympic Games

Last year the number of foreign visitors to Japan surpassed 30 million. With the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the government’s goal for 2020 is to increase the number of tourists to 40 million.

To ensure that events run as smoothly as possible, the Olympic Games preparation bureau has set up a portal site. The website offers information on how to provide multilingual assistance to visitors, including the use of plain Japanese.

Major convenience store chain Family Mart has also started labelling its food products in both Japanese and English to help foreign tourists.

Would communicating in plain Japanese improve your standard of living? Please let us know about your experiences navigating language barriers in Japan in the comments below.

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Using plain Japanese will make communication, and life, easier for foreign residents and visitors in Japan.

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