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Japan Prepares to Surmount Language Barriers Prior to Tokyo Olympics

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Japan Prepares to Surmount Language Barriers Prior to Tokyo Olympics
Bernadine Racoma

Tokyo will host the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 and is anticipating the influx of about 40 million tourists. It’s just three short years away, so Japan is busy preparing to overcome the cultural and language barriers.

The government has already commissioned designers to create and replace some of the country’s common pictogram signs displayed in public utilities. The aim is to make them at par with international standards. However, there are groups who are resisting the move. They say that some of the signs, like the one for the hot springs or onsen do not need replacement because they are already easy to recognize.

Spirit of hospitality

Japan is banking on the nation’s spirit of hospitality, which in the local language is called omotenashi. With that in mind, hundreds of Japanese students are looking for opportunities to be part of the volunteer work force, and are busy preparing themselves to act as tour guides and interpreters.

The Olympics Organizing Committees of Tokyo revealed that more than 78,000 volunteers served in the London Olympics in 2012. For the Rio Olympics in 2016, 50,000 volunteers were accepted. In the 2020 Olympics, Japanese committees are expecting to recruit over 90,000 non-paid workers.

Sports and language classes

There is no confirmation yet as to the type of volunteer work available, but the interest is already rising. Japanese students who are majoring in foreign languages are preparing to volunteer. Takumi Okado, from the Sano Educational Foundation, says that it will be a great experience for Japanese students to be exposed to and be part of an international sporting event.

The foundation manages the Kanda University of International Studies, which will be holding classes for students who want to volunteer in the Olympics. Applicants must have knowledge in languages and sports. Classes will commence in the summer of 2018.

Several language schools in Japan will work as one to provide special classes to students wanting to volunteer in the Olympics. The association comprises the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, Kanda University of International Studies, and the Kansai Gaidai University. Okado is the head of the association of these seven language schools. They were surprised at the number of students who expressed interest to be language volunteers. In their September program, 400 students enrolled in the special classes.

The special class program will last for four days. Its main focus is languages, as they aim to help students improve their interpreting and translation skills. The class lectures are provided in Portuguese, Spanish, Korean, Chinese and English. Classes are offered in two levels — basic and intermediate.

Some of the lecturers are sports field experts, like Shu Nakasone, who is a CNN World Sports translator, and has served as an interpreter for the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team former manager, Bobby Valentine.

Fumio Morooka, Japan World Games Association executive director and professor at Sophia University taught students in the previous classes about opportunities as sports field translators. The importance of anti-doping was the topic of the lecture of Koichi Watanabe. He was the Japanese swimming team doctor during the London Olympics.

The well-rounded programs will also provide classes in foreign and domestic cultures and lessons in omotenashi skills. Other students are looking at the experience they will gain at the Olympics to enhance their careers in organizing sports events and in sports media.

Even medical students who have English skills hope to give language support services along with medical assistance during the games. These medical students are mostly members of Team Medics, a volunteer group guided by Keio University’s Dr. James Thomas and associate professor Takayuki Oshimi of the International University of Health and Welfare. Dr. Oshimi used to be with Nihon University where he taught medical English. Japan Institute for Global Health is a sponsor of the medical volunteer group.

Meanwhile, debate is still ongoing as to the design of the new pictograms, which organizers said should be simple to stand out and still conform to International Standardization Organization (ISO) designs that are more familiar to international visitors.

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