Big in Japan: Welcoming Foreigners and Promoting Respectful Exploration Featured

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Welcoming Foreigners and Promoting Respectful Exploration

Tokyo has been hard at work on the mammoth task of preparing for the Tokyo Olympics and creating ways to make life easier for the throngs of foreigners who will visit, including English translations. Japan is known for its exotic charm, partly because most visitors can’t read the signs, newspapers or menus. This creates a disconcerting, yet incredibly exhilarating feeling that you are on another planet.

Having lived in Tokyo for over 15 years, I don’t want to see English translations everywhere. I’ve always wanted everyone to struggle just like I did before I learned Japanese. There were never many translations on the streets of Tokyo, so getting lost and confused was part of the fun of moving around. But now, with the Olympics coming, Japan is trying to make it a little easier for foreigners to avoid all that trouble and confusion I have so enjoyed. The tradeoff is that a little bit of the Japanese charm has been lost as a result of the translations. For instance, Japanese cabs are not as simple as those in the United States. There are different signs to learn — vacant, occupied, reserved and chartered. If you don’t read Japanese, you might see one of those four words lit up and think the taxi is available, only to then be let down as it whizzes by you. To avoid this, many taxis now have English translations under the Japanese characters. While that makes it easier for foreigners to hail a cab, a familiar situation of daily life in Japan has disappeared. Similar updates are being made in train stations, restaurants and other places where many people gather.

Avoiding trouble is as much a Japanese concept as is keeping the unique culture and heritage of Japan alive. This, of course, is a conflict. But Japan is willing to make things more English-friendly to ensure a safe and smooth Olympic experience for all.

Another hot topic in Japan is the prevalence of tourists in places like Kyoto, which is disrupting private homes, temples and people.

What many tourists don’t understand about Japan is that the country doesn’t depend on tourism as its only source of income. It would be easy for a tourist to see a geisha or maiko san in Kyoto and think, “I’ve just got to get a picture with her!” and assume that this is appropriate behavior. Many Japanese do not speak English, so it is often easier just to go along with a foreigner’s request. But rest assured, unless you are in an area designated for tourists, that geisha/maiko san is going to or from work and definitely does not want families and children touching her ornate and expensive outfit. The same goes for private houses and gardens. Architecture in Japan is so different from the rest of the world that you can’t blame tourists for their curiosity. However, tourists are often so giddy from being on vacation and so far from home, that manners and common sense can get thrown out the window, leaving things damaged and interrupting the local people’s day-to-day lives. Many locals in Kyoto are getting so fed up with the situation that English signs are popping up all over the place forbidding entry to private roads and property.


The complete article can be found in Issue #280 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Marty Friedman

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