Last updated: 12:00 PM ET, Fri October 30 2015

Japan's New Tourist Hotlines Break Down the Language Barrier for Foreign Travelers

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | October 30, 2015

Japan's New Tourist Hotlines Break Down the Language Barrier for Foreign Travelers

Japan is an extremely efficient place. When it comes to transportation, everything is perfectly timed and well organized. However, that might not seem like it is the case when you find yourself at a Tokyo subway station and you can’t locate any English signage (or any signs written in romanji, for that matter). You can usually seek out a staffed ticket kiosk (eventually), but it would be faster if you could just ask someone for directions. Unfortunately, English speakers are few and far between in Japan and, well, Japanese is not the easiest language to master. 

More often than not, foreign travelers are left to fiddle with a translation app that doesn’t work as well as it is suppose to or to thumb through a phrasebook looking for a phrase that probably isn’t even there. 

A new service for tourists

Some of the biggest cities and towns in Japan are rolling out a new service to help confused tourists get directions and find out the information that they need to get the most out of their stay in the country. Multilingual hotlines, run by private companies contracted by the local tourism authorities, are now available for the nearly two million foreign visitors who come to Japan annually. 

These hotlines are not only geared towards English speakers. The largest ones are able to communicate with tourists in 13 different languages, from Russian to Indonesian to Spanish. Furthermore, tourists aren’t the only people who can use the services. Sometimes Japanese workers in the hospitality industry or in restaurants or ticket offices need help with interpretation. They, too, can contact these hotlines and then pass the phone to the tourist for translation. In some places, even the police and hospitals are aware of, and use, these new services. 

Helping travelers get off the beaten path

Most of the multilingual call centers are staffed 24/7. They are a very important feature in less-visited corners of Japan. For example, Saga, a prefecture on the island of Kyushu, recently launched a phone-based translation service. Once a little-visited corner of Japan, this area’s tourism industry has grown exponentially in recent years. Unlike Tokyo and Osaka, where there are apps and maps to help people get around, the industry is less developed in Saga. The call center workers here are also trained to function as intermediaries as well as translators. They may be able to research an upcoming cultural event for a curious traveler or contact a rural tourism bureau to find out information that is not readily available in English. 

A straightforward solution

Compared to some of the modern tools of travel, this is a low-tech solution. At the same time, it is the most straightforward way to meet a growing need. There is something to be said for being able to find out exactly what you need to know without having to surf around on the internet or find a stable Wi-Fi connection. Also, as anyone who has ever been put in an embarrassing situation by a less-than-perfect translation app can attest, some tech tools simply don't work as well as you need them to. 

Japan’s tourist hotlines can even prove useful for people who never use them. Just having the number of a service where you know someone speaks English (or whatever language you operate best in) can instill you with an extra bit of confidence so that you aren’t anxious when it comes time to go off and explore a new place. 

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