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Signs in government district get English makeover

37 Comments
By Jessica Kozuka

Visitors to Tokyo have often complained about the difficulty of navigating the labyrinthine capital. The numbering system isn’t in chronological order, many streets don’t have signs, and even if they do, the Roman letter translation of the Japanese can be as mystifying as the kanji characters. It’s all very well using a script foreign visitors can read, but what’s a Kokkai? And when looking for a police station would an English speaker really know to look for a Koban? It’s enough to make a visitor throw their hands up in defeat and head back to the airport.

Well, this week, as part of their preparations to make Tokyo more visitor-friendly for the Olympics, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has decreed a change to signs in the government district of Tokyo that should make a lot more sense.

According to guidelines issued in 2005, common nouns like “toll road” should be translated into English, while proper nouns should be given a phonetic rendering in Roman letters. So, up to now, signs in front of the parliament building have read Kokkai instead of The National Diet, for example.

Among other names getting a more comprehensible translation are The Ministry of Finance, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Parliamentary Museum and the National Diet Library.

In addition, some street names will be changed. For example, signs that have read Roppongi Dori up to now will be changed to Roppongi-dori Ave to make it clear that it is a street name.

The number of foreign visitors jumped 22.8% in the first half of 2013, compared with the same period in 2012, and the government is hoping those numbers will continue to rise. In addition to strengthening their Olympic bid, the city is no doubt hoping to make life a little easier for these businesspeople and tourists.

Although the current changes affect only a small part of Tokyo, the ministry is planning to carry out further changes along national highway routes by the end of the year. And if all goes well, perhaps more of the cities signage will follow suit? For the sake of the confused tourists, let’s hope so!

Source: Naver Matome

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37 Comments
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Why not keep both? Have the sign say Kokkai in Roman letters and then National Diet under it or in parentheses? That way they can match it up with guide books or maps that might only list it as Kokkai with the Roman letters and they can double check with someone along the sidewalk if need be. Asking for Kokkai rather than National Diet* will generally get you there much more quickly.

15 ( +15 / -0 )

I agree with ambrosia. Also, I would have rather seen them spend the money on the homeless in the Tohoku Region. And exactly why would your average Joe visiting Japan need to know where the National Diet Building is? Is it open to the public?

2 ( +7 / -5 )

Great first step. Changes must come from the top. Maybe if the gov changed their view to have proper respect for foreign languages so would the rest of the society and when called upon about those mistakes they might actually listen, instead of saying it is KAWAII!!!

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

I thought the whole problem with address numbering was that it was done in chronological order. The first plot on which a house is built is 1, the next is 2 and so on. The original plots are often been split into several plots, all of which have the same number.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

herefornow: Yes, you can take tours of the Diet building. My experience from having worked in that area for many years though is that a lot of the foreigners wandering around there are not your Average Joe but government and ngo workers as well as business people who need to get to the Diet and other government buildings for official reasons more than for tourism. That may be changing but that seemed to be the way it was even up to about two years ago.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

there is always change for in

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I meant to say that the government and ngo workers and business people I was talking about were foreigners, if that weren't obvious in my post.

Again, it would be lovely to have an edit button on this site, especially as now you can't post twice in a row, thereby correcting a mistake quickly.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

would an English speaker really know to look for a Koban?

I'm not so sure they wouldn't... I have heard some countries hare actually adopted this word.

@ambrosia

it would be lovely to have an edit button on this site

Have you tried the "PREVIEW" button ? However, I do agree it would still be useful to be able to post twice if a detail had been omitted the first time. I believe it was to prevent the poster who wrote obscenities at least twenty times in a row, however, he/she still manages to make an appearance from time to time...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Signage is good on the whole, and comprehensive by international standards in my opinion. There are still not enought maps, especially in underground complexes. It is often difficult to relate places on, say, subway or transport schematics with real locations on the ground...

1 ( +2 / -1 )

All your sings are belong to us.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Why do they say chronologically (of time) correct- it all exists now? I think they mean spatial (position) logical and coherent. Some areas are certainly not spatially coherent with location placed in separate wards when they are next door. The fact that you can't walk in a line and travel along an increasing or decreasing set of numbers makes its spatially illogical.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

If they can only do the same for the rest of Japan.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Every little helps I suppose and, while they are doing this, can they please change the maps and put North at the top where it belongs.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Visitors to Tokyo have often complained about the difficulty of navigating the labyrinthine capital.

Learn Japanese! you don't expect signs to be in english in france or germany why Japan?

-5 ( +3 / -8 )

Your taxes at work people! Hopefully, they have used a spell checker. I remember at the old immigration building in Tokyo there were big signs everywhere stating 're-ently deparment'. Welcome to Japan where using a spell check or dictionary are too much trouble. Even in Shinjuku station all the signs with the word 'entrance' on them are spelled wrong.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

This will also help the Japanese learn some English too. How many Japanese actually know what "The National Diet" stands for? They'll first associate the word Diet with the word diet as in dieting.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

CrazyJoe - They don't read the English on signs mate. They won't even know its there!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

sounds like a waste of money if tourists have already been on the rise. Forget the signs, fix the exit/entrance area maps! And discover the compass. I'd rather the language be left alone then we can stop pretending Japan uses English

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

fighting viking: Yes, of course I use the preview button but sometimes you want to change something, especially when someone posts right before or after you do and you want to add a relevant point. It would be nice is all I'm saying and plenty of other sites have it so I don't know why this one can't. I'm far from the first to ask for it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Good first step. If they want to increase tourism it is wise to have the signs in English. Like it or not, English is the international language and most countries speak it as a second language. @gogogo, I do not think many people will learn Japanese just so they can visit Japan. To the west, Asian countries are much all the same. Having signs in English will help with tourism as people from all over the world will be able to read the signs. Having them in English and the Roman letters for the Japanese words would help people to understand the spoken Japanese. I would welcome that idea.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@Disillusioned

I mean the ones that will read the signs unless you have data that says not one Japanese read the signs.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

gogogo: Seriously, you expect a tourist or someone sent here for a short business trip to learn Japanese? That's pretty ridiculous and very short-sighted. For people coming from anywhere where kanji isn't used, they'd have to learn a whole new writing system. That's a major turn-off for a lot of potential tourists, especially retirees with money to burn.

If you were to go to France or Germany, the signs would use the Roman alphabet so you could work it out. Japanese learn the Roman alphabet at a relatively young age so even for them it would be easier than the other way around.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@Crazy Joe

I reckon Disilusioned has a point. I see bilingual English/Welsh signs all the time on the trains back home, but I don't think I remember a single one of the Welsh words. People look at their own language and ignore the rest.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

clao513: Why do they say chronologically (of time) correct- it all exists now?

I was told that buildings were numbered according to when or the time they were built rather than where they were built, which is why people say the numbering system is chronological.

sf2k: Forget the signs, fix the exit/entrance area maps! And discover the compass.

Do you mean for the tourists or the Japanese to discover the compass? I ask because I've always found it odd the way street maps here are not usually north oriented, I mean with north on the top of the map. Anyway, it's not at all unreasonable to want to have signs and maps that people can understand. You may want to stand around with a compass trying to orient yourself but not everyone has the luxury of time, some people simply aren't good at sorting out directions and let's face it, streets in Tokyo at least, and particularly the smaller backstreets, can be a bloody nightmare. I'm fairly good at directions but especially when I first got here, there were more than a few times when the confusion of trying to find my way around had me close to tears.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@gogogo

Learn Japanese! you don't expect signs to be in english in france or germany why Japan?

you cant be serious. its ridiculous to expect a tourist to study kanji for 10 years to prepare for a week vacation in japan

1 ( +4 / -3 )

what’s a Kokkai?

What's a Diet? How many countries use the term "Diet" to represent their legislative assemblies? Most western tourists would probably be just as lost with the word "Diet" as they would with "Kokkai", unless they had at least a rudimentary understanding of the Japanese political structure, in which case the term "Kokkai" should suffice anyway.

a lot of the foreigners wandering around there are not your Average Joe but government and ngo workers as well as business people who need to get to the Diet and other government buildings for official reasons more than for tourism

If they need to go there for business and don't know the name of the place they are supposed to be going, then sorry - they should find a different job. I'm all for Romaji under signs for people who can't read Kanji, but I don't think translations in place of phonetic readings is a good idea. Like Ambrosia said, having both is fine, but replacing the useful phonetic reading with a pointless translation that locals don't understand is counter-productive.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

@lucabrasi

You say "People look at their own language and ignore the rest." So does that apply to the whole population? Not even one looks at the Welsh?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@CrazyJoe

Well, obviously the Welsh-speakers look at the Welsh....

It's not a case of deliberately ignoring the words, just not seeing them. When I'm at the airport, the "Terminal 2" sign in English immediately leaps out, despite the fact that the Japanese is written larger and above it. We just seem to filter out the other language(s) when our own is present.

Not anything worth fighting over, though : )

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Obvious irony is that, the destination displayed by the perfectly grammatical English signage doesn't have anyone who can speak decent English.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

It should be noted that this is only the beginning of a major overhaul in English signage in the Tokyo area. If Tokyo does win the 2020 Summer Olympics bid, expect many more foreign experts helping out to make the city much more English-friendly by the time the 2020 Games are held. Indeed, don't be surprised ALL subways, commuter trains and Shinkansen going in and out of the Tokyo region to require not only automated announcements in Japanese and English, but live train conductor announcements to be done in both languages, too.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Hereforever, if you think a head, that if this brings in more tourists the shop and hotel the owners will have to pay more tax and they could also take on more staff, which pay taxes, all of these taxes going in to the local goverments councils could have more money with this money then they could do more to help out the homeless.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

papasmurf: Kokkai in Roman letters for the business people, ngos and government workers from abroad. National Diet for the tourists wanting tours. Kokkai was just one example. Of course there will be plenty of places that would have the signs adjusted where a translation would be useful to people.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Learn Japanese! you don't expect signs to be in english in france or germany why Japan?

Haha, Imagine that you visit an Arab city, Dubai for example, you ask someone a question like where is the exit and he answers to you Learn Arabic!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

@gogogo

Learn Japanese! you don't expect signs to be in english in france or germany why Japan?

If you live in Japan I'll wager a hefty amount that YOU can not read all Japanese signs. The problem isn't the language, it's the kanji.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Well I see no problem in having the Primary announcment in Kanji/Hira/Katakana and the name translated below with the Romaji translation below. would also help when trying to learn how to pronounce. But that's my two cents

0 ( +0 / -0 )

An idea of long overdue! They shouldn't only think to make it friendly for the sake of Olympic, but they should have implemented this like 20 years ago to boost their tourism standards!

anyway, please plan ahead and good on you, Japan!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

How about Japanese wordes such asz Kokkai, Koban in Kanji and use English translation inside of parenthesis? Not necessary to use Romanized spelling of Japanese vocabruary if both tourists and Japanese do not use. Migi, Hidari, tomare, susume. Who decypher Romanized Japanese? Not Japanese of cause. Useless Romanized Japanese vocabruaries unless they are displayed with katakana or hirakana for Japanese who can;t understand knn ji.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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