Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
Two recent articles (“Standardized English for road signs to help foreign tourists,” Japan Times, Thursday, April 3, 2014 and “Tokyo to boost foreign-language signs, info ahead of 2020 Olympics,” Japan Times, Thursday, May 29, 2014) raise the seemingly commendable goal of making Japan a more tourist-friendly, sightseeing-assisted travel destination. The objective is to attract cash-spending visitors, welcome them with Japanese hospitality (“omotenashi”) and milk the travel business for as much revenue as possible. The 2020 Olympics are framed as the target, but I think there is a further goal than 2020. The government wants to attract visitors after the Olympics as well.
I’m not very impressed, but I want to be careful about criticising the effort. Instead, I worry about how signs will be standardized because Japanese are apt to standardize English incorrectly. Then we will be stuck with awful signs saying ridiculous and incorrect things like “Aoyamadori avenue,” or “Kandagawa river,” or “Mt. Fujiyama,” or “Tokyo eki station” for years to come. I see/hear incorrect English signs/announcements in Tokyo every day, from local ward offices, police, fire departments and hospitals, public transportation companies, boards of education, and private businesses. I think it’s sad, because there are so many native English speakers here it should be an easy thing to ask some of us to be kind enough to quickly proofread a bit of English before it is used. The same goes for Chinese and Korean, because I imagine errors occurring in those languages, too. I’d be happy to casually take a look at an English sign if anyone asked me to, but I doubt that native speakers or authentic native speech figure anywhere into the standardization plan.
Japanese confuse effort with accomplishment, and a lot of experts are preparing to work hard to contribute to the standardized sign project. The results might be generally good. But the mistakes that will occur will be persistent old ones, glaring ones, easily corrected by a quick proofread by a native speaker. I wish the government luck in its standardization project. They can call me if they need me.