Kabukicho at night, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Space challenged Shinjuku, Tokyo (September 2010): Photo by Kimie Takahashi

Tokyo is getting more and more linguistically diverse every time I go back there. During this trip, I was really amazed by how efficiently and elegantly Tokyo does multilingual signs, particularly on trains and at stations. And I wasn’t the only one to notice! Ingrid Piller’s and my observations contradict the prevalent view that it is hard to travel in Japan because Japanese can’t speak English or there are not enough English signs. One comment in response to Multilingual Tokyo also expressed the opinion that there is only so much space for multilingual signs. In this post, I’m going to bust these stereotypes and show that multilingual signs can be done elegantly using some examples from space-challenged Tokyo!

To begin with, in Tokyo, with 35 to 39 million people on the move from one place to another every day, electronic signage provides the answer. It is everywhere and so well designed! Ride one of the metro lines in Tokyo and you are bound to find electronic information (as in the photos below). First, information on the electronic signage above the doors on this train appears entirely in Japanese kanji (Picture 1), and then the name of the next station in green changes to hiragana (Picture 2 – great for kanji-challenged people like myself) and then to Roman characters (Picture 3). The name of the next station is back in kanji in Picture 4, but the other station names in black and connecting train lines to these stations are now in Roman characters. In Picture 5, the name of the next station changes to hiragana and the other station names remain in Roman characters and pretty much everything gets displayed in Roman characters in Picture 6. The prohibition against the use of mobile phones (Picture 7) appears bilingually (Picture 8), and as your train approaches to the station, the warning for the opening doors appears in Japanese (Picture 9) and English (Picture 10)!

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According to their website, JR (the Japan Railway Company) is even switching from bilingual (Japanese and English) language services to quadrilingual services. They have started to offer, for instance, the website, signage within the stations, Information Centers and the Infoline (a telephone-based service) in four languages (Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean).

Airport Limousine, too, is now thoroughly multilingual in the provision of their services (see pictures below), not only with their electronic signage at Limousine stops, but also information online and on the bus.

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There are many more examples (I’ve taken more than 1,500 pictures in two weeks!), but the above certainly busts the persistent, monolingual myth about Japan, or at least Tokyo’s transport systems. Some parts of the city, of course, remain monolingual in Japanese, but in light of what we see in Tokyo today it is amazing that discourses of monolingual Japan or how funny Japanese English is still circulate. It is only recently that the Japanese Government launched its tourism campaign, Yokoso! Japan. It seems that the campaign has contributed to raising awareness of the importance of non-Japanese language services among government officials and business representatives. Coming from Sydney, where non-English signs on trains and busses are a rarity (including the train to our international airport as we reported in the Sydney Morning Herald) and having seen too many half-hearted, unprofessional signages in non-local languages in other tourist places, I take my hat off to Tokyo. If you take customer service and safety seriously in a metropolitan city and a tourism destination, you can never underestimate the importance of language provisions.

Overall, the increasing number of multilingual signs in general and the elegant and efficient ways in which these signs are displayed is a sign that Tokyo is a thriving international city and a great tourism destination.

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 – 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • The provision of English signs and announcements in Japan is certainly impressive – but Japan can still be more of a linguistic challenge for overseas visitors than many countries that make far less effort to make their cities foreigner-friendly. This is simply because Japanese is so different to English (and in fact all other languages).

    Irsquo;ve commonly heard it said that you can guess the meanings of many words in foreign languages, because they tend to be similar to those in English. This view is perhaps understandable in Europe, where almost all languages belong to a single family, and all countries use either the Roman alphabet, or a closely related script. This means Europeans are used to having little or no problem reading proper nouns and many other words when travelling abroad.

    The experience of being faced with a completely unfamiliar writing system, and a language which shares little core vocabulary or grammar can come as a bit of a shock!

    • hm … I would have agreed if my 8-yr-old child hadn’t come away from a week in Japan with the conviction that Japanese is super-easy. The Best Western hotel where we stayed was “besto westo,” beer is “beeru,” friend is “frendu” … the up-side of a century of loan-words I suppose …

  • steven

    these signs are certainly useful and the tourism bodies are to be applauded for setting up such a great system. the next step is to have the ‘no foreigner’ and ‘japanese only’ signs removed from hotels, restaurants, bars and public baths that still exist throughout japan. this will further help all non japanese living and travelling in japan to feel even more welcome…

    • My experience has been the same as Margaret’s. I’ve travelled all over Japan and never seen one of these signs anywhere. The only reliable account I’ve seen documenting their existence concerned bath houses in Hokkaido – and it noted that they no longer have such signs.

      I’d be interested to know where you’ve seen them Steven.

      I’ve certainly been turned away from plenty of restaurants and hotels – but I’ve got no reason to believe to that that was for any reason other than them already being booked up.

  • Margaret

    A bit of a tangent, but following up on the message above…

    White, middle-aged American woman with
    I am having trouble finding all these hotels and inns that reject foreigners. I have stayed at five or six small or medium-sized hotels and inns in the past 6 months. I was never asked for my passport.

    I was told that a hotel was full when I was in Zao in May. I didnt like the rude refusal and wondered if it was because I was a non-Japanese. I quickly found another hotel in the same area. After checking in, I explained the above experience. The clerk said that she couldnt believe it because business was so bad that nobody could afford to discriminate against anyone. She called the first hotel for me and asked for a room. She was told that the hotel was full because of a school trip. I have made last-minute reservations in Tokyo and in Chiba and in Fukushima by driving around and asking for a room. I have not seen one sign nor been turned down at one place

  • Khan

    Thanks for your post which is full of insights and offer opportunities to reflect on my beliefs about Tokyo as truly monolingual country in the world. Just to share that this view is so deeply ingrained in general people and academics’ mind that it is difficult to convince them that change is the only permanent thing in life. While discussing the issue of language in education in Pakistan at a dialogue initiated by British council in Pakistan, it came out that If Japan can thrive with a single language why Pakistan can’t. I referred to work done on Language on the move as the reference to update their perception. I am not sure how many will get bothered to do so. Anyway, thanks for a lovely post. At least I think I will be able to present a well-informed picture to my sociolinguistics students. It is wonderful work.


  • Jenny Zhang

    As a member of the language on the move team and a Chinese national, I visited Tokyo last month. Tokyo’s multilingualism and the efficiency of Tokyo-jin genuinely amazed me. I do not speak Japanese except for a few phrases such as “ありがとう” and “だいじょうぶ”. However, I didn’t find it hard to navigate and enjoy Tokyo. Tokyo has established a much more sophisticated multilingual service system than most English-speaking ‘inner circle’ countries where most citizens remain monolingual. Compared to Tokyo, Sydney has much less multilingual signs in public places to cater for the needs of non-English speaking visitors. The lack of multilingual services has negatively affected Australian tourist industry as evidenced in Ingrid and Kimie’s tourist research project. But, we seldom heard people complaining about it in the mainstream media. Moreover, I’m a bit tired of those complaining that Asian cities like Tokyo and Beijing haven’t done enough to learn English to cater for foreign tourists. Those complaining of the language barrier are not real travelers. For travelers, all fun and adventure would be gone if the world were really flat and spoke in just one tongue. Maybe we shall ask who is afraid of a foreign language.

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