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)![nggallery id=18]
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.[nggallery id=19]
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.