Overcome language barrier in getting vital information to foreign residents

The needs of foreign residents must not be forgotten when conveying information to the public about measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, as well as information related to disasters. Efforts must be made to eliminate the language barrier.

As of the end of last year, there were 2.89 million foreigners living in Japan from 194 countries and regions. Many ministries, agencies and local governments have automatic translation functions on their websites, but most offer information in only a few languages, such as English and Chinese.

It can be said that improving multilingual coverage to promptly convey urgent information in residents’ mother tongues is an issue that needs to be addressed.

More than 36,000 foreign nationals live in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward, hailing from about 120 countries and regions. In April, the ward government revamped its website so that the content can be automatically translated into 108 languages. Translations of official Twitter posts are also provided.

This is one example leveraging the automatic translation technology that has rapidly evolved through artificial intelligence. Automatic translation functions are also effective for facilitating local governments’ over-the-counter services and emergency ambulance transport.

However, there are limits to using automatic translation for complicated exchanges and languages spoken by a small population. A system of human interpretation and translation should be maintained, depending on the importance of the information being transmitted or what someone requires help with.

In addition to improving the accuracy of translations, it is also important to work on rephrasing difficult administrative jargon into easy-to-understand Japanese for non-native speakers.

In a government survey, many foreign residents said that they did not know where to go for advice or information about problems they may encounter when living in Japan. To respond to such concerns, it is important to provide information in a streamlined manner.

In the June revision of the comprehensive measures for admitting and living together with human resources from other countries, the government plans to consolidate information on measures against the novel coronavirus and other issues on the Immigration Services Agency’s portal site for the daily lives of foreign residents. It is essential for each ministry and agency to provide information.

The city of Hamamatsu, which has a large Japanese-Brazilian community, has set up a website for foreign nationals, where information on daily life and other matters is posted in seven languages. Other local governments may find the case useful reference.

The recourse to reliably deliver information in foreign languages must be increased. The government’s disaster information smartphone app has a function that notifies the user of such information as weather warnings for their current location and other user-designated places in 14 languages.

The app was originally designed for foreign visitors to Japan, but it should be popularized among long-term residents as well.

In some cases, it is effective to disseminate information through Japanese language schools, companies and support groups. A combination that suits the actual situation of each region must be considered.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on July 11, 2021.