Japan’s Himeji Castle Struggles to Attract Professional Guide Interpreters

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Foreign visitors listen to an explanation about Himeji Castle in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, in 2018.

HIMEJI, Hyogo — Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is suffering from a serious shortage of professional interpreters who can guide tourists.

Foreign visitor numbers drastically dropped in Japan due to the pandemic, resulting in many national government-licensed guide interpreters losing their jobs and being forced into different employment.

Himeji Convention Support, a nonprofit organization in charge of planning events and developing personnel in Himeji, plans to hold an English-speaking guide training course at Himeji Castle in October for those who have a National Government Licensed Guide Interpreter certification.

The Japan National Tourism Organization conducts a National Government Licensed Guide Interpreter examination on behalf of the Japan Tourism Agency.

According to the Union of Kansai Governments, there were 1,362 licensed guide interpreters in Hyogo Prefecture, 2,098 in Osaka Prefecture and 1,057 in Kyoto Prefecture as of the end of March 2022.

There are about 27,000 registered guide interpreters nationwide.

In addition to being able to speak a foreign language, guide interpreters are expected to be able to talk about a variety of topics, including Japanese history, geography and culture.

About 30 licensed guide interpreters worked with the Himeji Convention Support prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, many of them changed jobs after the government tightened border control restrictions. The nonprofit said it has asked them to return, but it is likely that most of the interpreters will not come back.

Meanwhile, the number of foreign visitors to Himeji Castle has been recovering as border controls have been lifted.

According to a survey conducted by Himeji City, there were nearly 400,000 foreign visitors to the castle in fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019, accounting for a quarter of all visitors to the castle. However, foreign visitor numbers fell to less than 10,000 in fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2021 amid the pandemic.

There were about 100,000 foreign visitors in fiscal 2022, and this number is expected to increase further in fiscal 2023, Himeji City said. Among foreign tourists who visited the tourist information center, tourists from Taiwan used to comprise the largest number before the pandemic. But now, tourists from France and the United States have taken up the top spot since fiscal 2020.

With many English-speaking interpreters needed, the organization thought it urgent to begin the training course.

The course comprises eight sessions, the first three of which are dedicated to teaching the guides what to do and not do, which spots to show in the castle, how to provide proper explanations and how to tour the castle in a timely manner.

In the fourth session, a local historian is scheduled to discuss Himeji Castle’s defenses, and a swordsmith is set to give a talk on the history of Japanese swords. The fifth through eighth sessions will be practical training sessions.

Licensed guide interpreters differ from volunteer interpreters in that they have specialized knowledge and are asked to guide foreign tourists visiting for work, such as international conferences.

The nonprofit hopes to train professionals who can answer questions about the castle from a variety of perspectives, provide explanations based on their vast knowledge and manage itineraries, among other requests.

“Even though they have the National Government Licensed Guide Interpreter certification, many of them have been affected by social issues and policies, resulting in them losing the opportunity to make the most of their skills,” said Emi Tamada, the managing director of the organization. “With the Osaka-Kansai Expo coming up in two years, we want to train interpreters who can accommodate each visitor’s preferences.”