Foreign Tourists to Kyoto Confused by Mistranslations, Inappropriate Expressions in Signs; Tourism Association Calls for Improvements

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A warning sign using pictograms to call for no eating or drinking is seen at Nishiki Market in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, on May 14.

KYOTO — About 500 locations, including hotels and restaurants, in Kyoto had foreign-language information that contained errors, according to a survey conducted by the Kyoto City Tourism Association. To avoid offending visitors to Japan and damaging the Kyoto brand, the association is preparing guidelines and calling for proper labeling, such as through the use of pictograms.

Lack of employees with language ability

The survey was conducted from last December to this February at 50 facilities, including transportation facilities, museums, shrines and temples, in order to check conditions for welcoming the rapidly increasing amount of post-pandemic foreign tourists. Of the approximately 3,600 posters, signs, and audio guidance units, 499 locations, or over 10%, were found to have mistranslations or inappropriate expressions.

The most notable cases were caused by the use of online artificial intelligence machine translation.

A hotel that has been operational in Kyoto for more than five years received complaints from Chinese tourists that the instructions at the breakfast location were difficult to understand because they had been written in Chinese that had words omitted in several places.

Since the hotel has no employees with Chinese language ability, it asked a translator to correct the errors. A representative of the hotel said, “We believe that the best hospitality is to make sure our message and information is conveyed clearly, so we are going to carefully consider the descriptions.”

At a tourist facility where visitors can experience being a ninja in virtual reality, one of the warnings was “Don’t act up” in English while the Japanese warns users not to be violent. This was changed to “Don’t act violently,” after users pointed this out.

AI translation sometimes produces inappropriate sentences by failing to understand the context before and after the sentence or generating content on its own.

Making use of pictograms

According to the association, at 112 major hotels in Kyoto, foreigners stayed 564,223 nights this March, almost double the number in March 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. Foreigners accounted for 59.1% of all overnight guests, the second highest level ever.

In light of the increased number of foreign tourists, the association and other organizations have concluded that it is necessary to improve displays to make them accurate and easy to understand. They released a guidebook on their websites in April, which included suggestions for improving mistranslations and examples of pictograms. They also held a presentation for about 20 business operators, such as hotels and department stores. An official of the association said, “We hope that each business will review their English text and improve their services.”

Zackary Kaplan, a translator from the United States who supervised the survey, said it is important to increase the number of kind and easy-to-understand signs throughout the city by utilizing the guidebook and training specialist personnel.

Government support

The government and municipalities are also encouraging accurate foreign-language text. The Japan Tourism Agency, in cooperation with the Cultural Affairs Agency and the Environment Ministry, has been working on compiling a list of native English-speaking specialists since fiscal 2018, and spent about ¥120 million in fiscal 2023 to dispatch them to 31 local governments and tourism associations to write and review explanatory texts on cultural assets and traditional performing arts.

Osaka Prefecture, which will host the 2025 Osaka-Kansai Expo, also has supporting programs. After accepting applications from municipalities and tourism promotion organizations in the prefecture, the prefectural government subsidizes half (up to ¥30 million) the translation fees for warning signboards about manners, such as how to dispose garbage, or explanatory materials, as well as the cost of installing tourist information boards. Also, a website has been set up to support making multilingual menus for restaurants in the prefecture.