How Hokkaido is breaking down language barriers

Home to many foreign residents and a destination for overseas tourists, Hokkaido has been working on offering a range of information in multiple languages.

And with the coronavirus pandemic, there is an increasing need for foreign residents to obtain necessary information to support their daily lives. There are also moves to increase multilingual support when foreign visitors come back in the post-COVID-19 era.

Multiple languages are displayed on signs for the Sapporo Help Desk for Foreign Residents and Sapporo International Communication Plaza.

Surging inquiries
In Hokkaido, the number of non-Japanese residents has continued to grow in the past few years.

According to the Hokkaido Prefectural Government, there were 41,696 as of Jan. 1, 2020, nearly double the 22,902 recorded on Jan. 1, 2015. The statistics for 2021, which will reflect the impact of the pandemic, have not yet been released, but the Hokkaido government says the number of foreign workers in Hokkaido as of last October was a record 25,363.

About 30% of the prefecture’s non-Japanese residents are concentrated in Sapporo, accounting for nearly 15,000 people from about 130 countries and regions, and the city opened a consultation service for foreign residents in November 2019. It received 103 inquiries over four months in fiscal 2019, while there were 878 cases in the full fiscal 2020 year that ended in March.

“We’ve seen a surge in inquiries because of the coronavirus,” said Kaori Okabe, who heads the consultation support section at the Sapporo International Communication Plaza Foundation, saying many of them are about applying for benefits due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The staff at the consultation center can offer their services in English and Chinese, catering to most of the inquiries from non-Japanese speakers. But to offer services in other languages, Sapporo has a multilingual call center.

An official at Sapporo International Communication Plaza (right) speaks with a foreign resident using a three-way call with an interpreter.

The call center provides services in 20 languages, mainly those from Asia, including Nepali and Tagalog. When a person visits the consultation center, one of the staff members calls the call center and engages in a three-way conversation using a speaker.

If the foreign resident is calling by phone, a system that allows simultaneous calls between three parties is used.

So far, there have been only a few cases, including inquiries in French and Russian, for which they arranged three-way talks. But Okabe stresses that “it is important to be ready to respond in any language.”

Emergency support
Multi-language call centers are used not only for inquiries about benefits.

More and more firefighters and police departments across the country are using them for emergency calls.

The Monbetsu district firefighters association, which consists of Monbetsu city and the four surrounding towns and villages of Takinoue, Okoppe, Omu and Nishiokoppe in northwest Hokkaido, began using a multilingual call center in May 2020.

First responders use the call center when they get an emergency call and when they arrive at the scene. So far, the call center, which offers services in 19 languages, has been used on one occasion for a caller speaking Thai.

In the Monbetsu district, technical trainees from Vietnam and other countries are working at fish processing plants and dairy farms. As of the end of March, a total of 844 non-Japanese people resided in the area, and the association is making efforts to provide multilingual support.

However, there are difficulties in connecting to the call center.

First and foremost, officials at the fire station taking the emergency call need to know what language the caller is speaking and explain to the caller that they should not hang up until they are connected to the call center.

“Firefighters need to be trained on a regular basis,” said an official at the association.

Emergency rescuers conduct training using a three-way call with an interpreter at a fire station in Muroran, Hokkaido, in August 2020.

Other local governments in Hokkaido are also utilizing multilingual call center services. The cities of Kushiro and Muroran have been using them since fiscal 2020.

A multilingual call center firm located outside Hokkaido has contracts with about 20 fire departments and prefectural police headquarters.

“It’s critical to smoothly respond to emergency calls from the fire and police departments 24 hours a day, which is why we are gathering operators from all over Japan,” said an official at the call center.

Li Ye (left), who translates tourism information into multiple languages at roadside station in Hokkaido, and Mutsumi Tsuyama, a tourist concierge at the roadside station, show a cafe menu written in multiple languages.

As competition intensifies to secure the staff needed to offer services in multiple languages, interpreters are finding Hokkaido an attractive place to settle down.

Li Ye, 32, from Beijing has been working as a member of the Community-Reactivating Cooperator Squad in the town of Kikonai since fiscal 2020. She plays an important role in the multilingual support offered at the Misogi no Sato Kikonai roadside station.

The station, located in front of Kikonai Station on the Hokkaido Shinkansen line, has been providing departure times over the PA in English and Chinese since April. Li, who is also fluent in the former, is in charge of the announcements in both languages.

“I want to create an environment where foreign tourists can enjoy their trip with peace of mind,” she said. In April, English and Chinese were also added to the menu of the snack bar at the roadside station.

After studying Japanese at a vocational school in Higashikawa town, Li looked for a job in Hokkaido, attracted by its nature and people. She got a job on the team in Kikonai, started working at the roadside station as a base and is busy making tourism projects multilingual.

Before the pandemic, many foreign tourists would come to the roadside station in Kikonai by sightseeing bus to visit popular tourist spots in the town of Matsumae and other places. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their numbers have dwindled since last year.

Still, Mutsumi Tsuyama, 38, who works as a tourist concierge at the roadside station, says Li is a big help.

“It was tough to provide multilingual support just by myself. Together with Li, I would like to expand the possibility of attracting visitors after the pandemic,” said Tsuyama.

There are also examples of multilingual support using technology. A night walking event at Lake Akan, which is scheduled to be held June 22 along the shores of the lake in the city of Kushiro, utilizes a smartphone guide app that supports Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean.

The 1.2-kilometer walk will feature lights and digitally projected images based on Ainu mythology. By scanning the QR codes placed alongside the course using a smartphone, participants will be able to view the scenes with subtitles in the language of their choosing.

“It is difficult to have an interpreter with us, as we walk more than 1 km through the forest at night. We have prepared the tour so that foreign people can enjoy it whenever they come,” Kingo Kagawa, 54, of organizer Akan Adventure Tourism, said.

Easy Japanese
While efforts to offer multilingual services appear to be taking root, Okabe of the Sapporo International Communication Plaza Foundation brought up something rather unexpected.

“Actually, we often use Japanese when we provide consultation services at the counter.”

Since foreign students and technical interns have studied Japanese before coming to Japan, many of them can speak the language to a certain degree. “We can communicate with them through easy Japanese,” said Okabe, adding that she tries to use Japanese words and phrases that they can understand.

The website of the Sapporo Help Desk for Foreign Residents, which opened at the end of March, is available in five languages: Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. On top of that, it provides information in easy Japanese. Hiragana is used as much as possible and Chinese characters come with hiragana pronunciations, while spaces are added to each clause to make it easier to understand the makeup of sentences.

Nobuko Nitsu, who heads the Hokkaido Japanese Language Center in Sapporo, which promotes the use of easy Japanese, pointed out that “spoken Japanese is often difficult for non-Japanese people to understand because they use de in Japanese without breaking the sentence, or they often say what they want to say at the end.”

“It may seem aloof to say things in short sentences, but it is important that people understand the message,” she explained.

The need for easy Japanese is also increasing. In fiscal 2020, the Hokkaido Japanese Language Center held training courses for people who support foreign nationals learning Japanese as a project commissioned by the Hokkaido government.

The session was conducted in seven Hokkaido cities and towns that accept many technical interns — Kushiro, Abashiri, Wakkanai, Rumoi, Urakawa, Betsukai and Omu.

“It is very difficult to secure people who can speak multiple languages. By adjusting the level of Japanese, communication becomes easier. If we can create a friendly living environment in local communities, I think that will help more foreign residents settle down there,” Nitsu said.