TOKYO - More people in more business sectors are increasingly enthusiastic about improving their English conversation skills to offer better hospitality for foreign tourists before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
Informal English conversation groups have flourished among taxi drivers and geisha-two professions with frequent interactions with foreign visitors.
The Tokyo Fire Department will send firefighters to the United States to study English in an effort to help build a force of firefighters and rescue team members with high English proficiency, able to assist and reassure foreign tourists in the event of illness or injury.
Cab drivers hit the books
Kinichi Ikeda, 63, is a driver with Kokusai Motorcars Co., a Minato Ward, Tokyo-based taxi company. But he also acts as an instructor with an English conversation circle for taxi drivers in the Shinonome office in Koto Ward, Tokyo. In one lesson, he offered his fellow drivers a piece of advice: "When foreign customers pronounce the 'New Sanno Hotel' in Tokyo, the sound you hear is close to 'Sano' rather than 'Sanno.'"
Ikeda was a bank employee in the past, and holds a Grade 1 certification on the Eiken, a practical English proficiency test organised by the Eiken Foundation of Japan.
In addition to basic skills such as greetings, the circle's members spend one or two hours learning expressions useful for chatting with foreign guests in a taxi.
Ikeda took the initiative to form the circle in October last year, just after Tokyo was chosen to host the 2020 Games. The circle holds a study sessions two or three times a week, and several of his colleagues attend each lesson, according to Ikeda.
"If we have regular opportunities to learn and speak English, we'll probably not feel nervous when we have foreign guests. That will also lead to safer driving," Ikeda said.
The taxi company began holding its own English conversation classes for beginners once a week with a native speaker in January this year. The company wishes to expand the number of its drivers who speak foreign languages from the current level of around 750 to 1,500 by the start of the Tokyo Olympics.
In a survey in 2012 by TripAdvisor Inc., a US-based operator of travel information websites, Tokyo took the top spot among 40 world capitals and major cities ranked by the kindness of their taxi drivers.
However, another survey by the Tokyo Taxi Center, a Koto Ward, Tokyo, organisation that conducts driver skill training, showed that many taxi drivers have language worries. One of the respondents said, "I got into trouble once, when a foreign customer believed I could speak English fluently, but I had only greeted him in English."
The centre plans to provide stickers to drivers who finish special English conversation training and allow those drivers to wait in a priority lane at taxi terminals at the international terminal of Haneda Airport.