Tokyo to standardize station signs to aid foreign tourists

Tokyo to standardize station signs to aid foreign tourists
PHOTO: AFP

The Tokyo metropolitan government has launched an effort to standardize how train lines and other public services are denoted on English signage, to prevent foreign travelers and other railway users from getting lost.

Shinjuku Station, one of the nation's busiest transport hubs, is to be addressed first.

The metropolitan government has formed a council that includes railway companies and businesses that operate in underground passageways to help organise the effort.

The goal is to make stations easier to navigate in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

3 ways to say it

It is estimated that at least 3.5 million people pass through Shinjuku Station each day.

Passengers transferring between the JR lines and the Keio New Line may see a sign for "Keio New Line" in the JR area, and one for "Keio-Shinsen Line" in the square in front of the West Gate.

Signs for the JR New South Gate come in several varieties, including New South Exit, Shin South Gate and Shin-Minami Entrance.

A 29-year-old Australian exchange student standing in front of an information board at the station said she thought that even Japanese could get lost there, to say nothing of foreign visitors.

Her friend mentioned having trouble explaining meeting places to other people.

No communication

The problem of inconsistent English signage came to light following a survey of foreigners at Shinjuku Station conducted last August by the metropolitan government and others.

Among the 136 responses, some complained of not understanding signs in romanized Japanese and others said the sheer number of signs made things confusing.

Twelve train lines - run by JR, Odakyu, Keio, Seibu, Toei and Tokyo Metro - flow into Shinjuku Station, as well as 59 bus lines.

More than half of the foreign travelers who come to Tokyo are thought to spend time in or around the station.

As a result, Shinjuku station was one of the first to adopt signs in English and romanized Japanese, but a lack of coordination between operators has led to some inconsistencies.

"It is not easy to ask another company to fix something," said a railway company spokesperson. "We have lacked awareness of the need to standardize things."

Problems in Shinagawa, Ueno

"The signs at Shinagawa Station for the Tokyo Immigration Bureau are inconsistent," and "There are too few signs for changing trains at Ueno Station" were among the comments by foreigners reported in the metropolitan government's survey.

The survey also revealed problems at other important stations.

On June 3, the metropolitan government set up a council of representatives from railway companies, bus companies, taxi operators, businesses that operate in underground passageways and others to address standardization for Shinjuku. A working group within the council has been given until next March to draft rules to make signs easy for foreigners to understand. The idea is to have other stations adopt the same rules.

"We want to get signs incorporating proper English written expressions by the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics," said the official in charge of the matter at the metropolitan government's Bureau of Urban Development.

Last year about 8.87 million foreigners visited Tokyo, a record high for the second year in a row.

"In addition to standardizing the expressions, signs employing colors and numbers to make them easier to understand should become more widely used," said Shinichi Shimizu, a part-time lecturer on tourism at Rikkyo University.

Progress seen in road signs

Progress is also being made in changing romanized Japanese to English expressions on road and other signs.

In August 2013, a sign at an intersection in Nagatacho, Tokyo, near the Diet was changed from "Kokkai" to "The National Diet."

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, which is encouraging the standardization effort, released a translation table in April 2014. Rules based on the table include using romanized Japanese for proper nouns in principle; using hyphens for prefixes such as north, south, east or west; and using "Bridge" instead of "Hashi" or "Bashi."

The central government has selected 49 locales to receive help in their preparations to welcome foreign travelers, including the areas around Narita and Haneda airports; Furano, Hokkaido; and Kusatsu, Gunma Prefecture.

Of these, 41 areas are working on improving their signage.

In Tokyo, areas around the Tokyo Skytree and the Ginza district have already started placing stickers over some signs, changing romanized Japanese to English.

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