Japanese shopkeepers learn 'just enough' English

A fish dealer, left, explains his merchandise in English in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo.

Shopkeepers in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, recently took part in an on-the-job English lesson to learn how to serve foreign customers in basic English and with Japanese-style hospitality.

They want their street of stores to be an area where "you can make yourself understood more or less in English."

The project, organised by the Shinagawa Ward government with an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, was held in a shopping area in the Kita-Shinagawa district.

Three foreigners acting as customers visited a local fish dealer and other shops to ask about the merchandise on sale. The shopkeepers used basic English as they tried hard to help their "customers."

"I am looking for a nice dress," an Australian said in a secondhand shop. Shop owner Emi Goya, 56, asked, "What colour?" and the man answered, "Green."

However, Goya had trouble answering in English when the man asked if there was a bank nearby. She managed to tell him how to get to the bank using such phrases as "turn right," but she needed help from an interpreter who had accompanied the man.

"If they have confidence, [storekeepers] can show how hospitable they are, merely by using [basic English] words," the interpreter said.

The language barrier will most likely be the toughest issue for foreigners visiting Japan. An official of the Shinagawa Ward Office said the local government plans to take such measures as producing stickers that say things like, "We'll do our best to serve you in English." Shopkeepers can display them on windows or elsewhere in their shops to attract foreigners.