Romanized signs in Japan not so helpful to tourists

JAPAN - Better use of signs may be key to realizing "Japan is Back," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's new strategy to invigorate Japan.

The strategy was announced in June, and one of its main goals is to raise the number of foreign tourists to 30 million by 2030.

However, there are many issues to address to achieve this goal, observers say.

One problem is that many foreign tourists are puzzled by romanized signs at tourist spots and public transportation facilities that do not include any explanation of their meaning.

For example, if foreigners see the sign "Kokkai-gijidomae" (which means "close to the Diet Building"), most will not know what that means.

In late July, a female banker from Thailand who was shopping in Tokyo's Shibuya district said she was happy because she could eat delicious Japanese food every day. However, she complained that there were few signs in English at several sightseeing spots very popular among foreign tourists.

South Korea has come to surpass Japan in terms of its numbers of foreign tourists.

According to a source in the tourism industry, "South Korea is an easier place to stay than Japan for foreign tourists, because it has many more people who can speak English."

The Japan Tourism Agency has established as one of its goals "improvement and reinforcement of the nation's capability to cope with multiple foreign languages, including English, Chinese and Korean." It plans to announce guidelines for unifying ways to write signs as early as fiscal 2014.

Japan also needs to be able to accomodate various cultural differences. For instance, the number of Indonesian and Malaysian tourists has been sharply increasing. As there are about 200 million Muslims in these countries, it is vital to consider their religious needs in such areas as food and facilities for worship.

Although the tourism agency has started to make and distribute copies of the Japan Travel Guide for Muslim Visitors, a leaflet that introduces restaurants that do not serve pork or alcohol in accordance with Islamic rules. However, there is still room for improvement in this area, observers say.

Until the early 1990s, Japan hosted about 50 per cent of international conferences in Asia.

However, the nation's share declined to about 20 per cent in 2011, as China and South Korea rapidly developed their social infrastructure. Each nation has been competing to lure international conferences since they are opportunities to find new business chances, so whether Japan can regain the competitiveness of the past is an important question.