Tokyo brushes up on English for 2020

Taxi driver Kinichi Ikeda, right, uses English as he guides tourists in the Asakusa district of Taito Ward, Tokyo, a popular destination for foreign visitors.

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.

Geisha on learning

The Mukojima district of Sumida Ward, Tokyo, is one of the capital's largest geisha entertainment areas. The geisha have been brushing up their English conversation skills too.

Junior female managers of ryotei restaurants and geisha have invited native speakers and held study sessions roughly twice a month to learn phrases for welcoming guests and teaching visitors how to play "ozashiki-asobi"-traditional Japanese party games-together with geisha.

The learning effort began in 2006, when construction of Tokyo Skytree in the ward was first planned, with a goal of offering "more heartwarming hospitality to foreign tourists."

Members say they also want to learn some sports terminology in English and other languages as the Tokyo Olympics approach.

Ayako Kobayashi, 45, manager of ryotei Kiyoshi, said, "The Olympics are a great opportunity to help [foreign tourists] enjoy Japanese culture, and let them know that there are geisha in Tokyo as well."

Firefighters studying abroad

Next fiscal year, the Tokyo Fire Department will establish English-speaking emergency rescue teams for swiftly transporting sick or injured foreigners to hospitals.

Thirteen teams will be established in Tokyo, focusing especially on Chiyoda, Minato, Chuo and Koto wards. Three years later, the TFD plans to expand the programme to 36 teams stationed in areas where Olympic venues are to be set up and where large numbers of foreign visitors are expected.

The TFD is sending emergency rescue staff to New York and Los Angeles to develop high-level English conversation skills and to learn important practices for treating non-Japanese people in emergency situations.

A department official said, "Our hope in establishing teams that can handle English-speakers is to help foreign tourists enjoy the Olympics comfortably and rest at ease."

Seeking to be volunteers

Operators of English conversation schools said they have received more calls from both corporations and individuals.

An official of Gaba Corp. in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, which operates the Gaba One-to-One English chain of English conversation schools, said, "We've seen an increasing number of cases where people who want to be volunteers [for the Olympics] and athletes who aim to compete in the Olympic Games have started taking lessons."

The Eiken tests, established in 1963, just one year ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, were used as a prerequisite for guides at the Games. "Enthusiasm for learning English is likely to heat up even further as the 2020 Games draw near," said an official of the Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo-based Eiken Foundation of Japan.

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