Interview with Chikako Tsuruta
FRSA Ryuji Akimoto interviews Chikako Tsuruta, the leader of the Association for the Betterment of Public English in Japan. See below for the video of the interview conducted in Japanese, and the English transcript.
Copyright © 2021 RSA JFN All Rights Reserved
Interview with Ms. Chikako Tsuruta
Ryuji Akimoto: Hello, I’m Ryuji Akimoto, fellow of the RSA. This is the first program of the RSA JFN which introduces notable people by interviewing them in Japanese and sharing the activities on our website. Today, we will introduce Ms. Chikako Tsuruta who is the leader of “the Association for the Betterment of Public English in Japan “. She is a leading expert in simultaneous interpretation. Their activities have been going viral in Japan and the world since its launch in June 2020 through Japanese newspapers and media such as Mainichi newspaper, NHK World, and the Guardian in UK. Nice to meet you, Tsuruta san. Thank you for being here with us today.
Chikako Tsuruta: Thank you for having me on your program. (Forming the association) R: Firstly, I’d like to ask you what made you start this activity in the first place? C: We, a few alumni of Columbia Business School, regularly meet with each other. We were inspired when we saw an article in The Japan Times, posted by Rochelle Kopp, about public English in the New National Stadium for the Olympics in Japan. It said there were a lot of signs that were difficult to understand. Then, three members of the reunion organized a focus group to discuss this issue on a voluntary basis. This was the very beginning of our activities. Furthermore, other members of our group discovered that there is also a lot of incomprehensible English in the official website of Meguro Ward in Tokyo. The reason was their usage of machine translations. Although there is a disclaimer saying that this is not a 100% accurate translation, it was still unacceptable to us, which led us to decide what we could do to correct incomprehensible English in Japan. We were scheduled to host the Olympics Games in 2020, which was postponed unfortunately. We must understand that things are going to change because of the Olympics. It will bring numerous people from overseas to Japan. There will be an absolute necessity to communicate with them in English. Signboards should be written in comprehensible English. Currently there are three million foreign residents in Japan. Meguro Ward now has 10,000 foreigners. Therefore, this issue is much more serious than we expected. That is why we started to write blogs in October to change the situation instead of just keeping this issue to ourselves. Here is one example of a strange English sign mentioned in Rochelle’s article – a sign found near a water cooler installed in the New National Stadium. It read, “Please push the under button.” It might be understandable to some English speakers, but it should be more like, “Please push the button below.” Rochelle thought it would be OK to write only “Push.” I definitely agree with her. R: Or just pointing the button by an arrow would be enough as it’s common worldwide. C: I share your opinion. I’m wondering why they display these signboards. Does it mean anything if it’s not understandable? It’s true that huge amounts of money were spent to build the stadium. However, I truly feel it would be regrettable or “mottainai” (wasteful) to leave these information boards as they are, which could be easily corrected. (What causes strange English expressions?) R: I suppose that translations done by the AI that are not checked likely bring results like that. I know this is one of the main factors, and guess there are some other reasons such as just laziness, low level of English, or low priority in accuracy. What do you think would cause such strange English expressions? C: I think the most fundamental reason for these mysterious English expressions is that they are written with a Japanese mindset. I mean, the higher-ups might think it’s totally OK if Japanese is translated into English using machine translation with a disclaimer posted next to the board, explaining that it’s not 100% accurate. I firmly believe that interactive communication is most important whenever we communicate. As a simultaneous interpreter, I don’t think that it’s just the listeners’ responsibility to comprehend what I interpret. (Activities) C: When we wrote to the Meguro municipal government about this, the answer was that there was no other way except to depend on machine translations because everything needs to be translated into 18 languages at the same time. However, it is wrong that they don’t check and correct the mistaken English expressions such as “book manager,” which is supposed to be translated to “general manager （本部長）” , in Japanese. Afterwards, two of our members contacted a person in charge to discuss this issue, and officials decided to deal with this by collaborating with us, beginning in early 2021. This is amazing. Furthermore, we successfully attracted the attention of Yoko Kono, who is a ward councilor and a second cousin of Taro Kono, Administrative Reform Minister. We received a reply from Meguro Ward after that, and found it had started to make improvements. In addition, one of our members from Urayasu City is an acquaintance of its mayor, and has already created a task force and held the first meeting on December 22, 2020, in order to implement concrete actions. R: I’ve got that you are getting some positive responses from both Meguro and Urayasu. So, my next question is how you are expanding your activities from now. Are you going to make the current relationships with Meguro and Urayasu more concrete, or are you going to take further steps? C: We told Ms. Kono that we would like to make a proposal to the government. And then she introduced us to Minister Kono, and we were able to hand our proposal to him directly on Christmas Day. R: Is the content of the proposal letter confidential? C: No, it’s not. Here is a copy of it. It describes what we really want to stress is communication with understandable English. There are too many wordfor-word translations, for instance, in the English used for the Prime Minister’s Office. The expressions are very hard to convey what they really want to say due to Japanese grammar or ways of thinking. R: Well, it seems there are many cases happening even in Japanese, doesn’t it? C: That happens a lot. We also included in our proposal the best use of the workforce of the JET Program sponsored by the national government. Jets serve as local government employees, so we recommended that they work to improve and update the websites of local governments where they are deployed. R: You’ve successfully got to hand in a proposal letter to the central government, in the wake of contacting local governments, right? C: Minister Kono posted about our visit on his Twitter and got thousands of views from his followers. (Any anxiety for negative responses?) R: I’d like to ask you a question from a different perspective. Eventually you have to tell them “your English is strange”, which I’m afraid will bring some negative reaction such as refusal. How has it been? C: Exactly. That is the point which we discussed with the Editor-in-chief of NHK WorldJapan, who kindly participated in our first symposium held on December 6, 2020. They usually pick up positive news rather than negative news. They are unlikely to cover the bad side of Japan on their program. That said, our aim is the betterment, I mean, we really want to make things better. Therefore, we always keep in mind that this issue should be at the forefront. But we need to speak up when we feel doubtful though this is not always easy to do. R: I suppose they might say it’s none of your business. C: Certainly. We’ve had that kind of pushback, actually. We got an e-mail from a British person who has been working in a Japanese government’s branch office in London for 20 years. I really cherish this response because it mentions that this person was on the same page. However, there were some negative responses from co-workers. They said that it was unfair to claim it’s not enough while we, Japanese government officials, have been working very hard. We understood their response. What I want to emphasize most is that we need to consider better ways and work together to improve this situation, not that Japanese people are irresponsible and not good at English. (Importance of English education) C: I feel that this issue would reach the fundamental problem of English education in Japan. R: Mainly your association consists of individuals who are involved in English education. When it comes to English education, the average Japanese person has the opportunities to learn English for about 10 years from secondary school to university. And you can find a lot of English conversation schools for adults in town. So, I don’t think that we Japanese don’t have enough chances to learn and study, but still, we see the current situation like what we’ve discussed. So, can you give us some thoughts on how it’s associated with today’s English education systems? C: First and foremost, we should have well-qualified teachers for students who start learning English. It is a great risk if they are taught English with katakana pronunciation. R: It’s bad to the students, isn’t it? C: Yes, that’s right. In the present day, we can get a lot of educational materials, which include a high quality of English. Nobody asks those who are bad at math to teach it to students. So how could you ask someone who isn’t good at English to teach it at school? It is essential for students to be taught by experts from the very beginning. Otherwise, they won’t master proper English at school. Furthermore, students need to know the differences between Japanese-English and English. They should know that “Go To Campaign” is strange, while “Go to Kyoto,” or “Go to Nagoya,” is OK. Unfortunately, “Go To Campaign” seems to have become a catch phrase nationwide. It’s also probably because we often use “Go to” in our newspaper headlines, isn’t it? R: They are eye catchers, rather than English. C: Yes, it might be OK if we look at it from a visual point of view. But I still feel it’s somewhat strange. R: I do as well. But at the same time don’t you think 70-80% of Japanese people do not feel uncomfortable? C: Yes, I do. My friends who have lived overseas agree with me. The reason we think like that might be because we tend to think they are correct English expressions. But there is no need to consider them English. But how do we do that? R: It’s just in a recent decade that the number of inbound people from outside Japan is dramatically increasing. We Japanese have little experience of living together with English speaking people in our community. So, I suppose we tend to think it’s enough for us once when we translate things into English, and don’t care anything after that spending time or money. I guess the situation has been continuing until today. C: I agree with you completely. When I see the website of local government, I feel that they are satisfied with their English translation, as if to say, “We did it.” Don’t you think so? R: And I don’t think any check by a native speaker is needed to the AI translation. Anybody could find it’s strange when just a look and verification is given, I suppose. C: Definitely. R: Actually, AI translation is very smart today, though it looks like a toy. Just using its most updated version would easily resolve the problems, I think. But isn’t it easy for them? C: It looks that way. I understand that they need to handle 18 languages with a limited budget. But, even so, they neglect to check these translations with someone who has even an average English ability, let alone an expert or a native speaker. R: I suppose they might not do any check on AI translation because of their mindset not to do any excessive tasks encroaching on the work of the other departments inside the public offices. I used to work in the computer sector, and knew that public offices were using old PC’s and software for 5 or 10 years. It was a trade-off for them between introducing new technologies and staying as they had been without spending money and their resources for training to have them used efficiently. I’m a little afraid if similar trends are seen in these problems. C: That’s right. The difficulty of introducing new things causes such problems. I have no idea how this is related to the concerns of the establishment. But the actual situation is not acceptable these days. (The goals and objectives of the association) R: I’ve learned that your activities have expanded to the local and central governments. Then what are the goals and objectives of your association in the future? C: Our main goal is to improve the English level of Japanese people. One of our members wants to raise it to that of Singapore. But I’m afraid that’s too high. R: I know it’s so high, though it’s called Singlish! C: But I really want to know whether someone who doesn’t understand Japanese at all is able to do everything needed for life in Japan without any major trouble. Having people from overseas being able to travel around easily would be the ideal situation for us. But they would still face many obstacles for now, wouldn’t they? (Message from the association) R: Can you please give your messages to those who are watching this movie or to general society? C: What we think matters most is to communicate in English. English is a tool of communication. Therefore, we all should try to use understandable English. This is what we really want to emphasize. R: Comprehensible English, right? C: I believe English signboards should not be considered just stylish or cool. They are extremely important to inform everybody what to do, especially in the case of natural disasters or preventative measures for the COVID-19 pandemic. R: I also do think that strange English is everywhere in our society. Do you put more priority on English being used in public information, rather than that in general market by private companies? C: Yes, we do. As we emphasize in our association’s name, we focus on public English. But improving the general use of English in Japan cannot be a separate goal in the end. I think this is our mid- to long-term goal, though. Currently, we are focusing on whether everyone in need can get essential information from the government in understandable English. In addition, I would like to say to the government that their statements are broadcast to the world immediately after they are made. Therefore, it is crucial for politicians to consider carefully what they say in public. R: Exactly. I feel sad about their words to be too light in Japanese at the beginning. They have to recognize how responsible they are when their words are made public. I know it’s a different theme from today’s discussion though. C: Yes, as an advocate for our activities, what I really want to tell them is that they need to recognize that their statements will make headlines around the world in English simultaneously. (Wrap-up) R: Thank you very much. I’m very much impressed that the association’s activities are breathing a new life into the circumstances of English in Japan, which is way behind from where it should be. Also, I believe this interview will transmit the enthusiasm of you, Ms. Tsuruta, and your colleagues, who lead the association. C: My pleasure, indeed. R: Thank you again for spending time with us. You’ve given us a lot of precious stories and suggestions. C: Thank you so much. R: It’s a hard situation with corona pandemic now, so please take care of yourself, and we hope your further success. C: I appreciate your having me here.