Thursday, 22 November 2012

Musings on multi-language services

I'm interested in visitor services in museums, particularly multi-language services or services for minority groups (ie foreigners in Japan, new imigrants to Canada, Indian communities in the UK, or Hispanic communities in the US). I feel strongly that, especially when these minority groups are residents (regardless of length of residency), such services can be useful in creation of a sense of belonging for the minority group, establishing mutual understanding and improving relations with the larger community, and a host of other benefits apart from the basic truth that, despite linguistic and or cultural differences, minority groups are residents too, and deserve to be recognized and treated as such.

So I'm always delighted to discover a Japanese museum offering such services, or advertising that it offers such. So when I discovered that the Edo-Tokyo Museum ( mentions multi-language services on their Japanese language "barrier-free" page, I was impressed... until I realized the conceptual placement of multi-language services within those offered by the museum... The page has three divisions of services - those for individuals with physical disabilities, those for visitors bringing children, and other. Multi-language services (the audio guide for the permanent exhibition, offered in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean) are the last listing in the first group.


車椅子OK 貸出場所:1階・6階(無料)
白杖・杖 OK 
盲導犬・聴導犬・介助犬 OK 
点字表示 あり 

On one hand I can understand this placement, as the preceding listings are for various types of information in Braille and touchable exhibits for blind visitors. Listing a Japanese audio guide (presumably predominantly for blind visitors) among these services makes sense. Listing foreign language audio guides with the Japanese also makes sense. But I can't seem to shake the feeling that being a non-Japanese speaker is being equated with a physical disability... Being a foreigner in Japan (whether or not you speak Japanese) can sometimes be compared to having a disability of some sort (linguistic? cultural?), and services for foreigners in Japanese museums are often included in services referred to as being for those with disabilities or in a socially weak position (a specific Japanese term that doesn't translate well into English) - along with services for (the increasing number of) elderly or (the decreasing number of) children/parents with babies. 

So why does this placement bother me? I guess I would prefer the listing of the Japanese and foreign language audio guides to be separate, with the foreign language guides having a listing of their own under the "other" heading, showing that they are recognized as a resource for a certain group of visitors. I would like to think that a Japanese audio guide for blind visitors would be designed differently than foreign language audio guides (more so to as to be able to respond to the needs of blind Japanese visitors!). But does it matter? Does the placement of these services within the museum's page actually matter?

It is interesting to note that in English (, the page becomes "Visitor Information," with a section entitled "Services (Free-of-charge)." Five separate services are listed - two of which relate to multi-language services (volunteer guides, audio guides), one to physical disabilities (borrowing a wheelchair), one to visitors with children, and the final being an "other."



Volunteer Guides 1F 6F

The volunteers can give visitors museum outlines, help school teachers make plans for educational visits, and act as guides for the permanent exhibition. Our volunteers include English, German, French, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Russian speakers, though guides in some languages are not available on some days.
We may not be always able to assign a guide to you. Reservation should be made as early as the 10th of the month prior to your planned month of visit and no later than 2 weeks prior to your planned visiting day. Depending on guide availability, we may not be able to answer your request. Enquiries should be made to the Volunteer Office. Hours 09:00 to 15:00

Guide earphones 1F 3F

The earphone receiver enables you to tune into the guidance narration. You need to make a deposit to borrow an earphone. It is refundable.

Wheelchair service 1F 5F 6F

Wheelchairs are always available on asking.

Baby carriages 1F 6F Nursery room 1F 5F

Baby carriages are available. Small tables for changing babies' diapers are provided in the Women's restrooms on 1F, 3F, 5F, 6F and 7F.

Coin lockers 1F 3F 7F

Insert a 100-yen coin to use the locker. The coin is returned when you open the locker.


1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this entire post (I would, wouldn't I?), but this line had me chortling with glee, recognition and sympathy:

    "Being a foreigner in Japan can sometimes be compared to having a disability of some sort." True, and I'm a quadriplegic Helen Keller.

    (I've become very un-PC in my comments on your blog. Death, disability, nothing is sacred.)

    [My first attempt was a typo: death, disability, nothing is scared. See? There I go again.]

    I'm so used to being a minority - white African, tiny first language, female minority in all my workplaces, Caucasian woman who got conquered by a Japanese man (oh, horror!) - that I don't always notice further examples.

    One often reads that Japan wants to increase the number of foreign tourists, and my response is always the same: start with more assistance in English.

    Well, OK, start with the strong yen, and then consider linguistics.

    Oh, forget English, just transcribe the Japanese into romaji. Then at least tourists can use dictionaries and phrase books to figure out what the heck is going on.

    Then again, maybe there's already enough English in Roppongi?