Tokyo is one of the most technologically advanced cities on the planet, a futuristic metropolis of hi-tech vending machines and superior urban transportation. It’s also home to an impressive number of multinational electronics companies who are pioneers in everything from digital watches to video games.

An area where it is often found lacking, however, is languages. Compared to the capital cities of other advanced nations, Tokyo - or Japan in general for that matter – suffers from a lack of foreign language skills, including English.

Despite this, Japan is determined to live up to its reputation for ‘omotenashi’ (hospitality) by providing a welcoming atmosphere for the millions of foreign visitors it expects to accommodate during next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

A street scene in Tokyo, which is hosting the Olympics next year
Tokyo - a futuristic metropolis

Cutting edge Tokyo technology

Aware of its linguistic deficiencies, yet eager to make the most of its tech expertise, Japan has for several years been busy working on cutting-edge translation solutions for Tokyo 2020.

Despite some of these still being at the prototype stage, Japan appears determined to simplify communication between athletes, volunteers, officials and the 920,000 foreign visitors predicted to enter Tokyo each day during the 16-day sporting extravaganza.

Unsurprisingly Japan’s electronics giant Panasonic seems to be in the vanguard of these innovations. Take, for example, its Fukidashi portable translation device. Created by Panasonic’s artificial intelligence division and 100BANCH - a Tokyo-based start-up accelerator - it is roughly the size of an iPad but shaped like the speech bubbles found in cartoons.

Featuring a screen on both sides of the device and a small removeable stand, users sit either side of it and converse in their respective languages – for example Japanese and English. On one screen the device displays a Japanese translation of what the English-speaker is saying, and vice versa on the opposite screen.

Still a prototype at the time of writing, the Fukidashi can translate four languages - Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean – and should be officially launched in time for the start of the event.

A multilingual loudspeaker

While the Fukidashi is designed for face-to-face conversations, Panasonic have unveiled an equally impressive gadget to relay information to large amounts of people in public areas such as train stations, airports and tourist areas.

The Megahonyaku is a multilingual loudspeaker that translates Japanese into English, Korean and Chinese. You use it by simply speaking Japanese into the microphone, which an inbuilt computer translates and outputs (in amplified form) into whichever of the three available languages you select.

Meanwhile Japan’s government-funded National Institute of Information and Communications technology has devised a useful app called VoiceTra, offering real-time text translation in 27 languages.

First trialled by volunteers at the 2014 Tokyo Marathon, which attracted around 5,000 foreign runners, VoiceTra will also provide voice translation in over ten languages by 2020. The software will be available on computers and smartphones, as well as machines at tourist-heavy spots like shopping centres and cultural landmarks.

Even telecommunications companies have been keen to get in on the translation act.

In 2014 NTT Docomo, the main mobile phone provider in Japan, launched Jspeak, an app that translates real-time phone conversations. JSpeak includes over 700 phrases of possible use to tourists, most of which relate to hotels, hospitals, transportation and restaurants.

Scannable signs

First-time visitors to Japan can sometimes be overwhelmed and disorientated by its lack of signage in other languages. This led Pijin, a student-led tech collective, to come up with the idea of using QR codes as a translation aid.

As you won't have translation services available to you 24/7 during your visit, instead, there are QR quotes which can be scanned by phones and allow the user to choose their translated language. These are positioned alongside Japanese-language signs, posters and written public announcements at popular tourist areas such as airports and museums.

QR codes in a clothing store in Japan
QR codes in a Japanese clothing store

All the above will undoubtedly create an inclusive Tokyo Olympics that chimes with Japan’s reputation for politeness and courtesy. Before this, however, comes the Rugby World Cup, which Japan is hosting for the first time this autumn.

With roughly 400,000 visitors expected over the course of the tournament, it is not quite the same magnitude as the Olympics. But it will certainly give the country an opportunity to fine-tune some of this exciting new Tokyo-based technology.

Tokyo technology to unite the world

No one is expecting any of the above devices to be flawless – any kind of machine translation will contain errors. And Japanese is a tricky language to translate anyway due to an abundance of homophones (words that sound the same but have a different spelling and meaning).

However they will provide a better experience for visitors at the Tokyo Olympics, and the technology - much of it still at the development stage - will likely be developed further and adapted for use with all languages in the coming years.

It also shows the determination of Japan to embrace the wider world and be more receptive to outside cultural influences - a common criticism of the country in the past.

If the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was an opportunity for Japan to reshape its infrastructure and rebrand itself after World War II, the 2020 event could be the moment it stakes a genuine claim to be a truly global capital of international communication and multilingualism.

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