Tour guide interpreters to lose guild status

The Japan tourism agency is saying (sub req’d) they plan to ease a strict ban on tour guide interpreters getting paid for their services. As it stands, only nationally licensed guide-interpreters can get paid; as a result, you can see many “volunteer” interpreters at tourist destinations. Other translations do not need any certification, as far as I know.

Now, they aren’t completely eliminating the qualification program or abandoning quality standards for tour guides, as this key passage makes clear:

The Japan Tourism Agency thus decided to allow people without formal qualifications to charge for their services, while maintaining the current certification program for highly skilled interpreter-guides. The agency hopes to submit a bill to revise the rules to next year’s regular session of the Diet at the earliest.

Still, the agency determined that a certain level of quality, if not national certification, is needed for those who work as guide-interpreters. It is therefore considering drawing up guidelines and having municipalities and private-sector companies certify those who undergo training.

An official with the agency said revising the rules would allow the roughly 54,000 Japanese who now act as volunteer guide-interpreters to better use their skills, and help create jobs for foreigners living in Japan.

So that’s one more group that’s losing protected guild status, much as Japan’s barbers did years ago. Having a strict national qualification requirement for such a minor occupation seems like overkill to me. I can see why the tourism regulators want to maintain quality, though – a situation like the child tour guides at the Taj Mahal in Slumdog Millionaire would probably be a worst-case scenario.

15 thoughts on “Tour guide interpreters to lose guild status”

  1. I suspect that this is a very necessary change. As I understand it, the law requires anyone showing people round Japan for money in a language other than Japanese to have this qualification, so I would need it to show people round in English. The exam is, of course, entirely in Japanese, requiring you to write essays in Japanese on various aspects of Japanese culture.

    Obviously, this makes things a bit tricky for foreign tour companies.

    Now, if they actually restricted it to people acting as interpreters rather than just as guides, that would make a bit more sense.

  2. There are other countries that have official tour guide exams, such as Israel and Italy, so it’s hardly an unprecedented system. The only odd thing I see about it is the name of ‘Tour guide interpreter.’

    Interesting point though David. I wonder how the regulation affects tour guides who BRING their group to Japan from abroad.

  3. Although if it’s something as unofficial as just “showing someone around in English,” I don’t suppose the law matters much. Cash doesn’t leave much of a trail.

  4. Would the present/former rules also stop me, as a native English speaker, from giving tours for profit to other English speakers? Because I was offered such a job in university (in Kyoto).

  5. Britain has Blue Badge registered tour guides and they even refer to themselves as a guild on their website. Training takes around two years and they prefer guides who can speak a second language. There is no restriction, as far as I know, on anyone else who wants to offer such a service.

    I wonder whether Patrick Galbraith, the guy who used to do tours of Akihabara dressed as Goku, was operating on the fringes of the law or whether there is always a way to redefine the activity to stay onside.

    I recall seeing stories in the past which touch on this issue. I believe there was some kind of amnesty during the 2002 World Cup on the basis that there wouldn’t be enough people, with enough languages, to meet potential demand. A few years ago the Tokyo Metropolitan Government also advertised temporary vacancies for tour guides and interpreters who would get two weeks training but wouldn’t be certified.

    I suspect the announcement Adamu spotted is partly a recognition that the official qualification is too high a barrier as well as an indictment of the ability of qualified interpreters to keep demand for more varied services these days.

  6. Disclosure: My better half earned her guide-interpreter license in 2006.

    The exam does have a language component, and from what I can remember, more languages than just English are offered (At an information session for Hello Academy, one of the major prep schools for the exam, I recall meeting a gentlemen who held guide-interpreter licenses in both English and French).

    The exam itself is interesting. One section of history, one section of ippan johshiki (read: economics and current events) and English. A bilingual college freshman or high school senior with most of the history mnemonics still floating around his noggin would have an advantage, but for working folk who can’t afford a lot of free time and who don’t have command of the foreign language in question, this exam can be easy to fail. From anecdotes I’ve heard, this is the kind of exam that some folks take seven and eight times…

    @Curzon: My hunch is that technically they would. The story I heard about (at least partially) why the rules were made is that tours from China would come over but use a non-licensed tour guide, i.e. someone who is just bilingual enough to guide around a gaggle of Chinese tourists. Thus when it came to spieling about the landmarks and historical sites, some fairly dubious explanations were being made, although I’m not sure how the Tourism Agency found out. (Explaining history with a slant? The HORROR.)

  7. Most countries have some sort of licensing requirements for tour guides.

    Its very easy for tour guides to bs their customers, steer them to shops where they have an arrangement with the merchant, etc. It is one of the hazards of travelling, and not necessarily easy to avoid. Tourists are, by definition, unfamiliar with the area and somewhat easier to ripoff than locals.

    Now I can see a country deciding that it is OK to rip off tourists, maybe they don’t want tourism to be a big industry, or much business from repeat businesses. There are countries that tolerate scams that prey on their own citizens, after all. But these countries are generally not very successful.

    But unless you don’t care about tourists being ripped off, tour guides are one of the likelier candidates for licensing and regulation.

  8. I seem to recall hearing about one mob in Kyoto that sold 8,000-yen postcards. Each purchase of a postcard included a free guided tour!

    Does that loophole still exist?

  9. Here’s an excerpt from an August 2009 Asahi report (no longer online):

    “Tourism industry officials fear an influx of unlicensed tour guides for foreign visitors is taking business from those with proper credentials, many of whom have undertaken extensive study to gain the right qualifications. Officials say unlicensed guides are undercutting legitimate guide-interpreters by charging relatively cheap rates. Some fear the unlicensed guides, many of whom are foreigners, could project an undesirable image of Japan at a time when the nation is seeking to attract more international visitors. Under the guide-interpreter business law, established about 60 years ago, only those who have passed national or local government exams can charge fees as guide-interpreters…In late February, officials from the Kanto District Transport Bureau visited Tokyo’s Asakusa district…After questioning more than 10 guides serving overseas visitors during a two-hour period, the officials could not find a single guide with proper qualifications…While penalties under the guide-interpreter business law were raised from 30,000 yen to 500,000 yen in 2006, according to the Japan Tourism Agency, there has never been a single case in which a guide has been fined.”

  10. I’ve also just dug out the old Tokyo Metropolitan Government appeal for foreign tour guides in 2004. As it turns out, they were looking for volunteers so no-one would have earned any money. Their planned routes were:

    1. Streets of Shinjyuku and Basement of Department Store
    2. 30 Minutes From Shinjyuku; Journey to Enjoy History and Nature (Musashino)
    3. Exploring the Streets of Harajyuku and its Shrine
    4. Route to Savor the Atmosphere of Edo
    5. Japanese Streets and an Oasis in the Heart of the City

    They required Level 2 Japanese or other evidence of proficiency. I don’t know what response they got but I suppose it would be a mix of public service-minded individuals along with a few who thought it could stand them in good stead for a PR application.

    Separately, this appeared in a 2005 Asahi report (no longer online):

    “As of March 2004, about 1,700 bilingual and multilingual residents of the capital were registered with the metropolitan government, although not all of them provide guided tours. They include retirees, foreigners who have been living in Tokyo for a long time and younger Japanese who may have lived overseas as children or accompanied their spouses during foreign assignments.”

  11. The Guild-Interpreter law as it is written is really outdated. The law was put into the books in 1949! I imagine the US occupation GHQ trying to put a stop to all the street urchins leading the GI`s to the local red light district for a buck. It also does a pretty good job of censoring and whitewashing the tourists experience – working to ensure a very predictable and boring tour experience. This barrier to foreign residents of Japan who can offer a unique perspective of their local to visitors (as well as native English/Chinese/Korean etc) really should be done away with asap.

  12. All tour guides must be licensed as it involves a high degree of responsibility. No country should compromise safety for the sake of cost. A tour guides occupation should be ring fenced just for the country citizens only otherwise foreigners will lead and conduct tours in your soil where more related industries will be affected such as money changers…travel agents. ..coach drivers…hote ls food operators. .shops…touts would rule eventually. illegal guiding is seizable and a compoundable offence as it interferes with the local travel agents act. All tour guides must be licensed and regulated.

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