KYOTO--Armed with only language skills, a special police corps is being deployed here to act as interpreters when overseas tourists get lost or encounter other difficulties during the teeming Gion Festival.
Last year, 50 or so police officers were dispatched as "designated interpreters" and posted along the roadside and elsewhere to assist out-of-town visitors. More are being assigned to serve in a similar capacity this year.
In addition, a special unit of about 10 staff members who can converse in English, Chinese, Korean, French and Vietnamese will be on hand during the July 17 Saki-Matsuri (former festival) and the July 24 Ato-Matsuri (latter festival). These events, involving a Yamahoko Junko parade of fancy floats, are the climax of the annual festival.
The prefectural police department earmarked 4 million yen ($35,500) this fiscal year for the interpreters’ corps. Its members will wear vests with the name of the language they speak. The vehicle carrying members of the corps will have an electric bulletin board installed to inform overseas visitors that interpreters are available.
Police officials are keen to make sure that foreign tourists do not break commonsense rules and customs, such as by stepping out onto a street where a float is proceeding or closely following a procession on foot.
"And then there is always the possibility that foreign tourists could be targeted by pickpockets or become embroiled in disputes with people who drank too much alcohol," said Koichi Yamada, a deputy head of the community police affairs section. "Our aim is to establish a system that allows us to deal with such contingencies."
The Gion Festival, one of Japan's three major festivals, continues throughout the month of July. It drew an estimated 910,000 visitors last year over an eight-day period from the Saki-Matsuri to the Ato-Matsuri.