Photo/IllutrationA licensed guide interpreter shows foreign tourists around the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

With record numbers of foreigners visiting Japan and licensed tourist guides in short supply, regulations on certifying paid guides who are qualified to use their lingual talent have been eased for the first time in the almost 70 years since the law was enacted.

The tourism industry is reacting with joy for the possibility of alleviating the shortage of licensed “tsuyaku annaishi” guide interpreters. However, the Japan Guide Association expressed concerns about the possibility of underqualified guides emerging.

An amended law that allows guide interpreters to work in a paid capacity without national licensing was enacted on May 26, marking the first major easing of the 1949 law.

In 2016, the number of foreigners visiting Japan totaled about 24.04 million, marking a record-high for the fourth consecutive year.

Government-certified guide interpreters were the only ones who can offer paid services for non-Japanese tourists in foreign languages until now. The licensing law was established to pass on accurate information about Japan to visitors, and those guides are sometimes described as “civil diplomats.”

Previously, anyone without the license, who hoped to guide foreigners around while speaking in their native tongue, was allowed to work only on a voluntary basis.

The licensing exam, organized by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), is held annually, and examinees must take written tests such as the foreign language of their choice, geography, history and politics, and a speaking test.

The JNTO offers licenses in 10 non-Japanese languages. A total of 2,404 passed the exam with a pass rate of 21.3 percent in fiscal 2016.

The revision of the law was to help address the current disparity in demand and supply of guide interpreters around the country.

As of April 2016, about 20,000 guide interpreters were registered, and about 70 percent of them specialize in English.

However, the largest national group visiting here is from China with about 6.3 million visitors (about 26 percent), followed by South Korea with about 5 million (about 21 percent).

The total number from East Asian and Southeast Asian regions took up 80 percent of the overall foreign visitors, presenting a wide disparity from the ratio of available guide interpreters who can offer services in their native tongues.

Adding to that, three-quarters of the license holders reside in the Tokyo metropolitan area and the Kansai region, presenting another gap for local governments and tourism industries in other regions, which want to attract more foreign tourists.

To solve the situation, the government decided to allow non-licensees to work as paid guide interpreters, while keeping the national certificate program as a qualification for high-standard guide interpreters.

The amendment also sets out for a new program of “regional guide interpreters” who could offer specialized knowledge for local areas to combat the shortage of guide interpreters in provincial regions.

However, some have been voicing concerns that the amended law may cause a negative impact as it could serve as an endorsement for low-quality guides.

Yukari Kiwaki, a senior official of the Japan Guide Association, believes that “foreign language proficiency alone is not enough” to make a good guide.

“A guide shapes the impression of Japan (on foreign tourists),” Kiwaki said. “It is important to make elaborate preparations, such as visiting destinations beforehand to study, and present them history, culture and charms of places to give better satisfaction, and to make them repeat visitors to Japan.”

The Japan Tourism Agency, within the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, has said that it will set up a new registration system for intermediate tour operators called “land operators” in Japan, which arrange guides on behalf of travel agencies, to tighten regulations for the newly flourishing business, and prevent the deterioration of quality of guide interpreters.

The government has set a target to boost the number of foreign visitors to Japan to 40 million by 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics will be staged.

An executive member of a major travel agency said they are counting on the relaxing of the regulations to “enrich human resources.”