Few train stations around the world, if any, can rival Tokyo's Shin-Okubo Station in the number of languages used to help foreigners.

A prerecorded safety announcement reminds passengers to "walk on the right side of stairs and passageways" in more than 20 languages.

It was Hisashi Abe, the 59-year-old former stationmaster, who came up with this idea when he was asked by the local merchants' association to help foreign visitors who don't know their way around navigate so they do not obstruct others.

Abe was already well aware that a large number of foreign students who didn't speak Japanese were struggling to communicate with station attendants at turnstiles and ticket offices.

Because of its large ethnic Korean community, the Shin-Okubo district rose to fame with the popularization of South Korean pop culture in Japan.

But with the district's rapid multinationalization in recent years, it became clear that Korean, Chinese and English were no longer the only foreign languages necessary at Shin-Okubo Station to adequately serve foreigners. In fact, Abe realized, announcements in Vietnamese, Thai and other Asian languages were required.

Abe sought the cooperation of a Japanese language school near the station, asking the students to record announcements in their native tongues.

When the station began running them on the PA system three years ago, the move was hailed on the Internet and went viral.

"Homesickness is universal," noted Abe. "For foreign students who have left their families and come to Japan, how comforting it must be to hear their native languages here."

Abe himself, a native of the Aomori Prefecture town of Imabetsu near Cape Tappi, came to Tokyo after finishing high school. He said his homesickness made him wander around Ueno Station alone in the hopes of hearing someone speaking in his native Aomori dialect.

A well-known poem by Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912) goes: "I slip into the crowd/ Just to hear the accent/ Of my faraway hometown."

When I visited Shin-Okubo Station, it was being remodeled and its multilingual announcements were not being run. But I was stunned by the sheer variety of foreign languages I heard at the turnstiles and on the train platforms, including some languages I'd never heard before.

And among the teeming crowd, I imagined there had to be young people who were there just to listen to their native tongues.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 31

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.