Photo/Illutration Terumasa Yamada forms an “O” for “osekkai” (officiousness) with his arms in Osaka’s Kita Ward on June 5, with the Umeda Sky Building, a popular spot among foreign tourists, in the background. (Sachi Otsuta)

OSAKA--Terumasa Yamada has always felt that his fellow Osaka residents are friendly, amiable and willing to offer a helping hand before they are asked.

However, this spirit of “osekkai” (officiousness) has not necessarily been extended to foreign visitors.

Yamada, 39, said many of his acquaintances who operate shops and businesses cannot work up the courage to talk to non-Japanese people because they can’t speak English.

This trend was the reason Yamada and other volunteers established Osaka Osekkai Lab in 2015. Its main activity is to increase the number of Osakans who can talk to and help foreign travelers in need.

Yamada now serves as the second-generation director of the group.

Osaka Osekkai Lab has hosted various events where participants can learn simple English phrases in a fun way and feel confident in speaking the language.

It also organizes workshops for participants to improve their osekkai skills.

In one workshop, Osakans can learn how to casually communicate with foreigners with just three English phrases. Another workshop offers tips on how to approach foreign visitors in need of assistance at train stations and other places.

One particularly popular method for learning the language and osekkai is playing “Okini! Osaka Osekkai Game.”

The “sugoroku” board game is themed on railway lines running in the Kansai region, with each station represented by squares.

Players roll a die to move from station to station to reach the goal of Namba Station. They are required to speak English to introduce must-see spots in the region or explain how to transfer from one line to another when they stop at each station.

Participants play the “Okini! Osaka Osekkai Game” board game. (Provided by Osaka Osekkai Lab)

Participants say they can learn simple English words like “change” and “go” and understand how to use gestures in a fun way.

After playing the game, Yamada takes participants out on the streets to test their skills.

They must approach foreign tourists who appear in need of help and give explanations in English and physical gestures.

Many of them gain confidence after seeing that they can communicate with tourists from abroad.

Yamada takes pride in growing up in the osekkai culture.

He was an only child, and his parents were busy with their jobs, but he never felt lonely because other people cared about him.

He remembers how his grandmother, who still lives under the same roof, would often walk around the neighborhood and ask people, “What’s the matter?”

In Japanese, the phrase is sympathetic but not too intrusive.

The “Okini! Osaka Osekkai Game” board game was created by Terumasa Yamada and other members of the Osaka Osekkai Lab. (Provided by Osaka Osekkai Lab)

Seeing how the neighbors would open up to his grandmother, Yamada learned that osekkai was a form of compassion toward others.

Learning from her example, he found it natural to ask the same phrase to people he came across who seemed to need help.

Lately, however, Yamada feels that many language-challenged people find it embarrassing to talk to others even if they are in obvious need of assistance.

He encourages them to say, “What’s the matter?” and believes that a smile and compassion are all it takes to overcome a language barrier.

Things had been going smoothly until the novel coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, and foreign tourists could not enter Japan.

After Japan finally lifted its entry ban this year, the group redesigned its official website to resume its activities in full swing.

It also plans to host an event in September.

“When I looked up the word ‘osekkai’ in a dictionary, I found that it had a negative meaning of ‘being intrusive and offering unwanted help,’” Yamada said. “I want to promote Osaka’s osekkai culture to the world so that the dictionary definition will be rewritten in a positive manner.”