Skip to content

The 47 Japanese Prefecture Websites Support 90+1 Languages

We learn about foreign residents in Japan by visualizing the foreign language support of Japanese prefecture websites.

Quantified Stream
10 min read
English is the most supported language, followed by Korean and Simplified Chinese.

Japan is made up of 47 prefectures. The graph above shows the most supported foreign languages by the official websites of these prefectures. A total of 90 languages were supported, including Japanese.

The differences in the supported languages can partly be explained by the varying distribution of nationalities in each prefecture:

Foreign Residents Survey (Ministry of Justice)

The prefectures in the above stacked bar plot are ordered from North to South (JIS CODE), as you can see in the following map:

Tokyoship, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Different prefectures have different kinds of people, so I decided to investigate what languages the websites of Japanese prefectures support.

Data and Limitations

I couldn't find any existing datasets about prefecture websites, so I manually checked every prefecture's website. As I visited each page, I inserted the data into a SQL database that I designed for this purpose1. I checked a few times, but this was a manual process, so there could be minor mistakes. This data was collected in December 2020.

I am only looking at languages that were used to provide general information and could be easily accessed from the main Japanese site2. Since I'm not able to rate the quality of translations for most of these languages, we will just look at whether a prefecture has the intention to provide information in a certain language on their website. Therefore, links to Google Translate for specific languages are counted as well.

I am also using a dataset about foreigners in Japan, from The Portal Site of National Statistics of Japan.

Also, I hope this is interesting, but I'm only looking at a small part of someone's life in Japan. I am not aware of any correlation between the number of languages supported on the official prefecture website and the quality of life.

Most Commonly Supported Languages

Here is the graph at the beginning of this page, showing the most supported foreign languages:

Languages supported by more than 3 prefectures

The support of many of these languages makes sense when you compare this to where foreigners in Japan are from:

Foreign Residents Survey (Ministry of Justice)

For example, there are only 604 people from Portugal in Japan, but Portuguese is supported for the Brazilian population of over 200,000 people nationwide (June 2020).

However, it does seem like there are languages that should be better supported, such as Nepali.

Languages that should be better supported

This is not a comprehensive analysis that demonstrates how adding support in x language will improve the lives of y% of a group of people by z amount. I could not find enough data to investigate how well the needs of different groups with unique needs are met. However, I did try to identify which languages should probably be better supported.

I chose a number n = 5 and looked at whether each prefecture supported the top 5 most commonly spoken foreign languages. I chose this number because it seemed like the smallest number that would still allow me to identify some of the biggest problems.

The 14 groups that were in the top 5 places of origin in some prefecture in Japan were people from Brazil, Vietnam, China, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Korea, Myanmar, Peru, and the United States.

Of these, people from China, Vietnam, and the Philippines were part of the top 5 in every single prefecture, followed by South Korea at 42 prefectures, Brazil at 18 prefectures, and Indonesia at 15 prefectures.

The following graph shows the number of prefectures that did not support the main language from each of these countries, even though the people from there were part of the top 5 in terms of nationality:

Nationality Data Source: Foreign Residents Survey (Ministry of Justice)

For the Philippines in particular, it might be better to count English, but I'm not assuming that people from any of these countries understand English (excluding the United States).  Even if many Filipinos in Japan understand English, more websites should probably support languages like Tagalog and Cebuano considering the large population.

However, I am assuming that Taiwanese people can read traditional Chinese without problems, because I usually hear "I can't write simplified (or traditional) but I can read it."

There are many other factors that could be considered, but it does seem beneficial for more prefectures to support Tagalog, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Nepali.

Comparisons by Region

To see if there are any trends by region, I created a map of how many languages each prefecture supported:

Map: Number of Supported Languages on Prefecture Website
Made with Nipponmap

If we look at the regions in Japan, it seems like the Tohoku and Chugoku regions might have a lower number of supported languages.

Map of Regions of Japan:

Montydrei, Bobo12345 (translation), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are indeed different numbers of supported languages by region, though the difference between the outliers and the rest of the prefectures is much larger than the difference between each of the individual regions:

However, if we look at the number of supported languages per foreigner population, we see that the Kanto and Kansai regions are low:

Population Data Source: Foreign Residents Survey (Ministry of Justice)

This doesn't mean that areas with fewer foreigners have better foreign language support. It's just that prefectures with a foreigner population that is 2 or 3 times of another prefecture still have a relatively similar number of supported languages:

Population Data Source: Foreign Residents Survey (Ministry of Justice)

The median number of languages supported in Kanto prefectures is 7, but this is only 3 languages greater than a median of 4 for Chugoku and Tohoku regions.

Yasashii Nihongo (やさしい日本語)

Many websites also had a Yasahii Nihongo page, which literally means "Easy Japanese." This is a language that was developed to make Japanese easier to understand (It's also the "+1" in the title of this post):

Easy Japanese was developed by a research group led by Kazuyuki Sato, a sociolinguistics professor at Hirosaki University, following the Jan. 17, 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, when it emerged that many foreigners with little to no understanding of Japanese were unable to receive crucial information on evacuation and relief services.

Linguistics professor Isao Iori at Hitotsubashi University argues that Yasashii Nihongo should be used as the common language in local communities:

English is a poor candidate because, for the majority of foreign residents living in Japan, English is less accessible than Japanese (Iwata, 2010)
... it has been taken for granted that any foreigner who wants to join local Japanese communities should master a native-like level of Japanese. However, the imbalanced relationship this fosters between the two groups of residents is by no means desirable, and so this approach should be abandoned.

I did not keep count on how many websites supported Yasashii Nihongo, but many did. A high quality Yasashii Nihongo page might be more important than trying to support a large number of languages.

Some Notable Prefectures

I'm just listing things I noticed from some of the prefecture websites.

Kanagawa(神奈川)

Kanagawa Location

Website

When you click "Translate" at the top of the Kanagawa Prefecture website, it leads you to a page translated to English. Clicking any of the menu items opens the relevant Google Translate page, which defaults to English.

I was about to count Kanagawa as just English because it was the language that links pointed to, but then I noticed an "Other Languages" link, which included Google Translate links for 89 languages:

I initially missed the "Other Languages" link

Personally, I think it'd be better to move the "Other Languages" to the "Multilingual Translation" page, but it'd be unfair to not count everything that they specifically linked.

Fukuoka(福岡)

Fukuoka Location

Website

On the other hand, Fukuoka is the only prefecture that I counted as 1 supported language (English). They only had English and Yasashii Nihongo linked on the Japanese homepage.

They actually do have a Chinese page, with links to Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese at the top. However, I had to search in Chinese (福冈县) to find this page instead of finding a link on the Japanese homepage, so it did not meet my criteria. If I counted these languages, I would have to do many more searches for every prefecture, which I lack to resources to do.

It might be worth noting that more than 60% of the foreigner population in Fukuoka Prefecture is located in Fukuoka City and Kitakyushu City, and the former supports Simplified Chinese and Korean, and the latter supports even more languages.

Miyazaki(宮崎)

Miyazaki Location

Website

Miyazaki decided to support 18 languages even though there are fewer than 8000 foreigners living in Miyazaki (June 2020). They just provide Google Translate links, but they still decided to manually create links for these languages.

Excluding Kanagawa, the least common languages nationwide were as follows:

  • Arabic: Fukui
  • Mongolian: Niigata
  • Dutch: Miyazaki
  • Swedish: Miyazaki
  • Malay: Miyazaki, Fukui
  • Hindi: Miyazaki, Fukui
  • Italian: Miyazaki, Fukui, Osaka

You can see that Miyazaki Prefecture had an interesting choice in languages.

It doesn't seem like a large proportion of foreigners in Miyazaki speak these languages either:

Table: Foreigners in Miyazaki by Country of Origin (June 2020)

Country Relevant Language Count Proportion of Foreigner Population
Sweden Swedish 2 0.00026
Netherlands Dutch 4 0.00052
Italy Italian 13 0.0017
Malaysia Malay 18 0.0023
India Hindi 49 0.0064

Source: Foreign Residents Survey (Ministry of Justice)

Perhaps some of these languages make sense in a way I haven't realized, but either way it's interesting that Miyazaki is supporting 18 languages when so many larger prefectures are only supporting a few languages.

Miyazaki City's website supported English, Simplified Chinese, and Korean. They also have a Google Translate widget which adds support for Traditional Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Burmese, Nepali, and Vietnamese.

Fukui(福井)

Fukui Location

Website

There are 16234 foreigners living in Fukui, and they supported 15 languages including German, Italian, and Hindi, even though there probably aren't many speakers of these languages:

Table: Foreigners in Fukui by Country of Origin (June 2020)

Country Relevant Language Count Proportion of Foreigner Population
Germany German 6 0.00037
Italy Italian 16 0.00099
India Hindi 27 0.0017

Source: Foreign Residents Survey (Ministry of Justice)

Niigata(新潟)

Niigata Location

Website

Niigata supported 7 languages: English, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian, and Mongolian.

Mongolians only make up 1.25% of Niigata Foreigners, but this is the 2nd highest percentage in Japan after Iwate prefecture's 1.28% (June 2020).

Fukushima(福島)

Fukushima Location

Website

Fukushima provided links to 3 different pages on their "Foreign Language" page, with explanations in English, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and Korean. I counted these 4 languages.

The tourism page was provided in the same 4 languages.

"The Official Website for Revitalization in Fukushima" and "Monitoring Information of Radioactivity Materials" pages were provided in additional languages such as German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai.

There was COVID-19 information page and hotline with many languages, and there seems to be support in many more languages.

I also found information for foreign students in Yasashii Nihongo.

Chiba(千葉)

Chiba Location

Website

Though I decided to remove COVID-19 information, Chiba prefecture provided pandemic information in Burmese, which I don't recall seeing in other prefecture websites.

They have 1656 people from Myanmar, which was the 4th highest behind Tokyo, Aichi, and Saitama (June 2020). Nationwide, people from Myanmar are 14th in terms of population, so more prefectures should probably support Burmese.

Thoughts

Overall, I liked that the foreign language information was in an easy to access location for every single prefecture. I checked the websites of a few states in the United States and on average it felt like the Japanese websites had easier access to translations.

However, I noticed that some US state websites had a Google Translate widget with options for every language supported by Google Translate. For some reason, none of the prefecture websites in Japan seemed to use this.

Foreign language support on the prefecture's official website may be a small part of someone's life in Japan, but it still can be important to make minor adjustments that slightly improve the lives of some people, so I hope there are more improvements in the future.

Footnotes:

1: I started with SQLite, but I later migrated to PostgreSQL to accomodate changes in my workflow. I used R for querying data from the PostgreSQL database, and reading data from Excel files. Also, ggplot with hrbrthemes is used for the graphs, and NipponMap is used for the maps of Japan (the green ones).

2: I am including general information for residents and tourism information, but not including highly specific information such as COVID-19 information. It would be great if I could look at everything, but I lack the resources for that.

PrefecturesInternet