The Vital Work and Challenging Conditions Faced by Japan’s Court Interpreters


When foreigners who do not understand Japanese must appear in a courtroom in Japan, they rely on court interpreters. The need for these professionals and their services is climbing as Japan’s society becomes increasingly international in nature, but the number of people willing to take on this vital work is falling. An experienced court interpreter presents the conditions faced by her colleagues today and the issues that they hope to see addressed.

A Dwindling Group of Professionals

In 2017, the number of foreign visitors to Japan cleared 28 million for the first time ever, and the number of foreign residents in the country similarly marked an all-time high of 2.5 million. These climbing figures have naturally been accompanied by increases in the numbers of criminal incidents and legal disputes involving foreigners, leading to more and more foreign plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses appearing in courts of law.

Both international covenants on human rights to which Japan is party and the country’s own Code of Criminal Procedure stipulate that when these foreign participants in trial proceedings cannot communicate in Japanese, court interpreters will be hired with public funds. Unlike interpreters who specialize in business meetings or medical treatment, court interpreters have their roles clearly spelled out in law, and a trial involving non-Japanese-speakers cannot be convened if no interpreter is available.

Despite the rising demand for these professionals, though, there is a growing shortage of court interpreters. According to an informational pamphlet published by the Supreme Court of Japan in January 2018, in 2016 a total of 2,624 defendants from 68 countries required interpreting services in court trials. The languages most required by this rising number of people are, in order, Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Filipino (Tagalog). The Supreme Court maintains a list of court interpreters to meet these needs: As of April 2017, it contained 3,823 people covering 62 languages—but this is down more than 200 people from five years previously. The main reason for this dwindling pool of professionals is the heavy burden of the work they must perform.

A Job for Highly Educated Multilingual Women?

Court interpreters in criminal trials are tasked with interpreting and translation duties from when a suspect is formally indicted, becoming a defendant, until a judgment is handed down. They are selected on a per-case basis and work basically as self-employed business operators, performing their duties in courtrooms, detention centers, and lawyers’ offices.

There are no restrictions in terms of nationality or academic background for those wishing to become court interpreters, and no particular public credentials are required. The government does not regularly hire new interpreters; rather, people seeking to become court interpreters contact their local courthouse, arrange an interview with a judge, and attend a basic training program in courtroom interpretation, held once or twice a year. Here candidates receive instruction from judges and people already working as court interpreters before taking part in mock trials in an actual courtroom. Once these steps are complete, they are added to the rolls of court interpreters. Over time, they build up enough experience to qualify for further intermediate and advanced training carried out every few years.

I was part of a group that surveyed a total of 156 experienced court interpreters on their work in 2012 and 2017. Our research found that the average court interpreter is a woman in her forties or fifties, living in an urban area, with a high level of education. Around 60% of interpreters are native speakers of Japanese who have mastered a foreign language. With the exception of Chinese, three of the top four languages listed above qualify as unusual languages for Japanese people to study; this means that a considerable number of native speakers of other languages who have learned Japanese also serve as court interpreters.

In 1993, when I was a graduate student at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies (today part of Osaka University), I began working as an interpreter for the Filipino-Japanese language pair. One day, while I was in class, my phone rang—a call from the Osaka Prefectural Police Headquarters requesting my services the following day. I went to a police station, where I did my first interpreting for a Philippine citizen being questioned in connection with a methamphetamine case. Following further assignments for the Public Prosecutors Office and the regional bar association, I made my full-fledged debut as a court interpreter.

Since then, I have worked on some 500 cases. The most common type of case has been immigration violations, such as foreign residents overstaying their visas; second on the list is cases involving illegal drugs. I have also worked on cases of murder and attempted murder, bodily injury, theft, and sham marriages. Most of this work has been between Filipino and Japanese, but at times I have done English-Japanese interpreting as well.

Low Pay, Low Satisfaction

What precisely does the court interpreter’s job involve? Let me give an overview, using the example of a theft case where the defendant admitted his guilt.

I receive a phone call one day from a court clerk, telling me that an interpreting job was available for my language pair and asking whether I was available at a certain time on a certain day. After agreeing to take the job, I am told the crime involved and given the contact information for the lawyer handling the case. If the suspect is being detained, I accompany the lawyer to meet with him or her at a police station or detention center. The Japan Legal Support Center pays my travel expenses and the interpreting fees, which are set at ¥8,000 for a 30-minute session, with an additional ¥1,000 for each 10 minutes thereafter.

The busiest period for an interpreter is the three to four days prior to the opening of court proceedings. The prosecutors send an opening statement, an overview of the evidence, and an outline of the closing statement they are preparing. Depending on the nature of the case, these documents can extend to around 10 printed pages. The defendant’s legal representatives also send an overview of their planned statements, which means at least three more pages. All of this must be translated for verbal presentation at the trial, printed out, and taken to the courtroom on the trial’s first day.

On the day the trial opens, I go first to the clerk’s chambers, where I take the interpreter’s oath, sign a card registering my appearance in court that day, and sign and affix my seal to the invoice for my day’s interpreting fee and travel costs. After entering the courtroom, I sit next to the stenographer and set up my microphone. The defendant uses earphones to listen to the interpretation; as there is some distance between my seat and the defendant’s location, a wireless system makes it easier for the defendant to hear what is being said. All statements in the courtroom, including my interpretations, are recorded from the moment court is opened until it is adjourned.

When the indictment is read aloud, I relay its content via consecutive interpretation, waiting for a passage of Japanese to be spoken and following it with the other language. For the opening statement, the presentation of the evidence, the closing statement, and the lawyer’s remarks, though, I follow along with the translations prepared in advance, relaying their content simultaneously. This is done in order to save time. I use consecutive translation again for the examinations of the witnesses and questioning of the defendant. In many cases, the verdict is reached after a single session in court; sentencing takes place on another day, however, and consecutive interpretation is used here as well.

Many trials are wrapped up in about an hour. For this amount of work, I earn around ¥15,000 for my interpreting services. After sentencing, this amount, along with my travel expenses, is transferred to my bank account. As the courts publish no official standards on how these fees are actually calculated, there is no detailed breakdown of the money that I receive—a factor that many experienced interpreters describe as a source of dissatisfaction in surveys of the profession. Many readers may see an hourly wage of ¥15,000 as quite high, but the four or five hours spent translating the documents used in the proceedings go unpaid.

Uncertain Income for a Difficult Job

What are the main problems facing the court interpreting profession today? First and foremost is the uncertain nature of interpreters’ income. The reasons for this instability are structural. Even if a person is included on the list of available interpreters, there is no way of knowing when a work request will arrive. For this reason, many court interpreters take on additional work as translators, interpreters, or language instructors. What is more, there is no room for negotiating a better rate for the work involved. There being no labor union for interpreters, even if the courts were to decide unilaterally to reduce pay levels, there would not even be any advance notice of this change to people in the profession. Since no standards are clearly spelled out, there is little way to judge whether the pay matches the skill levels of those receiving it.

Second, the excessive burden of this work on those performing it has become an accepted state of affairs. Interpreters are human beings, not machines. After wrapping up the pretrial translations, an interpreter must perform an hour or so of grueling work nonstop in a trial session. If it is a trial involving lay judges, Japan’s version of civilian jurors, the trial can take much longer and stretch over many days, creating still more paperwork that needs to be translated in time for the next session. It is not uncommon for a court interpreter to only get three or four hours of sleep a night at times like these. Survey responses from interpreters include comments along the lines of “I wish they would give us time to drink water during trial proceedings” and “There should be a place in the courthouse for interpreters to get some rest in between their duties.”

Third is the low level of understanding of what it is that court interpreters do. There seems to be a general assumption that court-appointed interpreters are incapable of making errors, but mistakes are something that cannot be avoided in interpretation. As an experiment, you might try to speak in your first language (the tongue in which you communicate most fluently) for a solid hour. You will find that you get tired and that your tongue slips several times during your speech. We cannot expect an interpreter to do that job for a similar length of time with zero misspoken words or missed bits of information. Indeed, what we need is a mindset in the courtroom that says mistakes in interpretation will be corrected as soon as they are noticed, and the interpreter will be allowed to rest if fatigue sets in.

Some trials attract broad societal attention, and the public gallery is at times filled with reporters writing stories on the proceedings. At times, though, their stories focus only on the “mistranslations” spoken by the court interpreter. I am not saying, of course, that these errors do not take place—but for an independent contractor who relies solely on her skill and the trust placed in her by clients, this sort of bashing in the media can take a heavy toll, both mentally and financially. It is easy to criticize mistakes that an interpreter makes. I would like to see journalists think also about the reasons that these mistakes appear in the first place.

The Need for New Systems in Our Workplace

As difficult as this work can be, we have no place to register our complaints about it. Some interpreters put up with the hardship and keep at it, while others quietly walk away from the work. My hope is that we can prevent these conditions from continuing, making it easier for the next generation of court interpreters to fill these roles, by improving the treatment and compensation they receive.

In March 2018 I interviewed court interpreters from the Netherlands. I learned that they undergo skills testing to qualify as interpreters and attend specified educational institutions, where they take courses in criminal law and laws relevant to foreigners in their country, before being registered as court interpreters. Borrowing from examples like this, I hope that Japan’s courts will also increase the frequency of training offered to interpreters and work to evaluate their work in terms both of their legal knowledge and their interpretation skills. And I hope to see prosecutors and lawyers also show more understanding of interpreters, as well as a cooperative attitude to them.

Some people take the mistaken view that court interpretation is something to do on a casual basis, like volunteer work. This is not the case, though: it is an important duty that comes with responsibilities and is worth fair remuneration. To young people who are considering a career in language services, I would recommend observing a trial involving interpretation at the courthouse nearest to them. Trial schedules are available at the reception desk in each courthouse, and anyone can view them and observe a trial, space permitting. The district courts in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, and other major cities generally see several trials a day involving foreigners requiring interpretation. It may be overwhelming to experience the atmosphere in which our work is done, but if even one person watches a court interpreter in action, recognizes how indispensable they are for trial proceedings, and decides “I want to do this too,” we would welcome you happily to our ranks.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner image: At a trial, the court interpreter sits to the right below the higher seats for the judge and civilian jurors, facing the witness stand. In this image the interpreter is using an ordinary microphone and speakers, not a wireless system. Illustration © Enomoto Yoshitaka.)

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