Megaphone Translator in Japan Makes It Easy to Shout in Different Languages

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The Panasonic Megahonyaku intelligent megaphone.

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Japan's obsession with keeping order and tech prowess has reached its natural conclusion with an intelligent megaphone that can issue commands in Chinese, English and Korean.

Panasonic Corp. recently unveiled the device—essentially a smartphone paired with a handheld loudspeaker—betting that police, event organizers and transport staff seeking to control crowds will be eager to get their hands on something that lets them bark orders to a large group of people at once. 

Introducing Panasonic's Multilingual Megaphone

While the gadget might fall into the category of another Japanese invention in search of a problem—a net gun debuted in 2002 to control soccer fans—there's a decent chance the smart megaphone might succeed. Tourism is climbing, and Tokyo is bracing for an influx of visitors for the 2020 Olympic Games. More than 20 million people have visited the archipelago this year, up 23 percent from a year earlier, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. Spurred by growing incomes abroad and more relaxed visa requirements, the number of tourists is projected to swell to 45 million annually by the end of the decade.

The megaphone is able to match spoken Japanese to 300 preset expressions in English, Korean and Chinese with a press of a button. It goes on sale on Dec. 20 with a three-year contract that will cost less than $180 per month, and will be marketed to airports, event halls and theme parks. The device is part of a planned lineup of tourist-friendly products from Osaka-based Panasonic, including a wearable translator and multilingual cash registers.

Eventually, Panasonic is aiming to make the megaphone translate in real time by linking it to a cloud-based translation service. A prototype on display at a showroom in Tokyo is already quite capable: it can tell you to get off the grass in three languages or tell you that the sushi is sold out. Still, some things get lost in translation. A warning not to use drones ended up saying "the thief shocking is not permitted here," (mistaking drone for the Japanese word for burglar, or dorobo). Panasonic says it will iron out the kinks before switching on real-time translation.