As a country, Japan scores “Low” on the English Proficiency Index. Most Japanese people are not very comfortable speaking English, even if they learned it in school. But what does this mean for foreigners visiting Japan? Do you need to learn Japanese?
No knowledge of Japanese is needed to visit tourist areas in Japan and big cities like Tokyo. Signage is often bilingual, and most Japanese people do know basic English words. Gestures and simple phrases are usually sufficient. Rural areas are less English-friendly, but it’s still possible to visit without knowing Japanese.
Below I’ll share specific examples of when it would help you to know some Japanese, and which phrases are most useful. I’ll share what it’s like at restaurants, train stations, and so on. I’ll also share tips for how to manage in situations when you don’t understand the language!
How Much English Is There in Japan?
Despite the “low English profiency” in Japan, it’s not like there’s no English signage around.
With Tokyo hosting the Olympics recently, there was a lot more effort put into making Japan English-friendly in recent years. So there’s more bilingual signage today than ever before.
People who work at info desks in the airport and train stations will always speak English. Typically, public maps (like those of the subway system) will also have English.
As far as Japanese people, they typically study English in school from a young age. However, most of them don’t get many opportunities to practice outside of school.
Therefore, even though most Japanese won’t feel comfortable conversing in English with you, they can understand simple words and sentences. This is especially true of younger Japanese people.
All of these factors help bridge the language gap for foreign visitors who don’t speak Japanese.
Getting Around Without Japanese in Japan
If you’ve never fumbled your way around a foreign country before, you may be surprised how much you can communicate with hand signals, gestures, and very simple words (Japanese or English).
For example, when you enter a restaurant, you can just hold up a number of fingers to communicate how many people are in your party.
Most restaurant menus also have pictures of the food next to each listing. So just pointing to what you want is usually effective.
When asking for directions, simple words like “doko” (“where”) can achieve a lot—even if your Japanese is basically nothing beyond that.
And really, in many cases you don’t even need “doko.” Just say “Toilet?” And they will know what you’re looking for.
Cities vs Rural Areas
The amount of English signage in Japan depends a lot on where you’re going. Some cities and areas are very tourist-oriented. Those places have much more English.
Tokyo is the most international and English-friendly city, especially in the common tourist areas. People say it’s like visiting Paris without knowing French, if you’ve had that experience. (It’s not bad at all.)
You might feel a bit more helpless or lost at times in smaller cities or rural Japan.
Should I Learn Japanese Before Going to Japan?
Let’s discuss the cost vs benefit of learning some Japanese before your trip. How long would it take to learn enough Japanese to really improve your communication with locals?
Unfortunately, Japanese is one of the “hardest” languages for English speakers to learn. In truth, it’s not actually “harder,” but it’s very different from English. So it takes a very long time.
The US Department of State estimates that it takes 3 to 4 times longer for a native English speaker to learn Japanese than to learn Spanish.
It’s likely not worth spending a year or two on achieving conversational fluency in Japanese just for a short visit to Japan.
That said, if you have the time, it’s never a bad idea to learn at least a little bit of Japanese before visiting. It can only enrich your experience and help you.
Japanese people really appreciate when you learn to speak a bit of their language when visiting. So what’s the most useful Japanese to learn?
Most Helpful Japanese to Learn Before Visiting
If you choose to learn some Japanese for your visit, you should start with just learning some phrases and words.
You’ll likely want to focus on spoken phrases. You might choose not to learn the written alphabets at all. Japanese has 3 alphabets, and one of them (kanji) is extremely time-consuming to learn.
I’ll share a fun tip below if you do want to learn to read some Japanese for your trip. But first, let’s cover which types of spoken phrases will be most useful:
- Numbers: These will allow you to communicate about dates, times, addresses, train numbers, and so on. I’ll give you the first three now: “ichi” (1), “ni” (2), “san” (3). Learn more if you have the time!
- Pleasantries: It’s fun to be able to say things like “Delicious!” (“Oishii!”) at a restaurant, or “Good morning” (“ohayo gozaimasu”) to people you meet.
- Directions: Words like “doko” (where), “asoko” (there), and “koko” (here) are very practical and easy to use in combination with pointing at maps.
- Colors: The train and bus lines are often named by color.
- Your country: Japanese people often ask where you come from. It’s fun to be able to reply in Japanese. For Americans, you can say “Amerika-jin desu” (“I’m American”). For Canadians, it’s “Kanada-jin desu,” and so on.
There are plenty of free resources online that will teach you Japanese basics like these, from blog posts to YouTube videos and podcasts.
If you want to go a bit deeper, consider doing a month or two of Pimsleur lessons. Pimsleur is an app that costs about $20/month, and it has really fun audio lessons.
Right from the first lesson, you’ll practice saying things like “Do you understand English?” So it’s perfect for travelers to learn the basics and a little beyond.
Pimsleur focuses on spoken phrases. But what if you want to read some of the Japanese signs you see?
Learning Katakana for a Trip to Japan
If you’d like to learn to read some Japanese for your trip, it’s easiest to learn katakana. Katakana is used for loan words, such as words borrowed from English.
And here’s the fun part: You can learn to pronounce all the katakana characters in just an hour or two. And then you’ll be able to read quite a few words on buildings and signs.
I remember my first time successfully reading a sign on a Japanese building in katakana: “KA… RA… OH… KE…” After I pronounced each letter, I realized: Whoa, that sign says “karaoke”! I read a word in Japanese! So fun.
Some other katakana words that I remember made me very happy to recognize the first time:
- コンピューター (pronounced “konpyūtā”) = computer
- シャワー (pronounced “shawā”) = shower
- リラックス (pronounced “rirakkusu”) = relax
The hiragana alphabet is also quick to learn—it has the same number of basic characters as katakana. But it doesn’t have the same benefit of having English loan words.
The third alphabet, kanji, takes months or years to learn. There are thousands of these characters, originally borrowed from Chinese. I wouldn’t recommend trying to learn them just for a visit!
The #1 Tip for When You’re Lost and Confused in Japan
Have mobile data on your phone! Make sure you have a sim card or some way to access the internet from your smartphone while traveling in Japan. That way, you can use your own map in English.
For most foreigners traveling in Japan, the most valuable app will be Google Translate. It has many features that come in handy, whether you’re working with written or spoken language.
Be familiar with how to use Google Translate. You can translate words on signage or food packages with your phone camera. You can even have locals speak into your phone, and it can transcribe and translate it to English on the spot.
Can You Live in Japan Without Speaking Japanese?
Living for months or years in Japan without knowing the language will obviously be harder than just a short visit. However, there are many foreigners who do it.
In fact, many foreigners who come to Japan as an English teacher do not know much (if any) Japanese upon arrival.
The main limitation will be in the range of jobs available to you. Most organizations function entirely in Japanese. So unless it’s a position like English teaching, which centers around your English ability, then your options may be limited.
It can also be hard to make friends with locals in Japan if you don’t know the language. And handling “official” interactions at banks or government institutions can be harder.
There is obviously a bigger payoff for learning Japanese if you’re living in the country long-term. That said, there are quite a few foreigners who make it work, especially in the major cities like Tokyo and Osaka.
Your Attitude Makes the Difference
In any case, your attitude makes a big difference in how well you can travel in Japan without knowing the language.
Don’t expect the country to cater to you. Be humble, polite, and patient. Speak slowly. Learn at least a few basic phrases to show you’re willing to put in some effort.
If you do your best, you can get around Tokyo and other big cities without really any Japanese at all.
Smaller cities and rural areas will occasionally be more challenging, but Google Translate will be able to save you in many of these situations, as well.