Self-consciousness kills communication.” 
Rick Steves-

 

English is the worlds international language. I feel very lucky and humble to be able to speak the main language of the world but I sometimes take it for granted in foreign countries and expect menus and signs to be written in English or in a way I can understand.

Written Japanese is one of the hardest languages to read. It has three alphabets seemingly used interchangeably and many children cannot write their own name until they’re 10. One of my main concerns before I moved to Japan was that I wouldn’t be able to read the menus, road signs and places on the map. So are signs and literature produced in English in Japan?

Surprisingly the answer is not very often.

Japan is an island with a unique culture and until recently was completely self sufficient and isolated from the world. It suffers from a kind of Galapagos effect, things are different here than the rest of the world. The average Japanese person living outside of Tokyo has little need to learn English. Of course this is changing fast as Japan re-establishes itself after the economic downturn but the vast majority of Japanese know very little English. Couple this with innate shyness, humility and perfectionism and you have a nation that speaks very little English. To put it bluntly, English is not used because (some) Japanese think It’s useless. All the books are in Japanese, the TV is in Japanese so there’s very little impetus for the majority of people to learn English.

 

All is not lost though!

Romanji

Romanji is my saving grace. To the un-learned eye Japanese is a pile of unrelated symbols. In the tourist destinations of Japan such as Tokyo and Kyoto, Romanji (Japanese written in English) is widely used on menus, maps and in some museums. I am even learning Japanese with Romanji at the moment until my Kana and Kanji skills improve!

Photos on menus

What Japan lacks in written English, it makes up for in photos. Nearly every restaurant or fast food place has photos of the food or intricate plastic models depicting exactly what the dish looks like! Bazinga! This makes it incredibly easy to order food in Japan. A bonus is that you can just point to the photo or model to indicate that that’s the dish you want.

foodmachine Japanesefood

 Helpful Japanese

I’ve found the Japanese to be the most polite and helpful people I’ve ever met. Even in Tokyo people went out of their way to help me carry my suitcase up stairs in the Tokyo metro. If you ever look lost I guarantee that within a few minutes a helpful Japanese person will come to your rescue. Just point at a map or gesture what you need and nine times out of ten they will take you to where you need to go or get their English speaking friend on the phone!

 

Japan has been the hardest country for me in terms of communication. The shyness of Japanese and lack of English skills make simple things tricky but I also find that it’s what gives Japan it’s charm. I’m in a country that tailors for themselves, not tourists so everything feels that much more authentic and ‘real’. Before you come to Japan try and learn a few basic words and phrases in Japanese, they will help you a bunch and the Japanese will be very impressed with your effort!
sunset

Have you ever travelled to Japan? If so did you feel that there was a language barrier? Have you ever travelled to a country where you found it hard to communicate? If so, how did it make you feel?

 

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26 thoughts on “Is English widely used in Japan?

  1. we spent 3 weeks in Japan and there were days in a row where we found no one who spoke English. It was a bit lonely for sure. But with the sushi boat restaurants, ordering from vending machines and ease of travel there it was ok. But you do miss chatting with people to get better insight into the culture. In large cities we sought out the expat communities which was great!
    Karilyn recently posted…Travel Memories: QuesoMy Profile

    1. I’m very lucky to live in an area with a large expat community. I don’t think I’d be able to cope living somewhere and being the only person who can speak English!

    1. I guess people are more inclined to speak to someone on their own. I certainly don’t feel comfortable speaking to couples in case its misconstrued. I mostly had people talking on the metro or whilst wandering around taking photos.

  2. I’ve experienced the same problem when I was living in Leipzig, Germany. People hardly spoke English there, even in the banks or embassies, which I always found a bit… well, weird. Because how can you not speak English nowadays?
    Olga recently posted…20 Hidden Gems In Eastern EuropeMy Profile

    1. Wow, I thought that most Germans were fluent in English! Japan is quite an isolated country so I can understand, but Germany?!

  3. When I first visited a Spanish speaking country, I thought not speaking the language would have been a problem, but it was not. I realized long ago that Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn, but I think you can survive in Japan for a couple days without being able to speak the language.

    1. Oh yes, it’s quite easy to survive in Japan without speaking English, thankfully it’s made for convenience 🙂 I’m now finding that Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn…

  4. I remember getting a bit frustrated when went to Disney Sea in Tokyo, everything, including the shows, were in Japanese. But that nationalism us also part of what I love about Japan. And as you pointed out, they are extremely helpful, so it’s really just a matter of getting used to.

    1. Yeah, it’s certainly unique. Many Japanese go on holiday in Japan because of limited vacation time so even the tourist spots are tailored to Japanese!

  5. I haven’t travelled to Japan but it is a beautiful country (which your photos show). You are right, we are very lucky (?) to speak English but it can make us ignorant too. Craig and I are fresh from Spanish school, it is embarrassing when everyone can speak two or three languages and you can’t!

    1. I agree that it’s embassassing. I used to be quite good at Spanish but lost a lot of my ability when I dodn’t use it for years. I’d love to live in Spain and get fluent again someday though. I fee like I have a different personality when I speak Spanish!

  6. We just got back from Japan and I was so surprised at how little English was spoken and included on signs! We loved it though and totally agree, the people are so great! Thank goodness for the photos on the menus! 🙂
    Jenna recently posted…Ice climbing in Boulder, COMy Profile

  7. Never been to Japan, but it is top of my list. China is similar, although there are more signs in English in big cities. I had a problem asking where the bathrooms where. After a while, I took a picture of bathroom in Chinese on my phone and showed it to the person I was asking. It turned out to be a lot less embarrassing than miming!
    andrew recently posted…101 Travel Experiences in ChinaMy Profile

    1. That’s a really good idea! ‘Where is the toilet’ is normally the first phrase I leann in a foreign language! How was China? I’d love to vist!

  8. Never been to Japan, but i went to China and I was surprised at how many people did not speak English. I have always traveled to regions where I at least could communicate the basics, and when I go somewhere where I can’t communicate, it is just too much for me!
    Yvonne recently posted…Review: Burgers & Cocktails at HoutsiplouMy Profile

  9. It is very helpful to know that even if you don’t speak one word of Japanese you’re not completely lost (which is one of the reasons that’s keeping me from traveling to that part of the world). I like the fact that they have a lot of pictures – I’d probably be pointing at stuff all the time 🙂
    Valeria @ Rome, New York, London, World recently posted…Salvador da Bahia’s pros, cons and mehMy Profile

    1. That’s what I do Valeria! I just say ‘this please’ in Japanese! lots of words are said the same In Japanese (Katakana) which helps too!

  10. We’ve travelled in both cities and smaller towns and always manage to get by with a a bit of English, a bit of Japanese and a bit of improvisation. If you can learn a few phrases it definitely helps. We were told over there that every Japanese student had compulsory English for I think it was 6 years so younger people are more comfortable with it than the older generation. We always find everyone very helpful though even if they don’t speak English and we found many who approached us and wanted to converse in English to practice. One guy started learning at 70 when he retired and in 2 years he was really good. What I find the biggest drawback is that I like to know the history and little stories behind the places I visit and the limited communication with locals makes that a challenge.
    Toni | 2 Aussie Travellers recently posted…Ambury Park in AucklandMy Profile

    1. Oh yes I agree that the younger generation know some English, the problem is many are too shy to speak it!I love it when older people make an effort to speak English with me. People here are so friendly and helpful.

  11. My advice to anyone going to Japan is to learn Katakana. It will take 1-3 days to memorize and will help you read many items on bar and restaurant menus. You will be surprised at how many English words are used in the Japanese language!

    1. Hi Davin, that’s a really good tip! Now i’ve memorised katakana I can read so many things that I couldn’t before. I quite enjoy the guesswork of trying to work out what it says too!

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