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I'm going to Japan soon. (Like my previous question.) And I'm going to Tokyo.

I'm not at all good at communicating in Japanese. A beginner, not even able to use it for basic purpose.

How can I communicate? e.g. if I use a pronounceable phone app, will it be rude? Or, can I use English? (We all know Japanese katakana is very different from English.)

  • 1
    On my recent trip I used an app (google translate) to get out of situations where I couldn't communicate with a person. However, just using the text translation and showing it to the person would work much better than have the app pronounce it. (as @paul mentioned in his answer) – drat May 4 '15 at 0:51
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    Thank for asking this! I'm planning a trip myself too. I don't know the situation quite well, but trust me having watched many Anime isn't helping :) – Ayesh K May 4 '15 at 20:54
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    I've been told many japanese read english better than they hear it. I've also been told that many japanese understand english it it is spoken with japanese syllable structure (presumably because it makes the shared 'katakana' words obvious). (but I've never put either to the test -- when i was in japan i never needed it). – Lyndon White May 5 '15 at 0:40
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    Would it be a smart thing to do: write English on a paper and show it to them? @Oxinabox – JCCM May 7 '15 at 8:28
  • @Oxinabox Sometimes their schools teach beginner-level English by katakanaizing the pronunciation, which is a mistake particularly for children. (It might not be a bad idea for some adults.) But this means that they often initially think you pronounce "therapy" as "serapi", "village" as "biraju", and so on. Either that, or if they are taught up-front that this is just a temporary starting point, they still have no initial exposure specifically through their courses to the real pronunciations. – Panzercrisis Sep 17 '15 at 12:32
38

Qualifier: I live in Tokyo

You will have no problems navigating the train system or shopping in tourist-specific areas like Asakusa. Beyond that, not that many people speak or understand English. Even getting lunch at McDonalds is difficult - I speak reasonable Japanese and they still get my order wrong nearly half the time. The locals are simply not used to different accents.

If you are staying at an international hotel* they will go out of their way to hire staff that speak fluent English. Smaller places don't, mainly because they don't have enough tourist traffic to care. Same with restaurants. First few years I was here I always looked for kaiten-sushi restaurants, the place where the stuff goes around on a belt. No speaking required.

Your speaking phone app is next to useless - I've tried a few and wifey-san says she has no idea what it says. Written translations are much more useful - I put something into the phone and point to the kanji fairly often with no issues.

Excellent reminder from comments: Almost all restaurants have either accurate pictures in the menu or plastic food on display in the window. Pick what you want, photograph it with your phone. (if the place has neither, move on. It's probabl¥ €xpen$ive.)

*Delta, Hilton etc. The really big ones. With room rates to match. Hotels that have bellhops, a concierge, restaurants that require both reservations and dinner jackets etc.

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    I assume wifey is Japanese? Might want to edit that in ;) – starsplusplus May 4 '15 at 11:16
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    A lot of restaurants have menus with pictures so you just need to point at it. Or if it only has pictures on a sign in front of the shop and not on the menu, you'll need to remember the characters well enough to find it again on the menu. We went to a lot of different restaurants and had little trouble ordering the food we wanted, knowing only rudimentary Japanese. – CodesInChaos May 4 '15 at 13:28
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    I've ordered at McDonald's in Tokyo where they have a menu in English. Does pointing not work in those cases? – Jeff Bridgman May 4 '15 at 17:18
  • I spend about a month in Japan each year working principally in the outskirts of Osaka, where English is not spoken. My colleagues are often not very sociable but I've never had a problem eating in a Japanese restaurant by myself with no Japanese knowledge. It just takes a lot of pointing at the pictures and a lot of smiling and nodding and eventually you get your food and a large beer! – Calchas May 14 '15 at 21:20
18

In this I can only give my own experience but I think it is telling enough.

I have traveled in Japan for most of a month in 1994, with no Japanese at all and traveling by train and hostels, using English as my native Dutch is not understood there at all. I had arranged my first week with a short tour Tokyo/Kyoto, but did the rest without any reservations made from home.

It was only when going off of the tourist routes that I met one hostel where the people picking up the phone did not understand enough English to get a reservation, a tourist information office made that call and reservation for me.

Upon arriving at the hostel it turned out the landlady spoke 6 words of English: Yes, No, Bed, Bath, Dinner and Toilet. But she used those words very efficiently and when she had to convey more involved concepts she asked one of the other guests to translate. There was one other guest each day I was there, so limited choice, but the stay was pleasant and successful. And that was the worst language situation I met.

I have not been in any shop, restaurant, museum, station booking office, train or underground station where there was not enough English with the staff and in the signs for me to be able to find my way and get my things. My Japanese is restricted to 'Arigato' (not even sure of spelling) which I am told is the shortest way to say thanks and still be polite.

I am sure English is more widely spoken by now, with so many more years of young Japanese people learning it in school and so many more years of tourists coming to see the country.

In Tokyo it was not a problem back then, not at all, although you did find quite a few people who did not speak English and a lot of the rest was not sure about their ability to use English and might have avoided using it rather than losing face using it poorly. By now many of those people will be used to using their English much more. There will still be people who do not speak English, but not enough to stop you from finding your way around.

Added after reading the answer by the person living in Tokyo:

My experience was a tourist, doing touristy things, getting food in restaurants with plastic models of food in the few cases I did not get an English language menu and going to shops where tourists were common. If you need to communicate with people who do not interact with tourists often I appreciate you will need more Japanese.

  • I had the exact same 'touristy' experience in 2012-2013, people don't really speak English in Tokyo, and it's even worse in smaller towns, but they still try their best to help you. This includes trying to understand and respond to your signs. Just make it crystal clear that you don't speak Japanese, because until that moment they still try it. A positive surprise was that in Tokyo practically every train/metro station has at least one person who speaks English, they call that guy when they understand you won't get by with Japanese. – downhand May 4 '15 at 8:46
  • English is not that widely spoken, because I think many Japanese people are reluctant to try what they have learnt in school (fair enough I would never try my Spanish in Spain!). However in general the culture is that people do try to help so the language barrier is not a huge problem. – Calchas May 14 '15 at 21:22
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    I have used hostels where I was in a shared dorm with 8 or more females. Each night there was at least one girl doing the translations between the Japanese and the foreigners (who all spoke English to some extend) and the girl translating was often very appologetic about her low level of English. But as the evening became night, they all did better. Each night a different girl, as they were there for short visits. – Willeke May 20 '16 at 20:49
8

Partly depends on where you are going. In the bigger cities, at hotels, large department stores, bigger restaurants you may be able to get by just fine with English (though learning some basic Japanese - Hello, Thank You, How Much, How Are You, etc never hurts)

In rural Japan you may have difficulty, especially with older Japanese shop owners, innkeepers or restaurant staff.

  • And I'm going to Tokyo, you may have missed this. Thanks for your effort, though. – JCCM May 3 '15 at 6:50
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    My mistake, as the way you wrote it could have been interpreted as going to Japan and Tokyo is one of the stops. But my comments about big cities applies to Tokyo, after all it is a BIG city ;-) – user13044 May 3 '15 at 8:59
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    Yes, I can understand, and what you said applies to Tokyo - if anyone think that Japan capital is not a big city then... ah. – JCCM May 3 '15 at 9:04
  • @JCCM Saying that Tokyo is the biggest city of Japan is an understatement. It's the biggest in the world. Try to learn some basic Japanese; it pays off. If you're assuming that a fair % of Japan's population can speak understandable English you're in for a world of pain. – Calculus Knight May 3 '15 at 10:21
  • Officially, Tokyo is not a city (市) at all. ;) It is a metropolis (都), which contains the 23 special wards (区) as well as other cities, towns and villages. – fkraiem May 3 '15 at 10:54
6

A small hint that I don't see in the other answers is that some fraction of the locals will be willing to write English for you but won't try to speak it.

I suppose that they are embarrassed, but given the atrocious state of my Japanese I don't see how they had anything to be worried about. Still, some of them seemed to care.

I made it a habit to always carry a small pad and a pen or pencil. I only needed it a few times but it was very handy on those occasions. Think about an almost deserted railway platform in a small city at 03:15. There was exactly one employee in sight and she was unwilling to speak English with me. Her handwriting, however was clear and her written English more than sufficient to the task.

Mind you, I got more millage out of the 70-100 words of Japanese I had than I did out of the pad.

I'll echo the other respondents that a few words in common goes a long way, if they are the right words.


I logged a total of about seven months in Japan over a series of 3-5 week stays on business between 2006 and 2009. Call it twenty travel days without one of our hosts for support.

3

Caveat: I've studied Japanese at the college level twice--when I was in my early 20s, and again when I was almost 40, for about 2 years each time. I finally made it to Japan in 2007.

My reading knowledge allowed me to do a few things easier, make my way in train stations (but the big ones have English signs too), fill out a seat reservation form for the Shinkansen with the help of a dictionary, etc. I'm very uncomfortable trying to speak or understand spoken Japanese.

Once, when I was trying to find a train platform, I geared up to ask an attendant. I asked my question in Japanese, he replied but I didn't understand him. I asked again thinking that I'd gotten something wrong and he replied again. Seeing my confused face, he said in English, "Where are you going?"

At a museum, I asked a young couple if they would take my picture with my camera in Japanese. They immediately replied in English.

I also had several middle-aged or older people help me out when I must have looked confused and direct me to the correct train or to a museum. Or just talk to me because they'd known other English speakers.

On the other hand, at a small museum dedicated to kumihimo (braiding), because I spoke a little Japanese, an attendant took me all around and explained everything in Japanese. I said things like, "Soo desu ka? Kirei desu nee!" which is "Really? So pretty!" and didn't understand anything she was telling me, unfortunately.

Overall, I don't think you should worry about getting around in Tokyo with limited Japanese.

  • Do you remember the name of the braiding museum? That sounds like something I'd like to add to my itinerary. – Carolyn May 14 '15 at 5:57
  • @Carolyn still looking. It was in Yokohama, and IIRC not that far from the Minato Mirai. – mkennedy May 14 '15 at 14:16
  • @Carolyn it's possible I'm thinking of the Adachi Kumihimo Gallery in Kyoto. – mkennedy May 14 '15 at 21:16
1

I cannot give specifics because of my bad memory, but in 2011 I made two one-week trips to Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and a few places in between). I don't recall a single issue neither with food nor lodging nor transportation (although, admittedly, I'm kind of a loner). I don't know a single word in Japanese.

1

I was in Tokyo for 10 days in 2007, used the public transportation to go around, I went for one day to the Fuji and one day for Kamakura. I had great difficulties to get things done. The only person who spoken good English was at the reception of my hostel in Tokyo. Otherwise, even the young ladies at the Tourist Information point at a big metro station failed completely. Somehow I worked out the situations, but sometimes it was difficult to solve even basic problems. The Lonely Planet (Tokyo) book was a great help.

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    I don't agree. The most common international language for communication in the world is English. In a non-English speaking country, I expect at least simple English knowledge in a major tourist information point of a capital. Otherwise it was no sense to write "Tourist Information" with Latin letters on these information points in Japan if they only speak Japanese. In my opinion, this is a fail. – kecsap May 6 '15 at 11:38
  • @CGCampbell We don't speak American in the USA, we speak English, as they do in Canada as well except for the province Québec where its French. – Andy May 17 '15 at 20:19
  • @CGCampbell Feel free to copy the ignorant people you hear at the mall, but I rarely (almost never) hear anyone say that we speak "American ". – Andy May 17 '15 at 21:15
1

Summer 1990, a week in Tokyo. Palace tour guide: excellent English. Proprietor of small hotel in the Japanese Inn Group (which was at that time making special offers to foreign tourists), limited English. At a restaurant where we were befuddled by the buy-a-ticket from the machine and give to the cook system, one high school student with perfect English, which, typically I guess, he insisted was not very good. Everybody else: no English at all. Went into a short order restaurant, the cook looked terrified, found the English menu with pictures under a counter somewhere.

Didn't really matter, though.

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