I know a bit of Japanese, but don't know any other Asian languages.

Does knowing Japanese help in neighbouring countries such as South Korea and Taiwan?

Am I likely to encounter people who are familiar with Japanese but not English? Are relationships between such countries and Japan bad enough that using Japanese will cause hostility? Will using it with harabeoji old enough to have lived through the Japanese occupation trigger memories best forgotten?

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    If you're travelling for a long period in Korea your knowledge of Japanese will help you learn Korean because the grammatical structure is extremely similar and a couple of the particles are the same, but almost all of the vocabulary is totally different. On a short trip the similarities will probably be too abstract to be useful. – hippietrail Apr 13 '12 at 7:00
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    @hippietrail: it sounds similar too. Knowing Japanese, that's my heuristic for determining the language spoken by East Asians: if I understand some of it, it's Japanese. If it sounds like Japanese but I don't understand a word, it's Korean. If it sounds completely different, it's Chinese. – Michael Borgwardt Apr 13 '12 at 9:09
  • @MichaelBorgwardt: It depends how much of either language you know. It shouldn't sound similar because Korean has quite exotic vowel and consonant sounds compared to either Japanese or English and it lacks the distinctive pitch accent of Japanese and its resulting cadence. Nevertheless sometimes I can't tell, in which case I listen for lots of "yo" sounds which is an exceedingly common verb ending in Korean. As for Chinese, Korean has even less in the way of tonal features than Japanese and doesn't sound vaguely similar. – hippietrail Apr 13 '12 at 9:47
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    Sure, it'll help when you run into Japanese visitors ;) – Mark Mayo Apr 15 '12 at 21:56

I don't think your Japanese will be much help, except for interacting with Japanese tourists. Where there are guides or directions in Japanese, there will almost certainly be guides or directions in English. Your kanji may help with Taiwanese signs or Korean newspaper headlines, but Japanese is not related to Mandarin and distantly if at all to Korean, aside from a handful of loanwords.

Japanese is not widely spoken in either South Korea or Taiwan, and has not been for decades. English, on the other hand, is taught in both countries starting in elementary school— not to say English is necessarily widely or well spoken. Nevertheless, you are far more likely to find people with some knowledge of it, especially in cities and in customer-facing occupations, as opposed to Japanese.

I doubt you would encounter open hostility for merely speaking Japanese. These are modern and well-educated countries, whose citizens can distinguish people from politics (especially in cities and customer-facing occupations). Second, while Japanese colonialism was traumatic, most of the population in both countries has been born since 1945 and has no firsthand experience of it. Third, there is a cultural resistance to open displays of hostility of any kind, especially in front of foreigners. Of course, if you walk into a department store and address the sales clerk in Japanese, she may think a silly Westerner has forgotten what country he's in.

  • When in Taiwan for a visit, I had more luck ordering beer in Japanese than in English when the shopkeeper was over 60 years old. In South Korea I've had luck trying Japanese when English wasn't working at all as well. – jmac Aug 6 '13 at 3:00
  • @jmac You'll find that many older Taiwanese people know Japanese, mostly as a result of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan around the time when they would have been either children or students. – Michael Lai Aug 1 '14 at 5:05

Knowing Kanji will help a bit in Chinese-using areas such as Taiwan, in that you may be able to get the general idea of some signs. That's about all. Don't expect anyone in Taiwan or Korea to understand spoken Japanese. You would be better off trying English.

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    I would maybe say that not expecting anyone in Taiwan to understand Japanese is a bit too strong statement, it is not that unusual that some people learn Japanese as a third language. But rather do not count on meeting anyone speaking Japanese in Taiwan. Regarding English is generally slightly more common in northern parts of Taiwan compared to south. – hlovdal Apr 16 '12 at 0:57
  • There are actually quite a few Japanese-speaking Koreans these days, as well as Korean-speaking Japanese. It is difficult to pick as there are similarities in sounds and grammar. – Michael Lai Aug 1 '14 at 5:06

Japanese is not hugely helpful in those countries, but not altogether useless. There will be a few Koreans who will know Japanese better than English. And part of the Japanese WRITTEN language (Kanji) is borrowed from Chinese, so Taiwanese will be able to read what you write in Kanji, and you would be able to read the Chinese script using Kanji.

Younger people, at least, will not have first hand memories of World War II; perhaps only people now 70 years and older will.


If you know a bit of Japanese all the while you don't understand English as well as its local language, it is definitely helpful as there are some signs on the street, metro, airports, or shops written in Japanese (and don't forget that so many Japanese people can't handle even a pretty basic conversation in English).

However, once you know English, there is little to no added benefits to it. The kind of people who speak Japanese yet don't speak English are few and far between, and even if they are in such rare cases they would never consider you, white, speak Japanese. So you would never know he or she speaks a bit of Japanese until and unless you ask it.

That being said, in the case of Taiwan and Hong Kong, and less ture in China, sometimes you understand sings (no English) scattered in the city with your knowledge of Kanji. For example in China, an elevator for the disabled people is tagged as 无障碍电梯. While Japanese people don't understand and 电梯, they understand 障碍, which means disabled. And given the context it is in, they can easily recognize that the elevator is for such people.

And last but not least, some Korean people might feel frustrated to see you, non-Asian, speak Japanese but don't speak even a basic Korean. I would like to encourage you to not talk to them in Japanese. If you still want to use Japanese, it's better to ask something like "Do you speak any other languages such as Japanese?", instead of asking it directly.

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