How to survive in Japan without speaking Japanese!

Surviving in Japan without speaking Japanese

“Can you travel, live, spend time in Japan without understanding or speaking Japanese?”, or wording to this effect is an oft asked question on Japan travel forums and a legitimate concern for those who have never been to Japan, or maybe anyone who is contemplating a first trip overseas to a country the language of which is unfamiliar. Unfortunately, voicing this kind of concern runs the risk of being met by sneering condescension from some quarters so any concerns about the ability to survive in Japan without speaking Japanese are ones that we hope to meet ourselves with hearts in the correct place while maintaining our usual sense of irreverence. 

It would be interesting to know how many of us who now live in Japan came to the country with any degree of Japanese language proficiency packed into the suitcase. This expat did, but it only really amounted to the next step up from zero. This lack of linguistic preparation might be put down to the fact that for the first few weeks I was to be in the company of Japanese friends. 

My first job in Japan saw me under the guidance of an expat colleague who seemed to bask in their inability to speak the lingo (together with their lack of motivation to address this). I used to get a kick from the way they would delightfully order from menus in their broadest native accent, getting by with pointing only. They had already been ‘in country’ for some years prior to my arrival. Although we might be tempted to disparage such expats, the point is, this person still loved Japan, lead a very happy life in Japan, and was (they’ve since returned home) living proof that one can do more than just survive in Japan without having even the loosest of grips on the Japanese language. 

Like with all plunges into the unknown, it’s pre plunge that is the most worrying bit. Once we’ve let go however, things become clear, and more often than not, our fears or concerns do not materialize, at least not to the extent that we had feared. This is true when it comes to being in Japan without understanding Japanese - one way or another you just figure out how to get by. As true as this is however, such generalisations rarely serve to ease concerns on the part of those who are, well, very concerned. So let’s get a little more specific, and detail some common scenarios that one will likely face during those early days in Japan, with barely two Japanese words to rub together for comfort. Before we carry on though, if you’re not up for the reading let’s just remind ourselves’ of this - in 2016 Japan recorded a record 24 million tourists for the year. Now, how many of those do think could speak Japanese? Just sayin’!

Getting around in Japan - Trains

"Signs, announcements, and ticket machines are increasing in the amount of English they employ, daily it seems."

Japan must surely set the world standard for public transport efficiency, at least when it comes to trains. Local and intercity trains are frequent, OK a little expensive, and run to a timetable so strict it would put a well-drilled soldier to shame. Customer service is humble and polite and the whole package is spruced up regularly. However, all this a totally redundant to the person who hasn’t the confidence to use it. 

On a visit to Japan my parents, knowing next to no Japanese at all, took a trip out of Tokyo on the Shinkansen. Without the guidance of their resident offspring they simply entered the station, waved their tickets at the nearest person sporting a uniform who promptly guided them to the right spot on the right platform for the nearest doors to their seats. Easy!

Signs, announcements, and ticket machines are increasing in the amount of English they employ, daily it seems. Only the most remote of trains stations in Japan might not have any English signage, and even then that seems highly unlikely. 

A note on the exit signs in Japan’s train stations - follow them! Some of Japan’s large urban stations are just that, large, and have more exits than a panto script. They key here is really to know where it is you want to go and stick to the signs. Thinking that you can be clever and take short cuts is a sure fire way to get frustrated to the point of tears.

Not all ticket machines will offer English-language instruction, but in the larger cities you should consider yourself unlucky to come across those that don’t. 

Announcements on the Shinkansen have long employed a bit of English (British, if I remember correctly from my last use) so there should be none of those fears often experienced by the traveller of, “Is this our stop?!”, “Where are we?!”, “What if we’ve missed it already?!”. 

Whilst this isn’t the medium of getting into how to buy tickets for trains in Japan it is a good opportunity to offer some comfort should you end up buying the wrong ticket. There is little consequence to this. In some parts of the world, London for example, riding with the wrong ticket could result in a fine. In fact, staying with London (I was there recently), signs abound warning ‘tube’ passengers to carry the correct tickets / valid travel passes in such a way as to make you feel like a potential criminal. This is emphatically not the case in Japan, where if passengers are unsure of fares, tickets can be bought at the minimum price and fares topped up at final destination with a minimum of fuss at a machine. 

Again, away from the more remote train stations in Japan, there is typically a ‘line’ map with lines and stations written in English.

Digital (scrolling) signage on platforms and trains is done so in English.

Panel TVs on trains (where they are present) typically flip between English and Japanese train / line information (including, sometimes, where there might be delays - Yes, they do have those in Japan).

Perhaps the best way to eliminate ticketing worries and woes for Japan’s trains would be to get some sort of pass / travel card, of which there are many. This way you get all the communications challenges out of the way in one go.

While we don’t want to foster any feelings of reticence on the part of those who can’t understand Japanese, it’s probably fair to say that buses present the highest transport hurdle in Japan. Even seasoned expats in Japan are often left confused about which bus is going where. Signage on buses is more often than not, not written in English, and concerns about the point and method of payment only add to the confusion. Fortunately, early days in Japan are unlikely to require use of a bus, as this method of transport is generally used to get to / from the most local of areas.

Eating in Japan

"Snobs may argue that family restaurants aren’t the real Japan but their popularity would suggest otherwise."

Let’s be honest, there is no chance of starving in Japan. Sources of food run the full spectrum from stuff that looks like it’s alive (sometimes it is) to something that was once alive but has somehow been turned into a cube of jelly. If your confidence along with your language skills has hit rock bottom, Japan has no shortages of familiar fast food chains and convenience stores which require zero language ability to get bellies filled.

The next step up in terms of challenge and experience would be family restaurants - the Japanese take on American diners. Language skills required here - none! Go in, fingers for the number of people in your party, and gestures for smoking / non-smoking. Menus have lots of pictures, self-service drink bars are self-explanatory, buttons on tables are used to call wait staff, and bills are paid at the register by the door as you leave. Snobs may argue that family restaurants aren’t the real Japan but their popularity would suggest otherwise.

For more authentic eats without the language skills look out for some street food or festival food. During spring / summer in particular, festivals abound across Japan, all of which offer a good opportunity to sample local food at cheap prices. With food on display and preparation conducted before your eyes getting fed couldn’t be easier. 

Traditional Japanese restaurants may pose the greatest challenge with regards to language. Look for those that have menus outside of the shop. Is this something you could order from? Are you somewhere frequented by tourists? 

Smaller, local restaurants in Japan tend not to have windows through which one can check out the atmosphere and set up within. In fact, you may not even recognise the spot as a place where food is served. There’s a real chance that such establishments may not have a menu and instead will have dishes listed in Japanese on laminated sheets stuck to the wall. Whilst such a scenario may not suit many, it offers the potential for unique experience. You could be welcomed with open arms or you could be stared at like you’ve gatecrashed the funeral of a loved one. Either way, this is travel / overseas experience - the challenge of entering the unknown. Embrace it and breakdown some cultural boundaries. 

Japan’s home brand ‘fast food’ chains are often furnished with ticket vending machines. This will make for a good option for those who can’t speak the language. While we may not be able to read button labels, there are plenty of such machines that are fitted with images with main dishes tending to be congregated on the top row of buttons. Insert money, push button, take ticket, sit at counter and had over said ticket, and wait. Japanese required - none!

Japanese Entertainment

User-friendly entertainment options include those that we might be familiar with back home ...

Museums - accessible, often free (or reasonably priced) and displays can be enjoyed to the greater extent without words. At the large museums, permanent exhibits are often furnished with English-language explanations. It’s at the marquee temporary exhibits where Japan may disappoint. Here prices are high at around 3,000 yen and crowds are common. The main problem though, is that explanations are almost always Japanese only, although you may be able to rent foreign-language electronic guides.

Nightlife - Urban nightlife in Japan rocks. If you want to throw out some shapes on Japan’s dance floors don’t let language stop you. Almost all nightclubs in Japan have loose dress codes which stop short of bermudas and flip-flops. Some nightclubs in Japan may require ID of foreigners. In this case it will have to be a passport or gaijin card. Once inside your favorite tipple will be easy for bar staff to understand even in English, so long as you can be heard over the sound system. Quite how a lack of language skills will play out in any attempts to ‘hook up’ is anyone’s guess. Still, should you end up going home alone at least you’ll have a conciliatory excuse.

For the young, free and single on a night out in Japan it would be remarkable if you didn’t find your eyes drifting on occasion towards the lurid pinks and neons of a city’s “adult entertainment” district. These places are generally safe to have a stroll around and often have a lot of character. They’re the kind of places Jack Kerouac would have liked to hang around in, if he’d ever made it to these shores. However, most of the services here remain off limits to foreigners, so unless a sign or a tout states otherwise, don’t even bother trying. It’s exactly this lack of language knowledge that makes management reluctant to deal with overseas customers. Not that we’ve been checking, but as Japan and Tokyo specifically gears up to the Olympics you can bet that such establishments will be making efforts to be more accepting in this way. On the other hand, you can also bet that the authorities will likely try to clamp down on this particular industry. 

Kabuki / Noh Theater - Those into the higher pleasures may want to check out some traditional Japanese performance arts. Kabuki is probably the default setting for this. Here, even the locals might have trouble getting their ears around the old forms of language and theatrical intonations used in kabuki, so foreign visitors needn’t feel left out in this regard. Some performances in big venues like Kabuki-za in Ginza, Tokyo offer headsets which scroll English-language interpretations of the stories played out on stage.

The appetite to learn English in Japan is greater than ever

Actually, maybe this isn’t strictly true, perhaps we should phrase it thus - the appetite to actually use English is greater than ever among Japanese people. When Tokyo was announced as host city for the 2020 Olympic Games the air suddenly turned thick with a flurry of business owners, potential volunteers, shop and restaurant staff all at pains to make themselves more useful by having a some sort of grasp on the English language. Yes, Japan went from passively ‘learning English’ for reasons that it didn’t seem quite convinced by, to actively putting English into practice powered by the realisation that in a few years time half the world would be here in either body or spirit and no one would be able to tell these people where the nearest toilets are. Certainly, here in Tokyo, it’s hard to convey just how ‘multilingual’ the city is trying to be. You can know this because even the old ladies working in the McDonald’s near to the office are busting out the English with ever increasing bravado. 

The point being that day by day, more and more people in Japan are themselves getting confident in their use of English meaning that overseas visitors and early foreign residents should no longer fear for their survival when it comes to communicating with the locals and getting on with things in Japan. Well, certainly in Japan’s large urban areas anyway. In fact, this is often to the chagrin of expats in Japan who can speak the lingo as it can sometimes seem slightly patronising to be spoken to in pigeon English. 

One supposes that this might be the point to get on our high horse and espouse the virtues of making some attempt to learn a bit of Japanese. I mean, it’s just good manners, isn’t it? Whatever, the barriers to speaking a foreign language change in stature from person to person. It serves nobody to harass people into doing things that they aren’t comfortable with. 

And back to the title of this piece. I don’t like it - surviving in Japan without speaking Japanese. One can do more than merely survive. There’s fulsome and rewarding experience to be had, whatever one’s grasp of the Japanese language, and linguistic concerns, while understandable, are really no reason to delay and visit or move to Japan.


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