Japan is one of those countries where people seem to be put off travelling there because of the language barrier. To travel Japan without speaking Japanese seems like it should be an immensely difficult task. As it turns out, it’s not so bad! I know I’m all for people learning the language of the countries they visit – but that doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t travel somewhere just because they don’t speak your language! Japan is certainly a delight to travel, whether or not you speak Japanese. I was apprehensive about travelling to Japan due to my lack of knowledge of the language, but it turned out fine, so this article is here to tell you what I did.
So, can you travel Japan without speaking Japanese? The answer is YES, but… there are some things you should know to make the experience easier. Here’s what you need to know to get around Japan if you don’t know Japanese, and not let it hinder your experience.
FAQ about travelling Japan without Japanese
Do Japanese people speak English?
One reason that many people worry about travelling Japan without speaking Japanese is that the Japanese are not well-known for their ability to speak other languages. According to research, Japanese people tend to have a low English proficiency overall. My experiences in Japan mostly agree with that assumption and these findings. In some countries, people will see the way I look (white) or hear me speaking English and immediately try to speak English with me. This is not the case in Japan. People we interacted with spontaneously spoke exclusively Japanese, and even when they could see we didn’t really speak or understand Japanese, they would continue to speak Japanese, which suggests they either didn’t know English or weren’t confident enough to speak it.
Are there English signs in Japan?
On city commuter trains and at train platforms, there is some English transcription of place names, but not much else in English. I didn’t spend much time on the road, but many road signs I did see were written only in Japanese. On JR trains and tourist train lines, Japanese announcements were repeated in English and Chinese, as well as instructions being available in Japanese and English. A lot of public toilets had some written instructions in English, probably because the toilets there are so advanced for us!
But for the most part, Japan doesn’t make much more use of written English than it does of spoken. Menus are almost exclusively in Japanese, and so are maps in train stations and other useful, necessary things like that.
How much Japanese should you learn to travel Japan?
Of course, it depends on what you are intending to do in Japan, and how long you want to spend there. If you are going to be in Japan for a long time (like more than a month) and/or are going to need to interact with people while you’re there (like if you will be working, studying, or just need to make friends), I would suggest hitting the books and learning enough to at least have a basic conversation in the language. But even if you’re only going for a short trip like we did, you should still learn the basics. Check out my article about the words and phrases you should probably know in the local language before travelling to any country to see what will be the most useful.
How to travel Japan without speaking Japanese: my top tips
1. Know some key Japanese phrases
The Japanese will highly appreciate ANY effort you make to learn their language, and seeing you try will make them even more accommodating to you. That, and the fact that there really are some things you will just need to say, are the main reasons you should not skip this step. You might think that knowing such a little amount of the language is as good as knowing nothing, but having a few meaningful lines up your sleeve will make a world of difference. Not only will you be more confident, but you will be much more polite, an essential trait in Japanese culture.
2. Be friendly and polite
It is amazing how far friendliness and politeness can go, especially in Japan! Everyone we met was amazingly helpful and kind. They would go out of their way to try and understand us and help us. In Japan, a little smile and head nod is worth 1000 words. Know how to say please, thank you, and sorry/excuse me, and people will appreciate that very much.
One day in Hiroshima we were out and about and it started raining. We went in to a convenience store to look for umbrellas. The umbrellas didn’t have prices on them so I hastily looked up how to say “how much” in Google translate and then went up to the counter and asked the girl. She answered, but it must have been clear by the look on my face that I didn’t understand. She wrote the number on her phone and showed me. It was a bit too expensive so I pointed at the other umbrellas to ask how much they were. She then left her post at the counter, came with me to the umbrellas stand and proceeded to point at each different umbrella in turn and type out the price for me. She did it all with a lovely smile on her face, too.
While that’s just one example of a lovely individual, almost everyone we interacted with had this same level of helpfulness and would go above and beyond just to make sure they understood me and were understood.
3. Google Translate is your friend
I’d better say outright that Google Translate is not the best translator for Japanese to English. A lot of the translations are extremely inaccurate, if not outright wrong.
But one thing it has that other dictionaries and apps don’t, is its ability to take photos and scan the language. Because Japanese has its own writing system, it would be impossible to understand anything that’s written without it. That said, it’s still not perfect, and it was still hard to understand what was written a lot of the time, even using this function.
Another time when Google Translate could come in handy was when we needed to tell someone something, but the translation was too long to memorise. Showing or playing a translation to someone will help them understand what you need faster.
I wasn’t feeling too well one day in Tokyo, so we went to a pharmacy. I typed in headache medicine in google translate, and straight away saw it would be too much to remember how to say. So I just walked up to someone working there, said “sumimasem” (excuse me) and showed her my phone with the translation on it. She was of course happy to help with a smile.
4. Speak to official people
Those times we did really need help navigating or understanding how something worked, in reality there was no shortage of people we could ask. People working in train stations always seemed to have a decent level of English when we would ask them something. Especially those checking JR passes or working on JR trains, as I guess they’re used to the tourists. So, if you’re in a situation where you really need something explained, uniformed people at train stations are a good call. Much better than approaching 20 strangers and hoping one speaks English.
5. Hang with local people
Having Japanese friends is the best way to travel Japan without speaking Japanese. Think about it. There are over 100 million people who speak this language you’re struggling with with ease. This might sound easier said than done, but there are so many ways to meet locals on your travels. Not only will local people show you around to places you might not have known about otherwise, but they can also talk to the people around with ease. They can help you communicate with other Japanese people, letting you connect to more locals and bridge that communication gap.
As you can see, while you definitely can travel Japan without Japanese, it would certainly be much easier if you learned the language before you went. If you have the time for that, do it! Knowing the language of the country you’re travelling in makes that experience so much better. But if that’s not a possibility for you, don’t worry! Follow my tips, especially learning the basic words and phrases for travel, and you will get by just fine.
>> Have you been to Japan without speaking Japanese? Tell us about your experience in the comments!
Planning a trip to Japan? See my other Japan travel tips and advice here.
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