Language barriers are always a bit of a worry when travelling abroad; ‘will I be able to get around? Will I be able to order food?’ etc. this feeling often multiplies the further you get from your native speaking country, depending on the language. In Japan’s case, there is also the fact that symbols and ideograms are used in place of perhaps the more common Roman alphabet. In other words, the chance of deciphering a meaning through recognisable characters is absolutely zero.
So this brings us to the question: ‘is knowing Japanese necessary to visit Japan?’
The answer — you’ll be thankful to hear — is not categorically yes, but neither should you rule it out; it all depends on where you are going and what you want out of a visit.
Thankfully I’m going to help explain when and where knowing Japanese may be useful and when you can just forget it and enjoy your trip.
So, you’ve just got off the plane and you find yourself amongst the largest and most populated city in the world without speaking or understanding a word of Japanese. Then, almost instantly, a feeling of relief washes over you; you notice that every sign is written in English as well as Japanese.
If you are travelling to a big city including Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Sapporo, then this will become a common occurrence. Many of the signs and public service information is written in both English and Japanese, so getting around should be of little issue – even announcements at stations and on trains and buses are multilingual.
Once you understand that getting around can be a fairly simple affair without Japanese, chances are you’re going to want to go get some food or visit some attractions. You’ll notice here too that this theme continues. Most menus, listings, notices and almost any kind of written information whatsoever will contain English translations.
In short, if you are sticking to the most popular areas of Japan, knowing Japanese is not required. It will be very hard to feel overwhelmed (at least from a language perspective) and so you should be able to navigate throughout your trip with little worry.
Now, the further you go from these metropolitan areas the harder things will become. Even some of the smaller or less travelled cities such as Kumamoto or Sendai will contain some English accompaniments, however, there will be much less than their tourist hotspot counterparts. Only the most essential information will have translations such as transport links and visitor attractions.
Although still not entirely necessary, this is where having even a basic level of Japanese may begin helping you out. Having knowledge of the katakana syllabary over anything else may prove to be the most useful as this is used primarily for loan words from other languages — such as English.
Another thing going in Japan’s favour is their love for pictures, graphics, and various visual accompaniments and can be used to indicate your wishes. Menus are often complimented with pictures for example, and so a simple point and nod can serve you well in a tight spot.
If you want to go just a little further out to some of the smaller populated cities, towns, and rural villages and such, then this is where you will run into some trouble. Very quickly these areas will seemingly turn off the accessibility options and contain nothing apart from the intricate nature of Japanese.
Chances are if it isn’t a heavily tourist spot then English is off the menu, so to speak. Likewise, there is a direct correlation to the further out you go, the more Japanese language ability you’ll need.
While you can certainly visit Japan and get along by yourself fairly easily (for the most part), what happens if you want to ask someone for directions? Explain to a cab driver? Enquire at a restaurant ect, or god forbid just interact with the people around you? Well here knowing Japanese is certainly going to help, but there’s more to it than that.
For example, can the Japanese speak English?
If we look at the English competency of various countries, according to the 2022 English Proficiency Index, out of 111 non-English speaking countries Japan ranks quite low at number 80. This means that the chance of finding Japanese people that speak a competent level of English is relatively low.
Despite that, you will find that some Japanese have a basic knowledge of some English which you might be able to rudimentary coverse with, should you not have any Japanese knowledge yourself. People in the service industry in particular such as hotels, mid-range restaurants, and some transport staff are the kinds of places where staff have some knowledge.
This aspect of language and communication very much follows the rules mentioned above in terms of location and tourist hotspots — the further out you go from big cities, the less chance there is of being able to communicate in your native language at all.
Yet, interaction does not have to mean a full-blown conversion. While certainly the more you know the better, just knowing even a few choice words can help people send you in the right direction.
Necessary or not?
Hopefully by now you can get a sense of how much Japanese, if any, you might need on your trip. It can definitely be said that knowing vast amounts of Japanese is not really required.
Outside of delving into remote locations and wanting to converse the meaning of life with Japanese locals, you’ll find that getting around the country and enjoying all that it has to offer can be achieved with little to no Japanese knowledge whatsoever.
If anything I would recommend trying to learn at least the Katakana syllabary which is the most simple part of Japanese but may provide the most help on a trip. Doing so should take about a week to learn. However, again I wouldn’t describe it as absolutely necessary.