Do you need to speak Japanese to travel in Japan?

Some visitors worry about how they will manage without knowing Japanese while others haven’t given it a thought because they assume that there will be plenty of English speaking people available. The actual situation is somewhere in between these two assumptions.

While many Japanese people know some English, their knowledge is often basic and focuses on written English. In hotels and other tourist places, there are some people with excellent English and others whose knowledge is just sufficient to cover transactions such as checking in, buying tickets etc. The further off the beaten track you travel, the less likely it is to see signs in English or encounter people who know English. Despite this, Japanese people are very helpful and will do their best to help.

Getting around

In cities and larger towns, railway stations and trains have signs in English, and sometimes announcements too. Ticket machines will have an English screen option and luggage lockers generally have instructions in English. If you are buying train tickets at a ticket counter, have the name of the place you are going to written down (in English will do). Often the clerk will turn the screen around to face you, to show the times of the trains and available seats.

It is particularly useful to have address details for your accommodation or destination written in Japanese or alternatively, a phone number, to show taxi drivers. They can enter the phone number into their GPS and get directions. The Japanese address details can be found on your hotel’s website, TripAdvisor, and many hotel booking websites.

If you are a bit worried about being able to find you way around, one option is to get a guide on your first day to explain how things work. Japan has a system of “goodwill guides” who are volunteer tourist guides. They speak English (and other foreign languages) and will show visitors around free of charge, although you are expected to pay their expenses such as transport, admissions and lunch.

Dining

Another worry that that first-time visitors have is how to order food in a language they don’t know. There are several ways around this. Some restaurants do provide English menus, particularly in more popular tourist areas. Many restaurants, particularly low to mid-range ones, will have extremely realistic plastic models of their menu items in the window. Before entering the restaurant, take a photo of what you want to order so that you can show the waiter.

Plastic food models
Plastic food models in a restaurant window

At the budget end of the scale, there are restaurants where you pay for your meal at a ticket machine and hand the receipt in at the counter to order your meal. The machines often have photos of the dishes on offer. Selecting pre-packaged meals at convenience stores and department store food halls can also be a good way to see what you’re getting.

Many restaurants offer a set meal for breakfast or lunch, which can simplify ordering. These are often called a morning set or lunch set, or just a set (“settu” in Japanese). They are usually good value too.

At your hotel

While there is usually someone who speaks English at reception, hotels vary in the amount of English language signage and written material. Sometimes the in-room compendium will be translated in foreign languages, typically English, Chinese and Korean. In other cases an English information sheet may be given to you when checking in. If there is something available only in Japanese, a translation app is often very useful.

Japanese washlet toilets can initially appear quite intimidating with all their buttons, but often the symbols on the buttons also have the English translation, or there will be information nearby. In a few cases you may be confronted by the arrangement below, where there are lots of buttons and no translation. I’ve provided the English translation found in the in-room compendium. It’s useful to memorise the flush symbol which is universal on Japanese toilets.

Buttons on washlet control panel
The control panel for a Japanese washlet toilet
Washlet buttons
What the buttons on a Japanese washlet toilet mean

Out and about, you’ll want to know the difference between men’s and women’s facilities. Mostly pictogram figures of men and women are used, but sometimes the difference is marked by colour – blue for men and red for women.

Medical needs

Some doctors and hospitals have English-language skills, but not all. If you need medical treatment while you are in Japan, check with your accommodation staff first of all for information on a local English-speaking doctor or hospital. The JNTO also provides a very helpful online guide to English speaking hospitals which has a list of medical clinics and hospitals where foreign languages are spoken, a pointing chart for explaining symptoms, and other useful information.

Tools for communicating

A translation app such as Google Translate or Waygo can be useful for reading signs and restaurant menus. They are not 100% accurate and often provide a slightly disjointed translation. Despite this, the translations are usually sufficient to give you a good idea of the meaning. Download these apps before you go, including the relevant language pack where necessary. This will enable you to use them without a wifi connection.

You might also like to consider learning a few Japanese words, such as greetings, thank you and excuse me. This can be done through language learning tools such as Duolingo or Mango Languages. Alternatively there are Youtube videos that can be helpful, such as Short Japanese Lessons. Just knowing a few words can help when approaching someone for help.

Even if you do not speak Japanese, it is possible to travel around Japan successfully, with a little bit of preparation and patience. Do not let concerns about language deter you from travelling to Japan.

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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, with other ebook stores to come soon.