As English speakers we are incredibly spoiled when it comes to communicating in other countries. As the first or second language of so many places, it’s common to be spoken to in English as a tourist or to find English on signs and menus. But in Japan, it’s not quite as easy as that.
Spoken Language, a sprinkle of English
Japan is a very homogenous country, meaning that for 99% of the population Japanese is their first language. While some Japanese people may learn the odd English phrase, English is definitely not a part of day-to-day life.
(Although Japanese people are also very humble and so would say they couldn’t speak English even if they had a decent grasp of it!)
The exceptions to the rule are those who work with large numbers of tourists such as hotel staff and similar hospitality roles who will speak excellent English and likely other languages as well.
Signs and Menus
Road and railway signs will have the “romaji” version of names below the Japanese. Romaji simply means the Japanese written out in roman letters. Eg, “Osaka” instead of 大阪 So in terms of getting around, there shouldn’t be too much to worry about, especially if you have Google maps handy.
Menus could almost be an entire topic of their own, especially when the restaurant industry in Japan utilises photos in menus and fake food outside to display what they make!
A couple of years ago English menus were more commonly found in chain restaurants, but with the increase in Western tourists and the on-coming Olympic games, you’ll be surprised by how many places now have English versions of the menu.
A lot of izakayas and small food spots will have hand-written or printed out menus that have been translated by Google. Simple and charming but they definitely do the trick.
There is a big “but” coming though. English menus are now common within the cities but the further from the city centre you go, the less this becomes the case. In small towns and villages, English is a rarity. This can be the same for the suburbs too. Take a 30 minute train out of Tokyo and suddenly you’re faced with bathroom doors without “men” or “women” written on it.
A lack of English shouldn’t be a scary thing though. Learning just a bit of Japanese can take you far and with the wonders of smart phones it’s easier than ever to communicate. Although reading Japanese hasn’t quite been perfected by Google just yet!
One last tip…
If you do get stuck picking the right bathroom door, red is for women and blue is for men! And it’s a good idea to try and recognise the kanji below.
Man – 男
Woman – 女
But if you get it wrong, be prepared with a “sumimasen!”