You’ll hear a lot of conflicting answers for this, depending on who you ask. I would say that, especially in Tokyo, it is entirely possible to survive in Japan without Japanese, but…just because it’s possible, that doesn’t mean life in Japan without Japanese ability is very practical or fun. Let’s get into it!
So, can you survive in Japan without being able to speak Japanese?
Especially leading up to and in preparation for the ‘2020’ Tokyo Olympics, the infrastructure of bigger cities in Japan have (with very notable exceptions I will go over later) generally taken strides to make things as accessible to English speakers as possible. Most road signs, notices, menu’s, and so on now come with a handy chiral counterpart. As far as being a tourist in Japan is concerned, it has never been this easy to navigate Japan. If you are considered to traveling to Japan, and you are concerned because you are wondering if you can travel through Japan without being able to speak Japanese, rest assured that you should have no trouble as a short-term traveler. Even compared to when I moved here in early 2015, even trivial things such as the symbols used on local maps have been reworked to be more universally comprehendible to an international audience. This attempt to globalize Japan’s infrastructure can actually lead to a lot of issues for long-term foreign residents in Japan, which I will go over later.
To summarize: If you are planning on traveling through Japan or visiting Japan short-term, and you are worried about not being able to understand Japanese, I can assure you that based on my years of living in Japan, you should have no problem enjoying traveling through Japan, or even a short stay in Japan without being able to speak Japanese. But…what about long term residents?
Can you live in Japan long term, or work in Japan without being able to speak or understand Japanese?
Yes? and no?… This is where things get more complicated. I think it depends on what your definition of ‘living’ in Japan is, I have known countless long-term expats (often dubbed ‘lifers’ within Japan’s expat community) who have lived in Japan for decades and can barely string-together a single sentence in Japanese. A lot of the time (and this is a massive stereotype of these kinds of foreigners in Japan), despite not knowing any Japanese, these kinds of foreigners often get by through assistance from their partner or friends. Their social circles are often contained within the confines of the preverbal ‘English bubble.’
I personally fall hard into the camp of thinking that it is our responsibility as not only patrons of Japan, but also as representative’s of our home countries to learn Japanese. Not only with the goal of being able to communicate with those around you, but also with the goal of becoming as valuable a member of this society as possible. I’m going to be completely honest, and this is just my personal stance, but… what’s the point of living in Japan if your life is propped up on the support of those around you? This is not to say that you should feel bad if you can’t speak Japanese. However, if there is one things people in Japan will LOVE you for, it’s taking the effort to learn Japanese, and putting in the effort to learn as much about the Japanese culture as possible.
It has also been my experience living in Japan that in order to have a truly fulfilling life in this country, being able to speak Japanese is absolutely essential. The turn-over rate for foreigners in Japan is incredibly short (I believe the last time I checked the average foreigner in Japan will leave the country within 2 years.) This means that for people who only speak English, and only make friends with other English speakers, they’re often dooming themselves to a perpetual cycle of making friends with other English speakers and then having to say sayonara to them a few years later.
Wow, look at the cheeky way I used sayonara…
This dichotomy has lead to propensity for people to become guarded in Japan’s foreign community, with expats placing more stock in the number of years you have lived in the country. After only speaking to other foreigners for years, many people dawn this ‘in the trenches’ mentality where they only want to speak to people who are ultra-committed to living long-term in the country after seeing countless friends leave. I don’t mean to be so judgmental, but I think that it’s really important to have balance in your friend group, which really only becomes possible when you can speak fluent Japanese. Plus, speaking with Japanese natives has been most of the best experiences I have had in Japan. There is an incredible amount of responsibility you hold in Japan as the ‘foreigner that speaks Japanese’, but it is also an experience that opens so many doors for you. I have met so many amazing people, and have experienced so many amazing things that never would have been possible if I couldn’t speak Japanese. So, it’s true, you don’t NEED Japanese, but, for me personally, I don’t really see the point in living in Japan if you can’t speak Japanese. Sure, there are amazing things to see, eat , explore, but at the end of the end I’m here because I felt that through exploring and internalizing the unique manner in which people communicate in Japan in Japanese would allow me to become a better version of myself.
Okay, shabu shabu is almost enough to keep me in the country by itself.
The role foreigners still play in Japanese society, and why being able to speak Japanese will REALLY help you
I have spoken many times before on this site this about the indirect mental association foreigners create for Japanese natives. Japan is still 98% ethnically homogenous, and is a country that pushes English education HARD, while at the same time being a nation that’s heavily risk-adverse culture results in a comparatively lower level of English comprehension when compared to other countries. In fact, Japan is one of the least English-literate countries on the planet. Through compulsory education Japanese students are taught that the outside world (lit. 海外, beyond the sea in Japanese) is a world wholly separate from the Japanese culture, values, and language; That being able to speak English, is to have the ability to converse with the outside world. Japan is an island, and the Japanese are an island people, after all. This perception places a LOT of pressure onto the Japanese population to perform well in English. Hospitality is an integral piece of the service puzzle, so to speak, and being able to speak English to a foreign patron may be the ultimate test. This should help you understand the meme I placed above.
This is what happens when you can’t speak Japanese in Japan.
So, what does this mean? Unfortunately (and this can also be a really great opportunity), the reality is that the average Japanese person will be afraid to talk to you before you can prove to them that you can speak Japanese. This means that every time you go to the convenience store, bank, movie theatre, dentist, you name it…you will be placed in a situation where if you don’t prove to people there that you can speak Japanese within 2-3 seconds, more often than not chaos will ensue…even if you can speak Japanese perfectly after this initial period. I’m not sure quite what to label this phenomenon, but there’s really no coming back once this happens in a lot of cases. Waiters will be so flustered they will forget your order. People will just be…suddenly a few feet farther away from you. People will get that glazed-over look in their eyes. The irony is that this reaction can actually take some time for you to learn how to spot. It can be pretty subtle.
Does this still happen to people who can speak fluent Japanese? Are Japanese people…racist?
There are always stubborn xenophobes who won’t budge no matter how good your Japanese is, or not matter how much you understand the culture. This happens everywhere, but unfortunately for us, there isn’t a culture in Japan of standing up for other people’s rights. I’ve been called “It” (これ) before, and just had some of my closest friends stand and laugh. They would then tell me how much of an a** that guy was, but confronting people directly just isn’t something that happens often in this country. Besides these kinds of people, I feel very comfortable in my Japanese ability now, but there are still days when I’m just exhausted, or maybe I even have a cold and just want to be left alone. Remember, it isn’t a test of whether or not you can speak Japanese. It’s a test of whether or not you can quickly demonstrate your ability to speak Japanese. Those are very different things.
I will say this. The average Japanese person is really nice, but also tends to be much more reserved towards the unknown than what we are used to in the West. The best way you can get people to open up, is too surprise them with your Japanese ability. You have all of the opportunity to take a difficult situation, and turn it into something awesome! Regardless of the ****** I talked about earlier, there are some really amazing people, and some awesome experiences you will get to have, and will only get to have if you can speak Japanese!
Things become much easier in Japan when you can speak Japanese
All in all, I would say that foreigners are treated well in Japan, and I’m really happy to live here! However, life in Japan really is what you make it. It’s cliché, and it’s also true. I’ve known so many long-term expats who were absolutely drowning in their own misery. They hated the people, the lifestyle, the food…and for some reason they still choose to stay here? I’ve also known some really proactive expats who took it upon themselves to carve out exactly the kind of life they want, and made efforts to surround themselves with positive people who also shared their upbeat outlook on life. Whether good or bad, things won’t just be handed to you, and you won’t instantly have the social life and lifestyle you want just because you decide to move to Japan. You need to work at it, and slowly chip away at yourself.
I often tell people that Japan exposes all of your weaknesses, and displays them boisterously to the world. I often compare life here, especially as a non-Asian expat, as being the only person in the room wearing a hot pink t-shirt, while everyone else is wearing muted colors. People will stare at you. They’ll ask you leading questions. “Wouldn’t a real man wear black?”, “wouldn’t a real woman wear something more subtle?”. The confident person can deflect these leading questions and handle them with style. They can turn these points into an interesting conversation that you can turn back on the people around you. The person full of self-doubt and secret insecurities will lash-out and get offended. This is the experience of living life in Japan. Every single day…and every single minute of every day, people will be questioning why you choose to wear that hot pink shirt, and when you’re going to change your clothes. Essentially, as a foreigner in Japan, you hold all of the cards. Everyone’s reaction is almost entirely dependent on how you choose to handle each situation. It is incredibly complicated, and is an incredible amount of pressure. It’s also an amazing opportunity. Being able to speak Japanese will simply allow you to begin responding.
In case you missed it, I absolutely think you need to learn Japanese if you are going to be living in Japan long-term! If you are thinking of studying Japanese, why not check out one of my other articles below?
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