The short answer: Is Japanese a useful language to learn? Yes! Yes, yes, and a resounding… yes. If you are planning on moving to Japan, please do yourself and the good people of Japan a favor and learn Japanese. It will absolutely be worth it! Let’s go over all of the reasons why.
But…I’ve heard people say that you don’t need to be able to speak Japanese to survive in Japan.
This is true in Japan’s bigger cities, but…do you really want to get through life by just “surviving?” You don’t want to just survive, you want to live! Live life to the fullest, and have the most fulfilling possible, right? Here’s the thing, If you’re planning on living in Japan for any length of time, you do NOT want to be THAT guy?
By learning Japanese and embracing the Japanese culture, I was able to avoid becoming…THAT guy.
What guy (or gal)? That foreigner in Japan who can’t communicate and ends up inadvertently over-relying on the people around them. To do so would be to rob yourself of some of the most interested experiences you can have in Japan. Learning Japanese is incredibly useful for experiencing the intricacies of the Japanese culture and everyday lifestyle. No…it’s absolutely essential! If you are interested in pursuing anything related to Japan beyond a hobby, I can promise you that if will be worth it to learn Japanese. Why? Because it provides invaluable context. What kind of context? I’ll elaborate on that throughout this article, while also going over my own experiences learning and using Japanese, and living in Japan.
How I moved to Japan in early 2015 to study Japanese
Hi, my name is Evan, I started learning Japanese back in 2013. After studying Japanese at an American university I would eventually leave that school to enter a Japanese language school in Japan, I would move to Japan to enroll in this language school in 2015, enter a Japanese University in 2016, and then graduate in 2020. Currently I’m working in Tokyo. When I first started studying Japanese back in 2013, this article: “Why you shouldn’t learn Japanese” was trending around the internet, and floated around through YouTube and reddit, spawning debates on whether or not you actually “need” Japanese to live in Japan, and whether the time commitment is worth it or not, etc.
Is learning Japanese worth the time commitment? My experience moving to Japan in early 2015, and how my Japanese ability would become the most useful asset I had in the moving process.
When I moved to Japan in early 2015, I could understand some basic Japanese, but I could barely string a sentence together. As I would soon find out, listening, reading, and speaking are all different skills that need to be trained individually. So, how did it go? I could understand some of my surroundings, so I must have gotten by…right?
Well, the first few months after moving to Japan can be tough! Moving to another city, let alone another country is an exercise in patience and learning how to deal with dead ends, but the experience of moving to Japan challenged me in ways I hadn’t expected. I expected to be challenged on my listening or reading skills, but the reality is that moving to Japan is a process that involves paperwork. LOTS of paperwork.
Like, what kind of paperwork?
Well, maybe things have been streamlined since 2015, but my experience was that in order to set up a bank account, you first need to register your address with your city ward. In order to register your address you need a phone number, which is very difficult to get if you don’t have a bank account or registered address. But, wait. While this is rapidly changing in Japan, back in 2015 it was difficult to register for anything without first creating a Japanese hanko (判子) also called an inkan (印鑑), which is like a personalized stamp with your last name on it that you use in place of Western style signatures. Nowadays you can probably do without this, but back in 2015 they were adamant that they needed the hanko, which I needed to go to a specialty shop to have made.
So…what I mean to say with all of this is that you will be challenged more than any other time you live in Japan at the beginning, because you will need to be able to explain complex situations and problems to be able to complete these tasks. Many people have friends or coworkers help them out during this phase, which is okay, but I think this is a period that will really push you out of your comfort zone in a good way, if you can make it through mostly on your own. For that to happen, learning even basic Japanese will be extremely useful for you to communicate your good will to those around you, and help avoid small issues that can easily be avoided.
You will probably…definitely need help at some point, and that’s okay! The thing to keep in mind is that most foreigners who come to Japan can’t speak Japanese. This means that people in Japan REALLY appreciate when foreigners, particularly in the beginning, make a visible effort to understand the Japanese language and culture. The most important thing to consider is your intention. More than anything, showing off your intention to learn Japanese will become a tremendously useful in forging new relationships and friendships, as well as relationships with pleasant people at the bank and city office! (lol) If you show off this intention to understand the culture and language, people will be flocking to come to your rescue. You can either take the easy way out now and struggle later, or struggle now and gain the strength to persevere and eventually thrive.
But there are foreigners in Japan who survive without Japanese ability, right?
I would discover upon moving to Japan that the foreign expat community, especially in Japan’s biggest cities, tends to be divided into two distinct groups of those who want to learn as much Japanese as possible, and those who tend to gravitate towards the English speaking bubbles of Tokyo, Osaka, and so on. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but people do tend to gravitate towards either group when they first enter the country. This isn’t to say that people who stick to English bubbles in Japan can’t speak Japanese, but I think this is the case more often than not.
This is what I think. I can’t imagine having a fulfilling life in Japan without having the ability to at least speak intermediate Japanese. Living in Japan as a foreigner can be lonely, can I can’t imagine never learning the language on top of all of that.
Is Japanese a useful language to learn? How many people speak Japanese worldwide?
Okay, but what about if you’re living outside of Japan? Should you learn Japanese if you aren’t planning on coming to Japan?
There are around 130 million Japanese speakers worldwide. However, around 90% of Japanese speakers are native Japanese citizens residing in Japan. If you are interested in communicating with as many people in as many countries as possible, there are other languages that are certainly more useful. However, things aren’t so simple…
Which country has the highest number of Japanese speakers outside of Japan?
So, where else do Japanese speakers live? Surely, a multicultural society like the U.S or Canada must have highest number of Japanese speakers, right? Or maybe neighboring neighbors like China and Korea? These countries have their Japanese communities, without doubt, but I think the country with the 2nd highest number of Japanese speakers may surprise you. Can you guess what it is? Here’s a hint: It’s probably not on the continent you would expect.
Did you guess? Okay. The area that has the highest number of Japanese speakers outside of the country of Japan is Brazil, where there are around 1.5 million Japanese immigrants. Surprised and want to know why this is? Well, I wrote a whole article about it, so feel free to check that out! So, with so many of the worldwide Japanese speakers still residing almost exclusively in Japan, is Japanese a useful language to learn for business?
If you are reading this article, the small number of Japanese speakers outside of Japan can be a HUGE advantage for you
I have written before about my experience studying about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis while in Japanese university. Put very simply, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that the languages determine not only the way we think, but also the possibilities of what we can think. This is where learning another language like Japanese can come in. One thing you will learn to stop doing once you begin learning another language is asking the question “How can I say this in this language?“. For example, how can I say “ridiculous” in Japanese? This is because, while the word “ridiculous” does have a literal translation in Japanese, it isn’t used very frequently. This level of frequency is one of the biggest determining factors that language has on our way of thinking. Learning a language like Japanese is useful not just for communicating with the 130 million worldwide Japanese speakers. It’s also useful for expanding your own cognitive horizons and changing the way you see the world. It’s my personal favorite experience of language learning, and it can also be the most grueling. This cognitive molding is done through repetition, and the internalization of complex ideas and linguistic patterns. If you choose to learn Japanese, the most useful thing you will gain from it is the ability to truly reevaluate your own way of thinking, as well as your own critical thinking skills.
Why specializing in Japanese can be change your perspective, and why being able to speak Japanese is intrinsically useful.
While I will always encourage people to learn as many language as possible, both as a gesture of respect to those whose country you’re visiting, and as a way to expand your mind, if you’re reading this article…that means you can understand English!
The reality is that with modern technology and efforts to globalize advancing year by year, for traveling or short bursts of communication, you should definitely be able to survive as an English speaker in almost any environment. The question really is, what do you want to specialize in? There are few native Japanese speakers who can speak English at a near native level (something the Japanese government is constantly trying to change), and there are even fewer native English speakers who can speak Japanese at a near native level. While these people aren’t 1 in a million like they may have been decades ago, based on my own experiences living in Japan I would estimate that there are less than 1000 native English speakers in Japan who can truly use Japanese with confidence. Just imagine how low this number is outside of Japan. Here’s an example; There’s a massive demand for bilingual Spanish and English speakers in the United States, and there is also a huge number of English and Spanish bilingual speakers. While there may be 100 times the demand, there may be 200 times the supply. Even if the demand for Japanese is rare in The United States or other countries, if you are famous for your ability, you will be THE ONE people call on whenever there is a need to translation, localization, etc.
So, is Japanese a useful language to learn for business?
Japan as a culture is entrenched in this air of ‘exclusivity’, which also permeates the community of foreign residents in Japan. As I have covered on this site before, foreigners in primarily Japanese environments can make people feel…uncomfortable. While there will always be some xenophobic people everywhere, Japan happens to be a country where the vast majority of visitors don’t speak the language, don’t have much of a concept of the deeper aspects of the Japanese culture, and is a country in which many people will visit with the goal of experiencing heavy culture shock. Japan, for better or worse, still does things very much in a Japanese way, influenced HEAVILY by aspects of the Japanese language.
Understanding the Japanese language will help you understand the way Japanese people think, and very specific nuances of the Japanese culture. Communication is very important to Japanese people. If you are planning on doing business with Japanese companies, having some knowledge of Japanese is essential.
I don’t know where I would be now if I never learned Japanese. Maybe back in the US, or maybe in a cardboard box in front of a Japanese station? Okay, okay, you CAN become an English teacher, but that sounds incredibly boring to me. I’ll take being bilingual any day!
So, if you’re interested in learning more about the Japanese language, culture, or my life in Japan, I think you’ll enjoy some of the articles I have attached below!