Japanese girls at Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa

Do People Speak English in Japan?

by Robert Schrader on June 20, 2018

If you’ve ever wondered about speaking English in Japan, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that an increasing number of people in Japan can speak English, and English signage is good in big cities and rural areas alike. The bad news? Japanese people can by shy about speaking English even if their ability is good, which can put you in some tough spots.

Some stop-gaps exist for English speakers in Japan, to be sure, from an array of translation apps that expands and improves by the day, to the ease of making simple conversation in Japan, even if you’ve never studied an Asian language. (TIP: Don’t worry about how to say “I don’t speak Japanese”—mastering basic words and phrases is surprisingly easy!)

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Studying Japanese in Japan

Obviously, the most effective way to get around speaking English in Japan (or the difficulty of doing so) is taking a Japanese course. Unfortunately, this is a relatively expensive option, with tuition averaging around ¥50,000 per month in most major cities, and apartment rental costs farther into the stratosphere than that.

This, of course, doesn’t speak at all to the fact that Japanese is a very difficult language, or to other issues involved in Japanese, such as needing an education visa (I wonder how you say “red tape” in Japanese?) in order to study for longer than the allowance holders of your passport get when entering Japan as a tourist. Sure, English in Japan isn’t ideal, but at least it’s uncomplicated!

Speaking English in Japan Today: Expectation vs. Reality

Which Members of Japanese Society Can Speak English?

While Japan is definitely not one of the English speaking countries in Asia, I’m more impressed by the English-speaking abilities of Japanese people every time I go back to the country. Although workers in fast food restaurants and kombini (convenience stores) often speak exclusively in Japanese, staff in hotels and nicer restaurants will generally converse with you in English, and in larger cities you can often come across someone on the streets to help you in a pinch.

To be sure, while working in Japan without speaking Japanese (well, unless you’re teaching English in Japan) is probably a bad idea (if only because Japanese companies are unlikely to hire you without some aptitude in the language), travelers aren’t in such a bad spot, particularly not with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching.

English Signs and Services in Japan

The number of Japanese learning English has increased both in preparation for the Tokyo games, as well as a decades-long ESL drive in the country, of which the popular JET Programme has been an important foundation. However, even if you can’t find a real-life person to speak English, you have some other options before you go downloading an application and communicating through a computer.

First of all, there are English translations on signs most everywhere in Japan, from big cities like Osaka and Tokyo, to rural areas in Kyushu and Shikoku islands. Plus, as I’ve mentioned several times throughout this article, most Japanese try to speak English, even if the end result of English in Japan is little more than a friendly smile.

Do You Need an English-Speaking Guide in Japan?

As I noted earlier, living in Japan without speaking Japanese is probably a bad idea, but it doesn’t impede travel, at least not from a practical perspective. Frankly, Japan is orderly and automated enough that you can explore the country autonomously without a single word of Japanese, though it would be sad indeed to visit Japan and not connect with any local people.

You don’t “need” an English-speaking guide in Japan, though it might be a good idea if you want to gain a deeper understanding of attractions you visit throughout the country. Regardless of your situation, I do recommend you consider learning some basic Japanese words and phrases to make your travels easier, even if you generally find the answer to the question “Do people speak English in Japan?” to be “yes” (or “hai,” as it were).

Important Japanese Conversation Phrases for Travelers

As I mentioned in the introduction, it’s a cop out to simply cower away from the Japanese language in fear, even if you can’t afford or don’t have the time to take a Japanese course as described in the preceding section. If you can manage to learn and remember how to say “I don’t speak Japanese” in Japanese, I have a feeling you can learn these five simple words and phrases.

  • Hello: “Konnichiwa” (TIP: At night time, say “Konbanwa”; in the morning, say “Ohayo”)
  • Thank you: “Arigatou” (TIP: “Arigatou gozaimasu” is more polite)
  • That’s delicious: “Oishi desu!”
  • That’s cute: “Kawaii desu!”
  • Cherry blossoms: “Sakura” (“Hanami” is a word that describes the act of cherry blossom viewing)
  • I’m  _______. What is your name?: “Watashi wa _______ desu. Namae wa?”

Indeed, a better Japanese-language phrase to learn than “I don’t speak Japanese” is “do you speak English” in Japanese, which you can say as follows: “Anata wa eigo o hanashimasu ka?”

The Bottom Line

Do people in Japan speak English? The answer is at once simple and complicated: Japanese people generally speak some English, but also tend to be shy and afraid of making mistakes. At the same time, even locals who can’t communicate with you will be friendly and helpful, which means it’s common courtesy to devote time to learn basic words and phrases in Japanese irrespective of speaking English in Japan. Then again, some much of the wonder of Japan defies language, and leaves you speechless. Irrespective of whether you speak Japanese, and even if you’re terrified about being able to speak English in Japan, commission a custom Japan itinerary to get peace of mind before your trip.

About The Author

is the author of 94 posts on Japan Starts Here. Robert created Japan Starts Here so the web would have a beautiful hub of Japan travel information and inspiration. He also runs the popular website Leave Your Daily Hell.

 
 

Japan Starts Here is information—and inspiration—for all your trips to Japan. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!

 
 
 
 

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