How Difficult is Travelling Japan without Japanese? | Travel Tips
Articles,  Blog

How Difficult is Travelling Japan without Japanese? | Travel Tips


One of the most intimidating and anxiety-inducing aspects of travelling overseas is the sudden inability to communicate with the world around you. It’s probably no surprise then that over the years one of the most popular questions I’ve got is how difficult is it to travel Japan without Japanese? Now in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics many businesses across Japan are Investing all their pocket money in preparing for foreign tourists. But there’s no doubt the language barrier exists here in a homogeneous culture where English speakers can seem few and far between. In this video, we’ll discuss the most common problems that will pop up along the way, from public transport and dining out to some useful communication strategies that will help you break down the language barrier with the locals. But I’ll start with two pieces of reassuring news though: The first is that I put a survey out on Twitter asking people if they found Japan difficult to travel without Japanese. There were 3600 responses with two thirds saying they didn’t find it difficult. Now that’s great; then again Twitter questionnaires should always be taken with a pinch of salt, Especially as I put out a follow-up survey, asking people if they’d rather be a bagel or an Alaskan salmon. Within 47 minutes 739 people responded with 45 percent respondents choosing to be a delicious inanimate object over a living creature rich in Omega-3. And that should have been a clear open-and-shut case – obviously the answer was salmon. The second piece of reassuring news is that I’ve known numerous expats living and working in Japan over the years across various sectors who have lived comfortably in Japan without knowing any Japanese whatsoever and whilst it’s not obviously ideal, it is completely doable. I mean when I came here without knowing much of the language, I was often a little bit anxious in various situations that the the locals might get angry at me when they found out that I lived here without knowing any of the language really. After all, I’d had travel experiences in some countries in the past where the locals had lost their temper or snapped at me for my inability to communicate in their language. Obviously, I’m not gonna name any names. -hilarious fake cough- France. But not once in my time here has anybody got angry at me or lost their cool for my inability to communicate. On the contrary, Japanese people are very understanding and fully aware that Japanese is almost exclusively spoken within Japan, and it is quite difficult, and it takes a lot time to learn. Thus if you do make an effort and show you know some Japanese, you’ll instantly win favour with the locals because you’ll be in the minority of foreign travellers who can speak and use a little bit of Japanese. Better still though English is almost everywhere these days, from restaurant menus and road signs to trendy t-shirts. Mind you, the English might not always be native speaker level of English, but it gets the job done. Take this notebook that I bought the other day for example. It’s covered in trendy, cool English expressions on the front here, like: “relax time”, and “keep calm”, and “pleasing smell”. And yet the thing that gives it away that might not have been proof read or written by a native speaker is the big word at the top where it just says: Dribble. “Dribble” – it’s not typically the sort of thing you’d find on a notebook back home. I don’t know why they thought that would enhance the sales of the… of the notebook, but nonetheless, it’s English, just… just not as we… not as we know it. So having just landed in Japan, typically at Haneda Airport or Narita or Kansai International, You’ll find getting out of the airport and into the city a fairly easy, seamless process. Everything is wonderfully signposted. But soon after arriving at the city problems might arise at one of the smaller stations when you look up at the map to find it is exclusively written in kanji characters. Now perhaps you’d think “No problem, I’ll just use the ticket machine and hit the English button and type in the name of the station. Haha, I’m so brilliant.” But wait! Because, you’re not. For local trains and the underground, rather than typing in the name of the station, you need to know the ticket price of the place you’re going. And to find out the cost of that ticket you need the map that you can’t read. Obviously you can get around this easily by asking a member of staff; as long as you mutter the name of the station or the general direction of where you want to go – no problem. But my favourite option is just to get a Suika card or a passport card, which you top-up with a few thousand yen. I can’t tell you the cost of going anywhere in Japan or Tokyo just because – I use this. So rather than knowing the cost of your ticket price, just keep this filled up with a few thousand yen every day, and you’re all good. Same goes for the JR Rail Pass. That’s half the benefit of getting the JR Rail Pass: You don’t need to worry about using ticket machines all the time. And you can get this for 500 yen at pretty much any ticket machine across Japan. I think for another few hundred yen you get your name written on it as well. I haven’t done that. Because I’m… I’m cheap. I would strongly urge first time travellers coming to Japan to get a SIM card or a portable Wi-Fi so you have the internet with you, mainly just so you can use Google Maps. It is the main way that I and most foreign travellers get around Japan. All the train times and all the bus times are input into it seamlessly. Honestly without Google Maps I don’t think I’d even be here now. I’d probably be lost in a forest somewhere scrounging for… Berries. Ber- yeah. As somebody who travels around Japan quite a lot I found that this isn’t an issue at all. I think you’ll have no problems with accommodation whether you’re using hotels, Airbnb or even staying at traditional, Japanese Inn. That’s a lie there might be one one issue. If you’re lucky enough to have a public bath or a hot springs built into your accommodation, you’ll find that they’re segregated by male and female, and sometimes they’re poorly labelled as to which one is which. This could end in spectacular disaster and lots of awkward conversations with hotel staff. So what I would encourage you to do, just because not only do public baths use it, but also toilets across Japan. They sometimes only have kanji characters in male and female, especially at smaller bars and restaurants. So I would actually encourage you to learn those two characters: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’. They’re probably the only two characters you’ll ever need to know. Better still you can impress all your friends and family at your next birthday party when you whip out a pen and Pretend to know how to write lots of Japanese, giving the momentary illusion that you are a genius with extensive cultural knowledge. I mean, for that reason alone definitely… It’s definitely worth it. As somebody who eats out… Well, more than they probably should, I tend to find in the bigger restaurants this isn’t an issue – you will find English menus, or even then just menus with pictures on that you can point at. Typically the smaller the bar or restaurant and the further out into the countryside it is, the less likely you will find English. And in the terrifying event there’s neither English nor photos you can desperately point at, you are gonna have to wing it. Now, I did make a video a few months ago talking about nightlife etiquette and dining out etiquette. However, the most important phrase and thing in that video is the phrase: “Osusume wa?” “Osusume wa?” means “What do you recommend?” If you point at the menu and say “Ososume wa?” typically the staff will probably laugh in surprise, chuckle in surprise first. That is the only Japanese phrase that you know. And then they will try and do their best to explain what it is before you enthusiastically order it. Unless of course you are vegetarian and the speciality is pork. In which case you can just point it yourself and say: “Vegetarian”. Because fortunately the word for vegetarian in Japanese is: ‘Bejitarian’. It’s kind of like the same. And that’s another really useful point for dining out in Japan – many foods the words themselves are ‘Gairaigo’ or foreign borrowed words. Take for example beef, chicken and pork. For beef you can say “Bi-fu”. For pork you can say “Po-ku”. For chicken you can say “Chikin”. And for horse you can say “BASASHI”. All right, there’s a handful of exceptions but you get the general idea. Take fruit for example: Orange is “Orenji”. Banana is “Banana”. Apple is a “Appuru”. And cherry is “SAKURANBO”. Again some – some exceptions. The only other two words you really need to know are: Beer, which is “Bi-ru” and Whiskey which is “Uiski”. And there you have it So don’t be afraid to use ‘gairaigo’ – don’t be afraid to try and say the word. I’m not necessarily saying try and pronounce those words in their ‘gairaigo’ Japanese form, I’m saying try and just say the word in English and hopefully the staff will catch it and understand what you’re saying. You’ll find in the absence of English conversational practice at school, most Japanese people do tend to lack confidence in speaking and listening to English. To talk a bit more about this along with the essential four Japanese phrases you need to know before you come to Japan, I’ll now hand you over to a real-life Japanese man who stole a British accent. Even though we learn English [for] six years from junior high school to high school, somehow or we can’t speak or listen. So what you have to do when you come to Japan is: Don’t make sentences long. For instance, some people like me when you ask if the food is good or bad, you can say “Is it good?” But when you say “Is it good?”, it sounds like one word for Japanese people. So you could just take one word, one most important word – in this case which is ‘good’. So say “good” or “bad” – just take one word and they’ll understand you. Instead of saying “Where is the toilet?”, you can say: “Toilet? Where?” “Can you speak English?” Just say: “English? OK?” And if you make it like really simple, they’ll – they’ll get you. So there are only four phrases that you have to know when you come to Japan and that will get you by. First one is “Konnichiwa”, and that’s like “Hello” – as everyone knows. The second one is “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me” – That is “Sumimasen”. And then thirdly is “Thank you”, which is “Arigatou”. Not like “Arigato” – “Arigatou”.
(That’s very difficult to write in captions>.

100 Comments

  • mnb323

    Traveling seems like so much fun but I would definitely want a travel buddy, preferably someone with experience, before even attempting to travel to a nonenglish country.

  • Matthew Marn

    Super easy. Everyone we met was extremely helpful and polite. Many spoke enough English or were down to have mime conversations with us until we were off in the right direction. One woman (who spoke extremely good English) rode a train with us past her stop to make sure we got to the AirBnB we were supposed to go to.

    Speaking of trains, all the employees of the various rail systems were ADAMANT that they help navigate us until they were as sure as they could be without abandoning their job that we wouldn't be lost.

  • Corey

    My fear is that I'd offend all these helpful people because I have a VERY BAD ear for accents… Even if they were speaking English, I'd say "what was that?" or "could you repeat that?" or "excuse me?" so many times, they'd eventually get pissed & leave…

    Basically I'm like the Japanese in that I hear sentences as one word, or certain words just sound like jibberish. It happens to me when other native English speakers have strong accents too… I just stand around looking dumbfounded & say "huh?"

  • fourthwallbreak

    Although I speak Japanese now, I didn't speak any Japanese when I moved to Japan over ten years ago. I cant think of any language related disaster stories from my earlier days in the country. Most people are happy to help foreigners and the revel in the chance to have the opportunity to speak English with you. Even just yesterday I asked the staff in fluent Japanese where the bathroom is and she responded in broken English "Go here, turn right." So even if you do speak Japanese, sometimes Japanese people prefer to try out their English when they get the chance. Plus with the 2020 Olympics coming to Japan most everything is written in English now. Event he train announcements which was shocking for me as an American who has lived here for so long.

  • goulash75

    Words / phrases I try to learn in any country I travel to:
    Please, thank you, hello, good bye, Where is the toilet?
    It's worked in 35+ countries (including Japan) so far.

  • Corsuwey

    Every country that I've visited I've learned a couple phrases and how to count to at least 10. I feel that's the best way to get around.

  • Kieorasama

    I wonder if Japanese people get random English words tattooed on themselves, like many English people get Asian characters tattooed on themselves…..

  • Cole Lutz

    Most of them understand a little English, so just point and do hand gestures like I did. Then they respond mostly in Japanese and do hand gestures and point and we figure it out.

  • Hatsune Miku

    I know some japanese, like how to introduce yourself.
    'Hajimemashi, (insert name here) desu'
    But if you dont expose yourself to it everyday, it can be extremly difficult to master. Thats why im watching this

  • humansoup

    I wonder if they intended to write Drivel on that notebook, misspelled it, then someone else didn't question the word Dribble and added the coffee maker?

  • Killian

    I once asked a stranger in Tokyo to show me where something was on the map, she then just said, "come, I show", bought a ticket and escorted me to said station

  • 王紹魚

    It's quite an advantage for people who could read Chinese characters (Kanji) like me. Even though we pronounce the characters differently, it's still able for us to recognize the words.

  • Greg Benwell

    When I was in school you DID NOT NEED a second language to graduate school…and for me learning English Class was boring enough to not make me want to learn to speak another language anyhow!! Though I am better versed in English that most of the kids in my class and I have a much broader vocabulary than even most people give me credit for!! Not that anybody listens to me either for that matter!! But I used to want to travel to countries like France, or Germany or even Japan or Egypt, but the older I got the worse these countries seemed against Americans to start with ANYHOW, especially Germany and France, and so I lost my desire to visit nations I feel wouldn't welcome me as a "paying customer" to! More recently I have added more countries to that list of places I would never want to go to like Mexico, Brazil and any of the Scandinavian countries like Norway, Holland. Denmark or Sweden either! In fact I have even wrote of trips to places like England, Scotland and Ireland because anymore it seems like the hatred towards America has grow greatly over the past 20 or so years and even in Australia it isn't like American's are welcome even as a "world power" to kept these places from talking German or Japanese AFTER the second World War!! America seems to get "forgotten" for all our "help" and no thanks to the lack of history lessons in the "old world" countries that like in France once hailed America and helped up during our Revolutionary war against England (See Statue Of Liberty, Thanks France)!! In short it seems the world HATES Americans without realizing our part in everybody else's problems!! It was Americas liberty ships and all our hard work that gave England the advantage over the Nazis and how are we repaid?? By being called nasty 60 years or so after the fact to our faces!! America isn't PERFECT either and yes we have our problems still to this day, but you can't say Italy, Greece Germany and even England are "perfect nations" either!! And there are still parts of the world where people are just as "oppressed" as they have been for hundreds if not thousands of years as well too, so I KNOW our nation of America has its share of problems but we work hard to help when help is need is my point, and to just get "spit on" as a nation for a "thank you" for it!! I am NOT so arrogant either to think another country has to "bend over and kiss my American back side" either!! BUT I can't understand why some "old world countries" like China will adopt French as a second language and yet Americans are treated like garbage in some of these nations as well too!! The French are in short not a "great super power" and they have had their share of dirty crap in their past and skeletons in their closets as well too!! Like how England thought the American colonies would just "give into their will" and accept being taxed to death without ANY representation once upon a time!!! History rules!!! And it was the Dutch from Holland that created the slave trade in America for things like Sugar Cane and Molasses product as well as England for the Cotton trade if you want a true HISTORY LESSON on Slavery in America, but even here in America there are Americans (mostly black Americans) that ignore that little factoid of truth and logic to this day!!! So Holland is "no better" when it comes to "oppressing" people either, more so when you consider how the screwed the natives over for New York and $26 worth of beads (if you catch my drift)!! Old World countries have literally exploited people for centuries and in the end look at the state of the world they control now, and again I am sorry to sound arrogant….BUT I excelled in History Class!!! But you'd think English would be a "more accepted" language as a whole in the world and NOT say French or German or what ever which is my point!!!!!

  • SheyD78

    I think a 5th phrase is key, "Where is the Toilet?" I would want to know how to say that in the native language of anywhere I went, just in case.

  • bobby boucher

    its worst in england if you speek french and ask help you get punch in the face UK is the worst place on earth or close second with that dumbass queen and dumbass bankers

  • Zerin

    Wait I can literally just say english words in a japanese accent like beefu and they will actually understand me? Anime actually was telling the truth?

  • Xiuxuan Wang

    Hell, it’s difficult! As a Chinese who can read a little bit Kanji (sort of…they look very similar to Chinese characters…technically I can only distinguish between them), I still felt a hell lot of difficulty during my stay in Japan for two weeks. (Luckily I stayed at a Chinese family there, which was really helpful). From my experience, most Japanese people barely know any English, and trying to communicate to them in English is merely impossible. Some of my friends lived in Japanese host families, and they had difficulty communicating with them even about basics like where to brush your teeth and how to use the toilet etc. Despite their poor English skills, they are all really wonderful people, so nice and so willing to help.
    PS. A Joke: whenever you need to buy something, you just say “hay” “hay” “hay” after the shop assistant’s strange mumblings. When she finally hands your credit card back to you, you just reply “Alligator”~ It’s going to work 9 out of 10 times, trust me:)

  • Rupert Cole

    Your channel has quickly become my favorite on youtube. Thanks for all the hard work you put into making these videos for us! You da man!

  • Todd Atkins

    There are websites you can use to put in your trip and it will tell you what train lines to use with stops and cost in English. I used it a lot when I was there from 2002-2005.

  • Man Ransom

    Hahaha they googled “someone who talks a lot” or something and used dribble lol 😂 which is British English for someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about

  • rus hunt

    its not hard, I lived there in 95 most people speak English anyways…and those who don't have the patients of a saint to allow you to try

  • Justin M

    Learn hello, goodbye, thank you and excuse me. Thats all you need in Tokyo for basics! Also learn the culture like NO TALKING ON THE TRAINS, what side to stand on escalators, how to handle trash, and don't go places that are only Japanese or locals (dont be offended, they just dont deal with foreigners). Passmo is LIFE!

  • 中山健太郎

    Places popular for foreign tourist have usually English signs
    For example, chain restaurants(Coco curry, Ichiran etc) or restaurants for tourists usually have English menu
    Many foreigner think almost restaurants in Japan has English menu, but that's because they usually go to restaurants for tourists. Actually, almost all of private run restaurants popular for Japanese people don't have English menu
    Anyway, at least it's no problem to go to tourist spots without Japanese language

  • Alex Goldberg

    [As someone who's been to Japan] I can say that there are 3 things you can do:
    – Rent/Buy a 4G dongle so you dont have to find wifi (which is not as common as you might think) so you can google translate anything
    – Adding to the first point – get a battery pack which can charge a phone and 4G-dongle for 1-2 days (minimum)
    – Try making friends – found someone on a message board I visited who I later became friends with, he spoke English and Japanese perfectly so everything was a breeze

    Ill be honest:
    If you dont speak the language, cant use a translate (all the time) and or get a friend who speak both languages then you might aswell not go to Japan since most things are bared to "Gaijins", and you will just miss out on cool places and will probably make an ass out of yourself.

  • Hearing Visions

    Yeah, i got lost in poland, alone. Anxiety overload lead to total fear, ended up in a bad run down areas and a general feeling of "im never going to be seen again" last thing i was going to do was ask for help and let anyone know i was a tourist/travelling/foreigner at that point.

    Found my way after about 6 miles of walking.. Found a train station.

    I wouldnt reccomend travelling ANY foreign country alone with zero language skills. Risks out weigh the experience 10 fold.

  • Anonymous Student

    Also! If you go anywhere in Japan, they offer different train cards that are useable in different parts of Japan. I still have my Hayaken card, the card used in Fukuoka which is an island in Kyushyu. Different areas sell and offer different card types with different characters on them.

  • Asha

    I've spent some time in Japan and I haven't any kind of working knowledge of the Japanese language. Though I did get waved off from some restaurants (which means they neither speak English, have english menus, or want/need to deal with a tourist trying to translate their menu with google translate), I generally found that the Japanese people are happy to bend over backwards to help you if you are polite.

  • jidenshaotoko

    The bathroom section… over my first time in Japan back in 2010, my wife and I stayed at a ryokan in Nikko. The ryokan was suprisingly empty, only one other family and ourselves. So on our first night, we both headed out to the bathroom that had some sort of private onsen attached to the changing unit. There was another man there… Japanese man mind you and I figured "Ok, I'm good".

    Next day, we go take a bath at the exact same spot, but about 10 minutes later two Japanese girls and two English speaking foreigners entered. I panicked, immediately stood up and out of the onsen and into the changing unit where the girls were with a towel wrapped around my waist and proceeded to put on my clothes as discreetly as possible on the very corner of the room like some kid on a time-out. The foreigners, startled, kept repeatedly telling the Japanese girls to call the receptionist to report me while the Japanese girls muttered a couple of sentences, one of which I managed to make out as "kawaisou".

    I leave the bathroom redder than a tomato, meet up with my wife who also unknowingly happened to get into the men's room, luckily without any incidents as no one was in during the time she was there and that's how we learned that some ryokan rotate bathroom signage every day.

    So the lesson here is: don't be stupid and clueless like we were. Learn at least the very basic kanji to save you from these easily avoidable embarrassment, unless you hope to have a story to tell later in which case, do it at your own risk.

  • ArkVogel

    6:00 Add a "OWN-NAH O-TOW-KO DES -EW GOZ-EYE-MAS-EW KAH" followed by a bullshit profound translation and you'll have them all clapping… except for that one weeb in the corner who's TOTALLY on to you.

  • Maddie Reid

    Hahahaha you cant go to Japan without japanese trust me 99% of them dont fucking understand english and speak english damnnnn!

  • DGPrepper

    I'm not sure how it is in Europe but in the United States, 3 definitions of "dribble" come to mind: 1) to drool…2) to bounce a ball (particularly a basketball)…3) to drip.

    Coffee dribbles (drips – thus the coffee reference).
    In sports, you dribble (bounce a ball – probably what the notebook meant).
    In a fit of lust, you may accidentally dribble (drool – hopefully, not what any Japanese marketing company intends but…Japanese culture can be weird).

  • Hawkeysim

    10:00
    Five actually, you forgot the "bye" one, it would be kinda rude to leave without saying it haha, one of the ways of saying it is "sayonara" I think, I'm not expert but I've heard it a lot in animes.

    Edit: for the second one there's also "gomen" or "gomen-nasai" I think, which is more like a "sorry" than "excuse me" hope it will help some people :3

  • Knight Glint

    You know maybe I should just grab someone who knows Japanese instead who wants to go on a vacation to Japan to be a guide.

  • taino20

    I was in Japan some time ago, and I was looking for a bank. I went into a store and asked one of the staff, if they could direct me to the nearest bank. One of the employees came out from behind the counter, took me by the hand, and escorted me to the bank, about three blocks away.

  • C O N S T A N T V A R I A B L E S

    Wait, why would you need the internet for Google maps, when you can d/l the area you are visiting and use if Offline?

  • VitaDoden

    Man, I shouldn't have watched this video. Makes me want to both learn Japanese and visit the country all the more. It looks so incredibly beautiful and I'm fascinated by both the country and culture.

    I guess I'll start trying to learn Japanese first. Actually getting the might take some doing, Sweden to Japan is quite a ways off.
    Better hurry up though before flying gets utterly insane price-wise.

    Loved the video, my man, I think I'll subscribe now. Watched quite a few over the past few days.

  • Zammle

    Lived in Japan 3 years without ever learning Japanese.
    I always had my phones GPS working which helped a lot.
    I got my pasmo card so I can ride the train station freely.
    Once I learned how the train station system worked, getting around the country became easy.

  • The Shepp

    The french are just pure trash, stuck up and classless. It's like they all know their country is irrelevant on the world stage so have a massive chip on their shoulders. When you have a national crisis of metal doors dissolving because people cant stop urinating against them… that's when you know your country is fucked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *