Yes! Of Course!
In today’s modern world, many gadgets help a tourist experience new things without a huge language barrier. Better yet, if you are visiting the major cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.), most signs for getting around are in Japanese and English.
Your trip doesn’t have to be nerve-wracking; there are a few simple tricks and some advice below to get through Japan without being fluent. If you are planning on moving to Japan, the tips for tourists apply as well. So check them out.
Isn’t Kanji Scary?
My first day navigating the Tokyo transportation system was a mess; mind you, I have no sense of direction. I had no Japanese skills, and the beautiful pictorial language became my worst nightmare. I felt illiterate.
I learned fast that train station signage and most directional posters in the city come in English. While I still couldn’t read the kanji, I was suddenly able to walk around without getting lost. It was extremely comforting that many people associated with tourism also speak the English language, as it is compulsory for them growing up.
These experiences as a tourist and living here have helped me tell others the essentials of navigating Japan, even if sometimes you have to “naviguess.”
Touring Japan: tips and tricks for the everyday tourist
Tip 1: The Internet
You’ve made your packing list, everything is perfect, and you hop on the plane to Japan. That’s likely the first few steps to touring. You’ve done your research; you want to go to the Tokyo SkyTree, experience a shinkansen, and immerse yourself in Japanese culture.
Stepping off the plane, picking up your luggage, then your first essential stop should be a wifi hotspot or a sim card. If you don’t want to pay hefty international data charges, then one of these is a must. They can be picked up at the airport or hotel.
This helps with using Google Maps and Google Translate, which are musts when traveling just about anywhere. The maps are up-to-date and even work when you’re down in the subway system.
Google Translate has a Japanese to English instant function that you can hold it up to any sign, and it’ll translate instantly. The conversation function is also useful when asking questions or trying to interact with locals.
Be sure to download the Japanese dictionary on the app before you go; then, you can use it without the internet. However, getting internet access is a must!
Tip 2: Be Confident, You Don’t Need a Guide (Unless You Want One)
As mentioned above, it is entirely possible to get around Japan without Japanese or a translator. Sure, some situations may be difficult or downright uncomfortable, but if you’re able to just roll with it, you’re good.
If you like planning ahead or not, you’ll be fine without a guide. At popular sites like the Tokyo SkyTree, Osaka Castle, and other significant attractions, more often than not, pamphlets are in English.
Even Odawara Castle has an app to download to listen to the events of history as you walk throughout the exhibit. Japan has been becoming more creative, and places with English capabilities are definitely more favored.
If you want more of an idea of popular places with English tourists, check out TripAdvisor, Expedia, or even just Google Maps reviews. On these websites you can find tickets, often cheaper, and know for sure you can go to the places you want.
If you take the time to do some research and know where you’re going, then you can save some money—often resulting in unique adventure stories when you leave.
If you feel more comfortable with a guide or want a more in-depth cultural experience, then get one. While it will cost more, it includes tickets to venues, and often you find yourself at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that tastes way better than the fast-food you would’ve eaten.
Check out TripleLights, where you can request an itinerary or even customize a tour with local guides. There are benefits to a guide; they know the area, the history and usually engage with you to make the experience more fulfilling. Guides are definitely recommended when traveling to a more rural area, where there are fewer English signs and speakers.
If it isn’t in your budget, don’t let that slow you down. Check out tip 3 for how to survive when no one speaks English.
Tip 3: Survival Japanese
Before I lived in Japan, I made quite a few visits here for family or just a nice vacation. Each time was a new place, with no Japanese ability, and each time I came back to the United States with Japanese mannerisms.
It’s innate to try to blend in with the culture around us, so once you visit, you will go home speaking what we call ‘survival Japanese.’ I highly encourage you to study a little before, because you will need to use a restroom at some point, and there will not be a sign in English.
If anything, it’s quite easy to pick up yes (hai), no (iie), and thank you (arigatou gozaimasu). Japanese are highly appreciative when foreigners try to speak the language, and at a minimum, you’ll receive a pleased smile.
To make things easier, if you are worried about language retention, use pictures. Before you come, it’s always a good idea to have photocopies of ID cards, passports, and other essential documents. But don’t forget to print out your travel information too.
Even if it’s on your phone, it’s daijoubu (okay). This will help when navigating on public transportation or telling a taxi driver where you want to go.
Don’t be stressed about a language barrier. There are plenty of tools to help you along. Translations may not be perfect, and you may end up with a couple more pork buns than you wanted (this has happened to me), but take it in stride.
Not everything is perfect, and if you can go with that, you are on your way to a fun and exciting trip across Japan.
Living in Japan Without Speaking Japanese: Can it really be done?
If you can tour Japan without Japanese, you can live in Japan without it also. However, it’s a bit trickier. First, how to get a one-way ticket to Japan. This is probably the hardest for me; my ticket was a student visa for university.
Many universities throughout Japan have programs in English to encourage international and national students’ interactions. This is a great way to become accustomed to the culture, get an education, and decide if Japan is somewhere you want to be for a while.
A Google search will help you find colleges or language schools to study at; if you’re lucky, a grant can pay for it.
If a university is not for you or you already have that degree, then looking for a job would be the next ticket. If you are willing to teach English and don’t mind where you are in Japan, you’ll easily get a visa.
However, if you want something more specialized, you’ll have to look at foreign-affiliated companies (gaishikei). A lot of these are in IT, engineering, or a technology-based company. If you are willing to research and apply, apply, apply, then getting into a company is possible.
Check out Live Work Play Japan for a list of websites for both English teaching and foreign-affiliated company jobs.
Okay, so you got the visa, now what? This is where it gets easier and more difficult. It’s like navigating a maze; you’ll find deadends or thoroughfares.
But you won’t know until you try.
You’ll quickly find out that there are English friendly companies for getting an apartment or a bank account. Registering with the city office and doing official paperwork is another thing.
If you time it right, you may get directed to the English speaker on staff. Otherwise, you’ve got to whip out the Google Translate. That app has been my best friend while navigating the legalities of getting set up in Japan.
Don’t get overwhelmed over this. You may be in a new place; it’s both exciting and scary. You’ll have thoughts of wanting to go home. Then the next day, want to plan a trip on the shinkansen. It’s a whirlwind, and you don’t need Japanese to experience it.
It’s similar to other countries and if something doesn’t make sense, Google it. You aren’t the only person with the problem. All About Japan provides a more in-depth look into getting set up and things to expect.
Most companies aren’t going to throw you to the wolves. They will make sure you have checklists of things to prepare and what to expect.
My biggest recommendation out of anything mentioned is to make friends. Whether they are Japanese or any other culture, having people that you can talk to and relate to is vital when moving somewhere alone.
In Conclusion: You Don’t Need to Speak the Language
Japan is a very English friendly country, but be humble when you are communicating. They may speak English, but the culture is very different, and they have everyday etiquette that is quite different.
If you are coming to stay for vacation or want to live here, brush up on some cultural norms at Business Insider, you’ll be glad you did.
There will be a little culture shock, so it’s best to do your research like on Wander Wisdom. It will make things more smooth and allow you to adapt a bit more quickly.
The last thing I can say is just to get out there. Take the vacation you’ve always wanted, move to a new country for a great experience. Japan isn’t some mystical country or rose-colored like in anime or movies.
However, it is wonderful and unique and a must-visit on the bucket list. Whether it’s traveling through tori gates in Kyoto, seeing the snow festival in Sapporo, or attending a tea ceremony in one of Tokyo’s many gardens, there’s something for everyone. Just persevere, do some research, and enjoy.