Yes, living in Japan can be a bit tough because of the language barrier. The writing system can be a bit cumbersome if you’re learning it from scratch, it’s very easy to make pronunciation mistakes when speaking the language, and (no matter how you slice it) some aspects of Japanese can be difficult to learn. Despite of the linguistic challenges of foreigners learning Japanese, I must say that Japan makes more of an effort than almost any other, non-English speaking, country I’ve been to at employing English in their culture. Here are some examples of places in Japan where you might see or hear English:
Especially on the newer trains, like the Tsukuba Express, station maps, and train announcements are provided in both Japanese and English. Being on the train can be good kanji practice. Trying to guess which station a group of kanji represent before the English screen comes up, can be a fun language-learning game to play while you ride. Having English in nearly all train stations has saved my butt countless times. So should you find yourself standing confused in the middle of Japanese train station someday…don’t panic…stay calm and remember that you will most likely be able to find everything you need to get around…in English.
Do you how comforting it can be to see something you understand if you’ve been struggling with a foreign language for months? I know I do. I remember going into my local, Japanese grocery store and being so elated to see that distinctive, brown-white-and-blue Snickers wrapper, the stylized, red writing on a Coca-Cola bottle, Oreos with their characteristic black cookie and vanilla filled center, the Pringles can with the oblong-headed man on the front…all written in plain English. Yes, I have eaten my fair share of junk food since I’ve been here; GUILTY! In addition to seeing the brands you know, if you’re familiar with katakana you may know that this writing system is used specifically for words borrowed from other languages (namely English). For example seeing カカオ, pronounced “ka-ka-o,” on a box in the supermarket means Cocoa and it sounds very similar in Japanese. Here are some other examples: ミルク “mi-ru-ku” or milk, コラ “co-ra” or cola, コーヒー “co (long o sound)-hee” coffee, “ai-su-ku-ree-mu” or ice cream. Although the sounds aren’t exactly the same, you might be able to work some of these, in English, should you have katakana in your repertoire.
Truth be told, I don’t frequent fast food restaurants all that much anymore. But a fast food restaurant is a prime example of English usage in Japan. Again, katakana can be great in this situation. At a McDonald’s, for instance, many of us know what a hamburger, or a double cheeseburger is, but initially, Japanese people didn’t know what they were, so katakana explains what these items are for them in a pronunciation that sounds similar to how it would in English. Actually many of my Japanese students know that “I’m loving it” phrase from the McDonald’s advertising campaign.
I’m not trying to sound arrogant but I think some of the younger generation (teenagers especially) Japanese people think that knowing English is cool. I often see students greet each other with a “Hallo.” which I’m pretty sure is the equivalent of “Hello.” in English. I sometimes hear people speaking in complete Japanese, and at the end of the conversation I’ll hear “Bye-bye.” Even though these conversations will be laced with only a few choice words and broken phrases here and there, it’s still English nonetheless.
For those who may worry about not understanding Japanese when you get here, I think your apprehension is justified. There are many Japanese people who won’t understand a lick of what you’re saying. Worry and fear can be the ultimate motivator, too, right? These often provides the perfect incentive for people to learn the language. Even though I’m all for learning as much Japanese as possible, please keep in mind, that there are many foreigners who can’t speak Japanese whatsoever. I know if I can do it, you can do it. I didn’t come to Japan with a whole lot of Japanese knowledge (I honestly don’t have all that much now), but I’ve gotten by just fine.
Surviving in Japan isn’t as tough as it may seem, challenging…yes, impossible…no. Because the culture does have some English built in, and people are generally patient & polite, it makes things 10 times easier for foreigners living here.