Home » Destinations » Asia » Japan » Japan travel: Do you really need to speak Japanese?
Speak Japanese

Japan travel: Do you really need to speak Japanese?

by Emiel Van Den Boomen

Speak Japanese when traveling

He was pointing his finger towards his nose: “I Japanese, English no good”.
I had no idea how to buy a train ticket and the huge boards/signs on the wall of the train station full of Japanese characters and numbers didn’t really help.

Different scene.

Hello…hello? Eego wo hanishimasu ka? (Do you speak English?)” I am standing in a phone booth in the city of Hiroshima, Japan. It’s December 1996 and we are in desperate need to find a hotel in our next destination: Nagasaki. I’m throwing in another set of coins; another 200 Yen needed to bridge the communication gap.

The Japanese lady on the other end of the line had the courtesy not to hang up the phone. She was hesitating, recognizing a foreigner with bad Japanese language skills. I became a bit desperate: Come on, why doesn’t anybody in this country speak English?
Luckily I practiced on a few essentials: “Sumimasen. Watasi was, Oranda-jin desu. Ima wa, Hiroshima desu. Kyoo wa, anata hoteru ni, roomu arimasu ka?

She understood. I apologized first (it’s always good to just apologize in Japan. It’s a kind of courtesy for disturbing people or just for speaking very bad Japanese for that matter). Explaining to her that I came from Holland and were looking for an available hotel room, the ice called language barrier was slowly melting.

Hi, arimasu yo! (yes we have!)”. She startled rambling about prices, breakfast and things to do in Nagasaki. I listened, understood some of it but most of all I was just happy that we had a place to sleep! My first year of Japanese studies started to pay off!

Pointing a finger to me

He was pointing his finger towards me: “You speak like a woman”.

Men and women use different pronunciation in Japan, were the ‘language of women’ is more soft, like singing. I studied Japanese at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. My Japanese teacher was a woman and he could hear that in my way of speaking. How funny is that!

Speak JapaneseHotels and train tickets are just your standard examples of how speaking a foreign language can make life easier. Language also opens doors where it allows you to understand a culture.

For example, the Japanese language reflects social hierarchy (you speak differently to people you should respect like elderly, parents or even your boss) and has various levels of politeness (you offend people when you don’t use the correct level). It’s indeed complex, which is a clear sign that living (or traveling) in Japan requires sensitivity. That is what language can teach you.

Someday we will travel to Japan again. I still have my study books, stored in a carton box in the attic. When it happens I am sure to dust them off and start studying again (or maybe learn to speak Japanese with a tutor this time. Of course you can survive in Japan with only English, but speaking Japanese will improve your travel experience for sure (not to mention your success in the karaoke bar!) Nihongo wa, sugoi desu!

Japan travel

This post is part of the ‘Inspire Language Learning Blogger Competition’ run by Kaplan International Colleges. Check the great infographic below to find out why also you should start learning foreign languages now!

Interested to read a bit more about my stay in Japan? Here are two stories for you: 7 Lessons learned from living in Japan, and Japan – My Story (part 1).

You may also like


Unisse Chua October 22, 2012 - 00:15

I love the Japanese language and I’ve learned a bit too before going to Japan last 2009. However, since my father and my sisters were clueless about the language, my dad opted for the tour instead.

I’m starting to self-study Japanese and I’m going to take the JLPT exam next year just to see how well I can understand and speak Japanese. 🙂

Great post!

Emiel van den Boomen October 22, 2012 - 09:30

That’s great, a self-study of Japanese! I wish you all the best but I’m sure you will make it. It’s such a different language that everybody is clueless in the beginning but in that way it’s also a great language to learn from scratch.

Derek4Real October 21, 2012 - 02:37

Interesting..great info/tips tho. Indeed it is always important to apologize and be polite in Japanese society, I totally agree. I used to rent a flat in Ebisu (Shibuya ward of Tokyo) and upon arrival I spoke not a single word of Japanese. But I found that by speaking English slowly and using hand gestures, it was almost a breeze to get by. Much easier than expected, at least while in Tokyo. (Other cities can be less accommodating.) However before long I soon found myself a Japanese girlfriend who started teaching me the basics of the language, which I’ll admit definitely helped greatly. Anyway, sorry for rambling on but hey after all, the real impact of a post can be found in its comments 🙂

Emiel van den Boomen October 22, 2012 - 09:24

Don’t worry about rambling on, indeed comments are a valuable asset of blogging! I agree that probably Tokyo is different from the rest of the country, but of course my experiences of living in Japan date back to 1996 (long time ago…). I lived north of Kyoto where hardly anybody had a good command of English. And about that girlfriend, well I think that’s one of the best ways to learn a foreign language!

Quirky Travel October 19, 2012 - 09:31

I started to learn Japanese but unfortunately didn’t have the time to keep it up. It’s a beautiful language and a very satisfying one to get the hang of. Good on you for learning it before you visited.

Emiel van den Boomen October 19, 2012 - 22:52

Thanks @twitter-233471691:disqus Great that you have studied Japanese as well, are you still able to speak some words? I still practice on Japanese tourists here in Europe. They are so surprised when I start talking Japanese!

Andy Hayes October 19, 2012 - 00:56

Interesting experiences. Having just returned from Japan, I can also attest that a little bit of Japanese would have been helpful. At least in Tokyo, people are VERY accommodating, but yes, there is certainly a language barrier.

Emiel van den Boomen October 19, 2012 - 22:51

I really think I have to go back again to find out how much it has changed Andy. Thanks for your comment.


Leave a comment below. I know you have something on your mind...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.