It is hard to imagine living for an extended period in time in a place where you can’t speak to the people around you, read the signs, enjoy local media, or even interpret a menu, but this reality is more common than you might think for many foreigners in Japan.
Some expats have gotten by for 10 years or more with the bare minimum of Japanese, and have no idea how to read a single Japanese character. If they can do it, then it means it is possible.
So, if you are one of those people who is not particularly interested in studying or learning the Japanese language, this will be the perfect article for you.
In this article, I will give you an overview of some helpful tips and communication hacks to live without putting in the effort to study the language.
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Learn Social Cues
Learning social cues will be crucial for you if you have no intention of learning the language, as this will be one of the only ways you can make better connections with the people around you.
For example, a common Japanese gesture is beckoning someone with the palm down and fingers curling inward, instead of palm up. In addition, pointing is usually done with an open hand rather than your pointer finger.
Facial expressions in Japanese communication are also subtler. While a small smile can signal friendliness, a neutral face may convey politeness. Moreover, nods are used constantly to acknowledge the speaker and show that you are listening to a conversation.
I recommend this guide to familiarize yourself with the art of conveying messages without using words.
Luckily, translation apps have advanced to a point where some tools provide sentence-by-sentence “real-time” voice translation.
Here is a small list of the most commonly used translation apps. I put “real-time” in quotations to stress a point.
Speaking into the app on your phone or device requires you to firstly, over-enunciate your words and speak slowly; if you are in a crowded or loud area, you may find yourself yelling into your phone/device, then putting your phone/device at full volume up to the face of the person you’re talking to.
In addition, you should note that many Japanese people are cautious about the spread of germs in Japan, even before COVID-19, so putting your phone close to someone’s face so they can translate a conversation can sometimes be poorly received.
Electronic dictionaries will be a lifesaver for your entire stay in Japan (whether long or short term); they are a quick and reliable resource for word look-ups. In my opinion, it doesn’t get better than this dictionary, and the great thing about it is that it is free, and you can use it offline.
Bilingual services exist throughout major cities in Japan. They cater to foreigners who do not speak Japanese well.
For example, when it comes to finding a place to rent in Japan, UR rentals is a bilingual housing service and will also have English versions of contracts so that you know the rules you must follow at your new residence.
Other useful services exist that offer English service, although they are priced differently for the foreign population in comparison to similar housing services offered in Japanese.
In case you can’t find a bilingual service in the area you live, another option is to use a freelance translator.
You can find a freelance translator from sites like Upwork.
Shopping and Dining Out
This will all depend on where you live, whether it is a city or the countryside.
In larger cities, or well-known tourist areas, you may have English menu options, some with pictures, while in areas less frequented by foreigners, you will not.
Fortunately, there are websites that offer translated versions of menus for you to choose from. This is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, and has really increased since the tourist boom in 2023.
Most pharmacies and supermarkets in urban areas will also have English written under the Japanese on the aisles, so it should not be too difficult to find what you are looking for.
From local trains, express trains, buses, and bullet trains to taxis, local flights, railways, and the ferry, Japan offers a plethora of transportation options for its residents.
Only 15 years ago, reading schedules and buying tickets was a real challenge for foreigners. However, English-friendly navigation apps have made traveling in Japan much more accessible.
Most offer real-time information on public transport schedules and routes, street views and business info, and information on ticket prices. Some of the best English navigation apps include Google Maps, Citymapper, and Hyperdia.
What is even better is that in Japan, instead of fumbling for change at a ticket machine, you can get a variety of “passes” that you can integrate into your phone to use most transportation.
There are different cards in different areas. You don’t need any Japanese to purchase these cards, and they are fairly straightforward to use.
For non-Japanese speakers, plenty of support groups and communities exist to help make your stay here less lonely.
Anonymous ongoing threads like Reddit (Japanlife) can have useful information, and you can ask questions without feeling embarrassed.
This is more informal, but if you are looking for well-established societies for foreigners, these also exist. Many prefectures have a cultural center in their largest city, and this can be a great place to participate in community events and meet other foreigners.
InterNations also offers a variety of services if you are looking for English support and events to take part in.
Aside from educating yourself on the natural disasters that can occur in your area, and preparing a small survival kit in the event of a disaster, having the right apps on your phone can be a lifesaver if you do not speak Japanese.
These disaster prevention apps are a must-have as a precautionary measure: Yurekuru Call, an app that provides early warnings for earthquakes; NHK World TV, which has up-to-date news in English; and the
Japan Official Travel App, which provides emergency procedures and disaster alerts. It is also suggested that you carry a bilingual emergency card with emergency phrases and your personal information written in both English and Japanese.
You should also familiarize yourself with local sirens and alarms and what they might indicate.
Don’t forget a physical map as well. If technology fails, a paper map with emergency services and safe locations written on it can be helpful.
Learn Japanese Manners and Culture
Although you are not avidly studying the language to master it, you still are living in a foreign country; this means you should at least be aware of culturally appropriate behavior and manners.
For example, try to be polite and speak in a calm voice; raising your voice can be frowned upon – especially on public transportation. Please do not talk on your phone while riding the train if possible, as people absolutely hate it, and it is an unsaid rule throughout the country.
Remember to bow, not only as a greeting but as a sign of gratitude or apology. When entering a home or certain traditional places, you need to remove your shoes. Moreover, tipping is not a practice in Japan, and it can cause confusion if you try to tip someone for their services.
When traveling or interacting with Japanese people, despite obvious language barriers, taking the time to learn about important aspects of the culture before coming here is extremely important. This is especially the case if you are planning to live here.
Due to the homogeneity of the population here, you will stick out wherever you go.
With this caveat comes some leniency towards any cultural mistakes you might make, but for the sake of your workplace relationships, becoming well-versed in societal dos and don’ts can truly make all the difference.
Now, on to You
In conclusion, living in a country without understanding the language can be full of challenges. I have covered some basic scenarios, but this is only a small sample of the walls you will have to climb in terms of day-to-day hurdles.
The smallest tasks can seem like large barriers, but as you overcome them, you learn the shortcuts necessary to do it right the second time around.
In every facet of your life in Japanese society, you will be faced with the Japanese language; it is unavoidable.
However, as a non-Japanese speaking member of society, it is still possible to enjoy a fulfilling stay in Japan.
But if you ask me, I would say if you want to stay in Japan, it’s better to at least learn some basic Japanese.