Whether you’re planning to visit or relocate, you may be wondering how many people in Japan speak English. The truth is that the answer will greatly depend on where you are and why you’re in this country. What you experience in the heart of Tokyo may be very different from what you find in Fukui Prefecture.
Don’t worry, though! The good news is that, more often than not, Japanese people are willing to find a way to communicate. We’ve had so much help, patience, and support after moving to Japan. This topic is a lot more complicated than that, though, so let’s look at it more closely.
Do People Speak English in Japan?
Before we get into it, I want to clarify something. You’ll see other articles on this topic on the internet and they use statistics (I will too!) but you’re probably looking for practical, everyday life information right now. So, if you’re hoping to come to Japan and hear English spoken freely in the streets, you’ll be disappointed.
I’m often surprised by people from English-speaking countries who expect to receive service in their mother tongue in Japan. To be really real with you — that expectation is unfair and unreasonable. This is Japan and the official language is Japanese. Just like you can’t expect to go to Australia and receive service everywhere in Korean, you can’t expect Japanese people to speak fluent English. It’s a foreign language here.
That being said, between 13 and 30% of Japanese do speak some English. They might be able to string together sentences or use a few English words you’ll recognize if you need help. Finding someone who can hold full conversations is pretty rare. Even if they do speak some English, many feel shy about it. So, please set your expectations accordingly and do what you can to improve your Japanese language skills before you arrive.
Is English Taught in Schools in Japan?
Yes, many people in Japan have some degree of English language skills. English is taught as a compulsory subject in schools. In elementary school, Japanese children are exposed to English at a young age. In junior high school and high school, it’s not uncommon for Japanese students to travel to Western countries and stay with language families.
Many of my English students spent time in the United States in their teens and early 20s through these programs. It’s important to note, however, that while English is taught in Japanese schools and many Japanese people have some exposure to it, the level of conversational proficiency might not be as high as in some other countries where English is more widely spoken.
Why Japanese People Learn English
There are many reasons why Japanese people learn English. In fact, major cities, business centers, and tourist areas tend to have a higher concentration of English speakers compared to rural areas. That should give you a clue! Here are some of the top reasons.
English is often considered the international language of communication. Learning English enables Japanese people to interact and communicate effectively with people from other countries, especially in a globalized world.
Travel and Tourism Industry
Many Japanese people learn English to enhance their travel experiences. The English proficiency can help them navigate foreign countries, communicate with people from different cultures, and make the most of their travel adventures.
Education and Research
English is essential for accessing a wide range of academic and research materials. Many scientific papers, academic journals, and educational resources are available in English, making it crucial for students and researchers to learn the language.
Business and Trade
English is often seen as the common corporate language used for business transactions, negotiations, and international conferences. Japanese professionals who work for multinational companies or engage in global trade find English proficiency valuable for their careers.
Higher Education Abroad
Many Japanese students aspire to study in English-speaking countries for higher education. To fulfill this goal, they need to meet English language proficiency requirements for university admissions.
Learning English allows Japanese people to engage with global media, literature, movies, music, and other forms of entertainment. It fosters cultural exchange and understanding between Japan and the English-speaking world.
English proficiency can enhance job prospects, especially in industries that require international communication or collaboration. It can make individuals more competitive in the job market and open doors to a wider range of career options.
Innovation and Technology
English is commonly used in the fields of science, technology, and innovation. Japanese researchers and professionals who want to stay updated with the latest advancements often need to access English-language resources.
Social Networking & Friendships
The internet and social media have made English an important tool for connecting with people from around the world. Learning English allows Japanese people to broaden their social circle and participate in online communities, discussions, and platforms. I’ve made many friends here!
Some Japanese people learn English simply because they enjoy learning languages and want to broaden their horizons. This may be especially true among the younger generation. Learning a second language can be intellectually stimulating and personally fulfilling.
When considering how many people in Japan speak English, this is an important point. The Japanese government has emphasized the importance of English education as part of broader initiatives to enhance the country’s global competitiveness and promote internationalization.
Visiting Japan When You Don’t Speak Japanese
Visiting Japan without speaking Japanese is certainly possible, and many English-speaking tourists from around the world do so successfully. So, if you want to come but haven’t learned much, don’t be scared. You can still have a great time!
That being said, here are some tips to help you navigate and enjoy your trip to Japan:
Use English Signs and Information
In major cities and popular tourist areas, you will often find bilingual signs, menus, and important information written in English. Japanese cities are well-prepared for international visitors.
Please Learn Basic Phrases
While you might not be fluent, learning a few basic Japanese phrases can be immensely helpful. Phrases like “hello,” “thank you,” “please,” and “excuse me” can go a long way in daily interactions.
Use Translation Apps
There are numerous translation apps available that can help you communicate with locals. For many, Google Translate is the holy grail! These apps can translate text, spoken language, and even images, making it easier to understand signs, menus, and directions.
Carry a Pocket Dictionary
Consider carrying a pocket-sized English-Japanese dictionary or phrasebook. It can be a handy tool for quickly looking up words or phrases you need.
Use Public Transportation Apps
Public transportation is a key part of getting around in Japan. Apps like Google Maps or local transportation apps can help you navigate JR lines, trains, buses, and subways even if you don’t speak Japanese.
Stay in Tourist-Friendly Areas
You could always opt for accommodations in tourist-friendly areas where staff are more likely to speak English and be accustomed to assisting international guests. At the same time, going outside of your comfort zone can take you to cool new places and experiences off the beaten path, so don’t let a language barrier hold you back!
Join Guided Tours
Participating in guided tours, especially those conducted in English, can help you explore various attractions and cultural sites without language barriers. Tour guides can provide valuable insights.
Ask Locals for Help
Japanese people are generally friendly and helpful to foreign visitors. Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance or directions, and they may try their best to assist you despite any language barrier.
Use Pointing and Gestures
Non-verbal communication like pointing at a map or using gestures can often help you get your message across. Be polite, though!
Download Offline Maps
Download offline maps to your smartphone before your trip. This way, you can navigate even without an internet connection.
Visit Tourist Information Centers
Tourist information centers in major cities are equipped to assist international visitors. They often have English-speaking staff who can provide maps, recommendations, and helpful information.
Dine in Restaurants with Pictures
Many restaurants in Japan have picture menus or plastic food displays in the window, which can help you choose what to order even if you don’t understand the language. Plus, I’ve seen many restaurant and fast food workers reach for the English menu for tourists!
Remember that while language barriers may exist, they are not insurmountable. A positive attitude, willingness to adapt, and a little preparation can help you have a memorable and enjoyable trip to Japan even if you don’t speak Japanese fluently.
Working as English Teachers and English Translators
Native English speakers can make a good living in Japan. In fact, one of the main paths to a visa in Japan is teaching English. You will find many foreigners in this country who have moved here to teach English classes on some level.
It’s an easy way to move to Japan when you have no money since many schools offer their English teachers help with housing, setting up a bank account, and health insurance. You won’t get rich, but it’s a way to get your foot in the immigration door.
Another good business opportunity for native speakers is English translations. This type of work can be deeply rewarding. Make the effort to gain a deep understanding of Japanese culture, customs, and societal norms. This cultural knowledge is crucial for providing context-appropriate translations. Of course, consider pursuing formal training or certification in translation to enhance your skills and credibility.
Finding English Speakers in Japan
So…how many people in Japan speak English? As we’ve discussed, it’s complicated! While not universally spoken, English has undeniably woven itself into the fabric of Japanese society. The pursuit of English language skills, driven by education, business opportunities, and a desire for cross-cultural connections, has led a significant portion of the population to acquire varying levels of proficiency (especially among young people!).
As Japan’s birth rate continues to decline, many feel that welcoming foreigners is the solution to Japan’s staffing and employment problems. More than ever before, this country will need to navigate its role in an interconnected world, the ability to communicate in English (and many other different languages) serves as a bridge, facilitating dialogue, understanding, and collaboration on both local and global scales. Through ongoing efforts and a commitment to linguistic diversity, Japan continues to forge a path toward effective international communication and engagement.