The language barrier is often one of the most prominent concerns for foreigners who want to live in Japan, but how are things now?
You may have heard that Japan may not have the most open culture when it comes to foreign languages, but historically, there’s a reason for that. Being the island nation that it is, the country has been closed off to the outside world for much of its history, especially considering the fact that the true streamlining of international travel only dates back to the last few decades.
What’s more, with a long history under its belt, Japan has mostly stayed homogenous in terms of its population, which meant that speaking only Japanese was the norm, and learning a second language wasn’t a true necessity.
Adding the culture of shame that shuns making any mistakes, learning a new language and putting it into practice was simply not an option for many. Even if English had been compulsory in schools before 2011, students would’ve been too shy to speak up for fear of saying something wrong and embarrassing themselves.
However, while the idea that it’s impossible to get by in Japan by only speaking English could be deemed true a few decades ago, things are different now. The status is changing rapidly thanks to reforms to the education system and the globalization movement that’s influencing all nations on Earth.
In this post, I’ll explain how common it is to find people who speak English in Japan and whether you can travel to — or live in — Japan as someone who only speaks English. I’ll also talk about the current state of English education in Japan and how things are changing.
Let’s get right into it.
English Proficiency Among The Japanese Population: Does Japan Speak English?
As I mentioned, up until recently, speaking English wasn’t as common in Japan. The country has been struggling with an ineffective English education system for a long while, as the main goal has mostly been about passing an exam rather than being able to hold a conversation.
What’s more, due to the culture, students have always been afraid to make mistakes, which has led them to not participate in classes. Adding the culture of shyness and being considerate of others’ time to the equation, and you have a class full of students politely nodding even when they don’t understand the subject.
However, things are changing rapidly, especially since 2011. In 2011, English education in Japan became compulsory starting from fifth grade, and this threshold has since been further lowered to third grade relatively recently.
Thus far, the government’s efforts seem to be fruitful. According to a report from 2022, English proficiency among Japanese students has been consistently increasing. More specifically, there’s a three percentage point increase between the statistics from 2019 to 2021 in terms of English proficiency among junior high school students.
In addition, the same report also states that English proficiency hasn’t just been on the rise for students but for English teachers as well. The number of English teachers with a proficiency level of B2 and above has also increased by 2.9 points since the previous report.
All in all, English proficiency has been an increasingly common point of concern among Japanese parents in recent years. A recent ranking shows that English lessons, or more specifically, “English conversation” lessons, have been the third most popular tutoring subject for children.
Therefore, with the help of globalization and the government’s efforts, it’s safe to say that English proficiency levels are consistently rising among the Japanese population.
Traveling to Japan Without Speaking Japanese: How Hard Is It to Find English Speakers in Japan?
While it’s true that English proficiency levels may be on the lower side among the Japanese, most are just too shy to speak up or express themselves but are able to when the occasion arises. So, if you need to ask someone for directions or go to a hotel or a restaurant, you will generally have no problem only speaking English.
Of course, you may go to a bar or a restaurant and get turned away because you only speak English, but don’t be offended if this is ever the case. This isn’t because they don’t serve people who don’t speak Japanese but because they don’t speak English themselves, which makes them feel like they can’t adequately serve you.
Of course, the abovementioned case is merely a rarity in big cities like Tokyo or Kyoto. Most of the time, you’ll always be able to find someone who speaks English at your hotel or restaurant, so there’s no need to worry. There are also English signs in most tourist-oriented places nowadays, which makes navigation quite easy.
With this overview in mind, let’s dive deeper into specifics and take a look at what the situation is like in terms of public transport, eating out, and sightseeing.
Using Public Transport as a Non-Japanese Speaker
When traveling in Japan, especially if you’re in one of the big cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, you’ll generally have no problem not speaking Japanese at all. There are usually English signs all over train stations and airports.
You can simply use the machines to buy your public transport tickets, which usually have a language option and can operate in English. The tickets themselves are also in both Japanese and English.
As for finding your ride and navigating the platforms, you’ll also find that both English and Japanese are featured on the boards and signs. The same thing goes for when you get on the subway or bus and need to know what station you’re on. You’ll see the names of the stations in English as well, so you can just relax and enjoy the ride.
Accommodation as a Non-Japanese Speaker
Another thing people often worry about when they plan their visit to Japan is whether the hotel they’re staying at will have English-speaking staff. For big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, or touristic cities like Kyoto, this is an irrelevant concern as most hotel staff in these cities speak English, or at the very least, there are at least one or two people who speak English. Keep in mind that this may not be the case for smaller cities.
Similarly, many people also assume that staying at an Airbnb instead of a hotel is a gamble because they think that the Airbnb owners may not speak English.
As I explained extensively in my post on staying at an Airbnb in Japan, this is far from the truth, as most Airbnb hosts in Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto usually do. Of course, this may not be true if you’re renting an Airbnb in the countryside.
So, most Airbnbs in the big cities of Japan offer a very streamlined experience. You probably won’t even need to communicate with the host to get the keys, as there’s usually a key box for which you’ll be provided with a code. Besides, most Airbnb hosts speak English, and if they don’t, you can also use the translation functionality on the Airbnb website.
Eating Out as a Non-Japanese Speaker
If you’re dining out and don’t speak Japanese, there’s no need to worry. Most of the restaurants and bars in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka that are frequented by foreigners will usually have an English menu or at least one English-speaking staff member. The same goes for restaurants and cafes around tourist spots as well.
On the other hand, even in big cities, some local restaurants may not have an English menu or an English-speaking staff member present. However, it’s quite common for menus to feature pictures of the items in Japan, which can help guide you in the most dire cases.
In a similar vein, even if there are no pictures on the menu, you may still be able to see what the food looks like. Believe it or not, it’s very common for restaurants in Japan to have plastic models of food items in a display cabinet. You can pick the one that looks the most appetizing or go for the ones that are on the top shelf, which usually are the best sellers anyway.
Alternatively, if you’re in a local area, and there’s no English menu at the restaurant you’re at, you can be a little adventurous and ask the staff for their recommendations. To do so, simply say “おすすめはなんですか (Osusume wa nan desu ka?),” which means “Please recommend something,” and the staff will be happy to help you out.
Shopping Without Speaking Japanese
As I explained, if you’re visiting as a non-Japanese speaker, you’ll generally have no trouble finding someone who speaks English in restaurants, hotels, and public transport in big cities like Tokyo or tourist cities like Kyoto. Not only is there always someone who speaks English, but you’ll also see most things written in both Japanese and English.
In most big cities in Japan, things are pretty much similar when you go shopping as well, except you may not always find English-speaking staff. Most shops, especially big ones that are part of a chain, have prices and descriptions in English in addition to Japanese on the labels and on the signs in the store.
The only thing I’d personally look out for is not to enter the changing rooms with your shoes on, which may sound jarring, but it makes sense in terms of hygiene.
On the off chance that you end up in a place where no one speaks English, and none of my recommendations above work out, you can check out my post on some of the most basic phrases you can use in Japan to learn useful phrases you can use in restaurants, hotels, and other public places.
Living in Big Cities Like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto: How Widely Is English Spoken in Japan?
Now that we covered everything tourist-related, let’s talk a little bit about living in the big cities in Japan like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka as a non-Japanese speaker.
While you may have a generally easy time as a tourist in Japan, if you don’t speak a word of Japanese, living here is much tougher.
Still, compared to the Japanese countryside, living in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka is totally doable if you’re open to learning Japanese over time or at least enjoy picking up some new words and phrases here and there as you go about your day.
So, if you’re considering living in Japan, I recommend learning Japanese, even if it’s just a little bit. It’s true that Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are all relatively international cities with a foreign population, but it’s restricted to small areas.
For instance, in Tokyo, you may find that it’s easier to get by speaking English in small areas such as the Minato or the Shibuya ward, where most foreigners live. There are also many major banks, embassies, and big IT companies located in these areas, which makes living in Tokyo without speaking Japanese somewhat doable.
However, most people do this for a limited period, as they eventually need to deal with the government in terms of visas or the like, which is only conducted in Japanese — with a few minor exceptions. Similar to other countries, you’ll also find that the English proficiency rate is higher among younger and more educated people, but this still isn’t the case for the majority.
But… What If You Don’t Speak Japanese at All?
If you’re considering living in one of Japan’s big cities and don’t plan on learning the language for whatever reasons you may have, I’m here to tell you that it’s possible, even though it’s hard.
For instance, as I explained above, you’ll most likely have no trouble going to restaurants and bars in big or touristic cities that foreigners frequent, which all have menus in English in addition to Japanese, and they usually have a few English-speaking staff as well.
Especially considering the fact that you also have the power of a translation app in your palm at any given moment, you’ll probably do just fine dining and drinking outside, even by yourself.
The same goes for public transport and shopping as well. You can pretty much move around freely and shop to your heart’s content without having to speak a word of Japanese.
For more serious stuff, such as moving, you can also find companies that operate in English or at least have English-speaking staff and support. I talked about all of this and how to find English-speaking companies in my guide to moving in Japan, which is sure to come in handy.
Another serious concern when you don’t speak the local language is, of course, healthcare. While this one is a bit trickier, as you don’t know when an emergency will arise, you can definitely find hospitals with English-speaking staff in big cities, especially around the areas where foreigners mostly live.
So, finding an insurance company that provides support in English, along with finding out which hospitals have English-speaking staff, is a good way to be prepared for emergencies, which will allow you to live much more at ease without speaking Japanese.
What About Socializing and Networking?
It’s no secret that human beings are social creatures. Even though your physical needs are met, if you don’t feel like you’re a part of society, you may start to feel unmotivated over time. Besides, socializing is a basic human need that prevents symptoms that are related to depression.
As I mentioned, despite the country’s welcoming culture, the low English proficiency rate in Japan doesn’t exactly make it the best place for foreigners to socialize. This is why you’ll need help finding like-minded individuals to make friends or network with.
Luckily, Japan’s big cities like Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto all have a pretty diverse international scene where you can meet people that share the same interests as you. All you need to know is where to look, and you’ll be glad to know that I can help with that.
I talked about this in my post on the best tech communities and meetup groups in Tokyo, but Japan is no short of great international communities you can join if you’re in the tech world. Whether you’re a designer or a developer, you can find people you can be friends with or make meaningful connections that can help you advance in your career.
Similarly, Osaka and Kyoto also have great communities you can join as a non-Japanese speaker. You can check out all of these groups and communities I introduced in my posts about the tech communities in the Kansai region and the tech communities in Fukuoka.
Additionally, another great way to have an English-speaking circle is by working at international companies. Finding a job that only requires English can help you meet people with a similar background and can make living in a foreign country easier, as you’ll get to speak English throughout the day.
If you’re looking for jobs in Japan, you can check out the job board on Japan Dev, which is updated frequently and features many listings that only require English.
Finding English Speakers in Japan’s Rural Areas: Is Living in The Countryside Possible Without Speaking Japanese?
As I said, considering Japan’s low English-speaking rate, the countryside is a tough place to live for foreigners that don’t speak Japanese at all. While big city life is far more forgiving toward those who only speak English, the outskirts might not exactly agree with you.
I’ll come out and say it: living in Japan’s countryside as a non-Japanese speaker is tough, to say the least. Even though you may not exactly need to be proficient in Japanese, you’ll still have to learn some basic words and phrases to get you through daily life.
In the countryside, towns and villages have much more closed-off communities, and there’s a sense of neighborliness that you’ll miss out on without speaking Japanese. As there isn’t as much to do in the countryside, people rely on each other’s company, and interacting with others is a bigger part of daily life.
So, if you want to move to Japan’s countryside, I strongly recommend that you learn Japanese. You don’t need much — start by learning simple things, like how to say “thank you” or “how are you.” You can also check my posts on basic Japanese phrases and the best tools for learning Japanese.
Also, if you’re actually considering moving to rural Japan, I talked about Japan’s countryside, or inaka, in another post, explaining the challenges and benefits of living in the countryside and whether it’s for everyone.
Conclusion: Does Japan Speak English?
As I explained, Japan may not have the biggest number of English speakers, but things are surely improving as there’s a visible increase in the country’s English proficiency rate.
Besides, one of the most popular professions in Japan for foreigners is working as an English teacher. According to the statistics, this isn’t a coincidence, as English lessons are among the top three most popular special tutoring subjects in Japan.
The government’s regulations and the awareness it causes among the general public certainly help, and you can travel or build a life in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka even if you don’t speak Japanese at all.
You can easily navigate your way through English signs in public transport and stations, and most of the time, you’ll have an English-speaking staff or an English menu in restaurants. Besides, the translation tools we carry around on our smartphones nowadays are more than enough to get by in daily life.
As I said, there are also many communities in these cities where you can make friends. You can get a job at a company that has an international environment, like the ones we feature in the Japan Dev company list, and get by fairly easily. You’re sure to pick up some useful Japanese phrases as you live in Japan anyway, but it should be fine even if you don’t.
However, keep in mind that the countryside is a different story. As rural towns rely on a sense of community to function, it may not be the best idea to move to Japan’s inaka if you don’t speak Japanese or are not willing to learn.
All in all, as living in the countryside is more of a rarity for foreigners, you’ll mostly be just fine as a non-Japanese speaker in Japan whether you’re traveling or living here. If you want to learn Japanese, you can check out my guide to the top Japanese schools in Japan.