How much Japanese do you need to know before coming to Japan?

You’re preparing for your trip to Japan. You’re excited. But also, you’re terrified. Will you be able to get by with your level of Japanese? Or maybe even: Will you be able to get by with ZERO Japanese?

The short answer: Yes – you can technically get by without knowing ANY Japanese.

The long answer: this blog post.

How much English can Japanese people speak?

Let's say you'd like to take the gamble and visit Japan without knowing any Japanese. Just how much English does the average Tanaka-san understand?

As a ex-English teacher in Japan, I can tell you that it varies wildly. For the most part, their English is not that great. However, most people know survival English phrases such as:

  • “Yes/No”
  • “Please/Thank you”
  • “Where is…?”
  • “How are you?”
  • “One beer, please.”

Most of them can string together a (very) basic sentence, and some can even give you directions.

But what if they still don’t understand me?

If that doesn’t calm your nerves, let me tell you that the Japanese are some of the most accommodating and helpful people you will every meet. Their culture is steeped in consideration for others. They have, hands down, the best customer service in the world, and perfect strangers will go out of their way to take you where you need to go if you get lost – especially for foreigners.

Seriously, Japan is the only place I wouldn’t worry about jumping into a stranger’s van if they offered to take me where I was going if I was lost. I may or may not have done this multiple times. (Don’t tell my parents)

The default way to treat people who are not in your “inner circle” is with respect, and “insiders” (e.g. family members/close friends) can be given the scraps. And as the ultimate outsider (literally “foreigner” [外人・gaijin] means “outside person”) you will likely be treated very kindly, because you are the guest.

Long story short: with their survival English and general willingness to help out a lost soul, you’ll be fine.

Why I studied Japanese anyway

Setting aside the obvious reason of how much easier your daily life will be if you know a little Japanese, there’s something deeper that I’d like to point out.

Can you get by with little to no Japanese? Sure.

Should you lose sleep over learning the language? Hell no.

But as someone who has visited foreign countries where I didn’t learn the language and one where I did, I can say that I had a far richer experience when I did make an effort to learn their language.

When you rely on English to communicate, the main people you meet are:

  • Natives who have lived abroad
  • Other foreigners

And there’s nothing wrong with that! Really – when I was in Thailand, that was me. I tried to learn some of the language but quickly gave up (Thai is hard!). I decided I didn’t want to make it a priority, after all, I was only there for a month. As a result the only friends I made were other foreigners – and that’s fine!

But for me, Japan was different. This was a culture that I deeply wanted to understand. It had captured my heart as a young anime-adoring teenager and after visiting, I came to appreciate it even more. In addition I had chosen to live there and I didn’t want to stay an outsider forever. So I studied Japanese, and I can honestly say that it’s the reason my experiences in Japan have been some of the riches moments of my life.

The Bottom Line

You will get a lot more out of your trip if you use Japanese. It is a delight, and it is a culturally-loving thing to do. So do it, to the best that you feel comfortable. But don’t let it stress you out – you will survive.

Have you visited Japan? Did you learn any Japanese beforehand? Do you think people should learn the language before they visit?

Tell me about it in the comments below!