Do you need to speak at least some Japanese before going to Japan?
Yes. Yes, you do.
People, namely travel agents or overzealous recruiters, will say you don’t, but it’s not true. My favorite example is, “Well, all the trains have English on them!”
Well…in Tokyo, on the train, yes, there are some English announcements. But in any but the biggest stations, there is no English to get you on that train. Standing around looking helplessly at the map will often get a kind stranger to lead you there, but it can be scary trying to get around on your own if you can’t ask for directions. And outside of Tokyo? Forget it. When I lived outside Nagoya, what English there was ranged from silly to incomprehensible. I once found an American woman sitting in Nagoya Station on her suitcase, sobbing. She’d been trying to get to Kobe, had gotten off at the wrong station, and was completely unable to figure out what city she was in or how to leave. I put her on the correct train, but I don’t know what she’d have done if I hadn’t been there!
Another time, in Kobe, I was approached by a group of charming men from New Zealand, dragging their luggage. We had this conversation:
Man: Oh! Thank God you speak English! Are we in Nagasaki?
Me: You’re in Kobe.
Man: Where’s that?
Me: To the south on the main island.
Man: Is there a train to Nagasaki?
Me: …Well, there isn’t a train to directly to Nagasaki from here. It’s on a different island. You can get to the island but you’d need to take local trains from there.
Man: (points to map on the wall) Can you show me Nagasaki here?
Me: I’d love to, but that’s a map of the train station.
Man: (laughing) I’m an idiot.
I think they did eventually get there. I hope they did. And I can’t laugh too much, because I, on my first visit, got myself terribly lost in a similar station.
Japanese is a very difficult language. There can be a slight stretching of vowel sounds that completely changes the word. In this case, map is chizu and cheese is chiizu.
I was trying to find a map, but was mixing up my vowel sounds. I carried on a great many conversations in Japanese that went like this:
Me: I am looking for the cheese.
Kind Japanese Stranger: Check the convenience store.
Me: For cheese?
Stranger: Yes, they have it.
Me: Okay. (checks convenience store, no map. find another person.) Excuse me, I need cheese.
Stranger #2: Check the convenience store.
This went on for quite awhile. In desperation, I approached another man, and said, “I’m lost and I can’t find the cheese!
Man: (pause, then in English) Map?
Man (English): Map. Not cheese.
Me: Ohhhhh. Yes…
He showed me the map and helped me locate the station, patted my shoulder and said, “Ganbatte.” (Good luck.)
It’s a common error. Intonation, tone and stretched sounds change many words. Biru and biiru, (building and beer), hana can be nose, flower or bridge, and my students laughed uproariously when I announced, “It’s cold outside–cut up your jackets!” (cut, put on, and cross over are very similar words) Fortunately, Japanese people are very patient if you attempt to speak Japanese, and will do their best to help you.
However, in areas outside of Tokyo, finding an English speaker can be very difficult. You need a basic grasp of Japanese if you are going to attempt to live there or travel on your own. And if you are going to live there, you will be on your own to get your visa, and there is no English at immigration. In attempting to get my visa, I was directed to a phone book size tome written entirely in Japanese for guidance. I saw a man get so frustrated that he yelled, “Fuck this place, I’m going home!” and flung his passport over the counter into a back office and stormed out. He did sheepishly come back in to retrieve it. I was able to talk my way through mine with an agent, but I admit I cried a couple of times. I also did my taxes in Portuguese because it was the only foreign language form available.
Reading Japanese is far more difficult than speaking, so if you’re traveling, learn some basic conversational Japanese and ask questions if you’re not sure what to do. Also, always carry a notepad and a basic Japanese to English dictionary–Japanese people often read and write English better than they speak, or in a pinch, you can draw pictures.
Your absolute best strategy, however, is to find some penpals online. Many people want to practice their English and will be happy to show you around after you talk to them for awhile. I’ve had some of my penpals for almost fifteen years now, and they took wonderful care of me when I was there. A word of advice–in general, for women, look for female penpals. You’ll both be more comfortable.