Why Should You Learn Japanese to Live or Travel in Japan?

Published August 23rd, 2013


Why should I learn Japanese? I asked myself as I tried to decide what foreign language to study for my undergraduate degree requirements. I had learned a lot about Japan from a good friend and everything I had heard intrigued me, but I was still hesitant. What would I use Japanese for? Doesn’t it take a lot of time to learn? What about those 2,000+ kanji? Maybe Spanish would be easier…

In the end, I did take Japanese–unaware at the time that I would later move to Japan and live there for five years. And when I did, I realized how helpful it was that I had learned some of the basics. I could read some signs and menus. I could order food at restaurants and ask basic questions when shopping. In other words, learning some Japanese made my first experiences in Japan more enjoyable, because I wasn’t worrying that I couldn’t read or say anything.

It’s possible to get by in Japan without much Japanese, especially in places like Tokyo, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. But it also doesn’t mean you need to place unrealistic expectations on yourself or push yourself to fluency within a year, unless you want to. In my experience, a little goes a long way, and the more of an effort you make, the more people around you will appreciate it.

If you have plans to travel to or live in Japan in the future, read on for seven reasons why it’s a good idea to learn Japanese before you go. This list isn’t exhaustive, though, and some reasons will depend on your personal goals and circumstances.

1. Not everyone speaks English.

You can usually find English-speakers in Tokyo and other tourist areas without too much effort, but if you travel outside of these areas, the chances of running into an English-speaker grow slim. Make your travels or first months easier by learning Japanese before you go, even if you only learn a few essential phrases [link].

2. To gain independence.

Knowing even a little Japanese makes life and travel easier, and less stressful. You can do some things yourself instead of always relying on someone else to help or translate.

3. To know what you’re eating or using.

If you have allergies, intolerances, or avoid particular edible or topical ingredients for other reasons, learning Japanese takes the mystery out of these items. For example, people moving to Japan are often afraid to try shampoo, toothpaste, or facial wash because they don’t know what is in these products. They don’t want to turn pasty white or not have fluoride in their toothpaste. When I moved to Japan I was afraid of trying these products, too, but once I started learning how to translate ingredients, I realized that products in Japan weren’t that different from those in the U.S. And I was able to avoid food I couldn’t eat for dietary reasons. Even if you only learn a few phrases to ask if the food or product contains a certain ingredient, it will help.

4. To open the door to relationships with Japanese people.

Some people may want to befriend you or talk to you, sometimes solely to practice their English, and you can develop some wonderful relationships this way. However, making an effort to learn and speak their native language will mean a lot to them and show them the relationship is important to you. And being able to speak Japanese will open the door to relationships with people who can’t speak English at all.

5. To show you’re making an effort.

To people in Japan, this naturally invites understanding and willingness to help you when you’re in tough situations. They know you’re trying, so they will often meet you halfway. Even though people are often willing to help, try to maintain goodwill in the relationship by not relying on them too much so they will be there when you really need them. And always thank them for their help (particularly with gifts, as is customary in Japan) or offer to help them with something in return.

6. Opens up opportunities for jobs or renting apartments.

If you plan to live in Japan, you can certainly find English-teaching jobs and other opportunities that require English-speaking ability, but knowing Japanese will open up more doors, depending on your career aspirations. Also, knowing Japanese, or having someone translate for you, is critical to rent an apartment in Japan. Some real estate agents in major cities offer services for English-speaking expats, but if you live outside of these areas expect to do the apartment hunting and talks with real estate agents in Japanese.

7. You’re able to understand the news or TV shows, do research or shop online.

While you can get by living in Japan not doing these things, being able to do so can enrich your life and allow you to not just survive, but thrive. You don’t have to be fluent, and the more you do the more you will learn. You also become empowered, which provides motivation to continue learning.

Why do you think learning Japanese is important to travel to or live in Japan? Or how has learning Japanese helped you?