Many first-time visitors to Japan make a crucial mistake before their plane even lands. Because they’ve assumed that “everybody in Japan speaks English,” they make no effort to learn any Japanese at all, or worse—they try to learn it on the fly while they’re in a foreign country, under stress. Here’s why you should learn Japanese before you visit Japan!
Japan is not bilingual. Even though most Japanese schoolchildren take English in school, and many adults are able to read English characters, those who don’t use English for work or school may not speak it very well. Their educational emphasis is on reading, not conversation, and thus many Japanese people are extremely hesitant to embarrass themselves by speaking poorly. In addition, older Japanese, particularly those in rural areas, do not speak English at all. If you are planning to interact with anyone who is not young or urban, you’ll want to learn some Japanese.
You may also have heard that most Japanese signs are printed in two languages—Japanese and English. This is true in Tokyo, and to a lesser extent in smaller cities. However, again, think about the bilingual signs you see in American chain stores. Just because the signs are bilingual, does that mean the sales clerks are? Not at all—and the same is true in Japan. The more Japanese you know, the easier your trip will be—and that’s another great reason you should learn Japanese before you visit Japan.
Suppose, however, you’re just making a short business trip to Tokyo and you have no intention of venturing out of the most Westernized areas. You know your Japanese contacts speak English very well. Why learn any Japanese? The best reason may lie in one of the Japanese people’s most distinctive characteristics: respect. Learning to greet your hosts in their own language shows you respect them enough to have put effort into this meeting. At the very least, learn to say “Hello,” “How do you do?” “Nice to meet you,” “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and “Goodbye.” The Japanese may just be the most polite people on earth, and these simple phrases will earn you many brownie points.
So why should you learn Japanese before you visit Japan? You’ll make it easier on yourself as you try to navigate a country so different from yours. And even if you speak Japanese with a strong accent—which you will—your willingness to put forth the effort will impress your Japanese hosts tremendously, and earn you the respect that may just seal the deal!
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