How much Japanese should I know before going to Japan?

Japan is one of the most favored destinations of many people worldwide. Most tourists travel to Japan to see notable sites and landmarks and witness advanced technology at work with their own eyes. You might also want to visit this archipelago nation to experience its rich culture- and of course, the food.

However, like many Asian countries, Japan has its official language: Nihongo, or simply Japanese for most people. They even have their own writing system, which may sometimes intimidate potential visitors or tourists.

Suppose you’re planning on visiting Japan. This, perhaps, raises the question, do you need to know a bit of the language to survive a trip to Japan? The short answer is it depends. Since you’re a foreign tourist, no one in the country expects you to speak the language fluently. But it never hurts to have some knowledge of it.

More so, it all depends on your purpose and what you’re going to do in Japan. And so, here are some examples of things or activities you may do in Japan that may or may not require you to have native fluency.

Photo by Raychan

1. Commuting

Many tourists can vouch for Japan’s efficient public transportation. They’re the home of the Bullet Train, after all. As a tourist, you’ll frequently commute from one place to another, especially in cities. Luckily for foreigners, most, if not all, signages in train and bus stations have English translations. Help desks may also have someone in charge of speaking English to tourists. And with that, you won’t get lost as long as you’re in big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya.

However, the farther you go from urbanized areas, the fewer signs there’ll be in English and fewer people who can speak it fluently. And so, knowing some Japanese phrases can help you get around if you plan to visit rural towns. You can self-study at home or look at this site for formal Japanese language lessons. 

After all, the more you know, the simpler it’ll be for you to travel and communicate in Japan.

2. Eating

It’s almost impossible not to try local cuisine while in another country. Japan, for one, is famous for its restaurants serving authentic ramen, sushi, and tonkatsu. While you may already know each food’s native name by heart, it can still be an intimidating task to order them in Japan.

Fortunately, most menus have both the Japanese and English names of the food, sometimes including the ingredients. You can also manage by making gestures, like showing three fingers to get enough seats for three people. Restaurants in highly-urbanized cities may even have staff who can understand a little bit of English. So, you can still get a good meal without speaking a lick of their language.

But if you have specific dietary preferences or requirements, it’s better to know how to explain these in Japanese. It might be challenging to communicate a food allergy or your spice tolerance to someone who can only speak basic English. And so, knowing at least food-related phrases can help you and your stomach gets by in a place that doesn’t speak your mother tongue.

Discover the must-try foods when Traveling to Japan!

3. Working or studying

Typically, tourists don’t need to have Japanese fluency if they’re only going to stay in Japan for a short period. Even individuals going on a solo (female) trip in Japan can pull through. But if you plan to go and stay there for an indefinite period, either for work or school, you might have to consider getting Japanese lessons first.

International students may have it a little easier. Many private schools and universities offer programs taught in English. Some even prefer students who aren’t fluent in Japanese to help promote an English-only school environment. If you’re going to Japan to study, you’ll still do well without Japanese fluency, but you may have more opportunities if you have Japanese conversational skills.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for potential workers, as there are not many high-paying jobs in the country for non-Japanese speakers. Corporate companies in Japan generally prefer employees who are fluent in the language. Businesses tend to accept applications if you have completed a specific Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level, with N1 being the highest. And so, if you wish to work in Japan, you have to learn Japanese as early as now.

4. Living permanently in Japan

It’s not new to see foreigners living permanently in Japan. These people aren’t studying here or doing corporate jobs, but they seem to be doing quite well. If you also want to live in Japan for life, you’ll be happy to hear that you don’t necessarily need Japanese fluency. 

But it’s vital to note that you still need knowledge of the basics, so you can pay bills, register for services, and understand information. Thankfully, some local governments may have programs to make life in Japan slightly easier for immigrants. You can also survive with translation apps and Japanese to English dictionaries.

Despite that, making friends and forming relationships might pose a challenge if you don’t speak their native language. More so, while staying in Japan, don’t just settle with visiting popular tourist attractions. Take the time to visit destinations locals love, learn Japanese, and immerse yourself in their beautiful culture. Your neighbors will appreciate the effort and may befriend you and enjoy learning more about you while speaking one language.


Japanese is a beautiful language, but most people may find it intimidating or difficult to learn because of grammar rules and the writing system. More so, taking formal language lessons may also dent your pocket. And so, when visiting Japan, consider how long you’ll stay in the country.

If you’re only visiting short-term, there’s no need to be fluent. But knowing essential words like directions, colors, and simple greetings can be beneficial and will surely go a long way. But if you plan to stay there for a while or possibly relocate for good, it’s best to have conversational or near-native fluency.

Make sure to save this post if you’re traveling to Japan!

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