Tokyo and Okinawa, Japan: can you visit without speaking Japanese?

Discussion in 'General Discussion | Travel' started by m124, Feb 14, 2012.  |  Print Topic

  1. m124

    m124 Silver Member

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    I am contemplating a visit to Japan and would like to visit two different places: Tokyo and Okinawa. Are these places ok for someone who speaks English and no Japanese?

    Are seats in the plane labeled with English numbers and letters? Can you find your way out of the subway? Do restaurants have menus in English? Can you take a boat from Naha/Okinawa to a nearby island without speaking Japanese and knowing their alphabet?

    If Okinawa is only so-so with English coverage as I suspect it is, could you suggest another place with nice beaches for relaxing?
     
  2. chrislacey
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    I have never been to Okinawa, but I have visited Tokyo and several other (major) Japanese cities. While not everyone speaks English fluently, I never experienced a language issue that couldn't be overcome. I would assume the same would hold true for Okinawa.

    Many restaurants (especially around major train stations and tourist areas) have English menus. Another little bonus is that a lot of restaurants put plates near the entrance showing you exactly what is on each plate...so even if it's not in English...you can pretty much figure out what you want to eat.

    All planes and trains I was on had signage in English. I really wouldn't worry about the language issue at all :)

    ...I'm sure lots of MPers have been to Okinawa and can answer your questions more directly.
     
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  3. LarryInNYC

    LarryInNYC Gold Member

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    There is no place in the world that it is not possible to visit speaking only English. Japan may be a little harder than some places but still quite doable. Of course, you should always make an effort to learn a few words of the language of any country you're traveling in -- for the itinerary you propose it sounds like you want to learn (or write down) "where", "boat", and "exit" in addition to the standard "please", "thank you", and "I demand to see a representative of the American consulate".:)

    Yes, but if not just show your boarding pass to a flight attendant.

    Generally, the people walking away from the train are heading for the exit. The sign for the exit is two characters that look like 1) a pair of walking fingers and 2) a television set with old style antenae. When I was in Tokyo (some time ago, admittedly) each station had someone at the exit who could help you with directions (just show him on a map where you want to go).

    Many restaurants in Japan display plastic models of the food in the window, you can just point.

    What would stop you? I doubt there's a test to board. Just make sure you have a book with you showing the name or location of the ferry in the unlikely event it's not very clear how to find it.
     
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  4. LarryInNYC

    LarryInNYC Gold Member

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    I forgot to say that, if you're contemplating hitchhiking, it's advisable to get someone to make a destination sign for you to hold up. In my limited experience (Tokyo to Kyoto and back, 5 rides) you'll only get picked up by people who speak English.
     
  5. MSPeconomist
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    MSPeconomist Gold Member

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    The central part of Tokyo, and Kyoto too, is easy. Most places, including small stores, will have one English speaker. You can ask your hotel to write your destination and address in characters to show to taxi drivers. If you look at a map on the street, chances are that a well educated person will come up and offer to help. Once a gentleman walked six blocks out of his way to show me the correct subway station. As others have said, you can point to food in department store food halls and use the plastic models in restaurants. Gestures for beer and the bill are universal. However, it might be more comfortable to avoid traditional Japanese inns and some hostess bars unless you are sure that the establishment has experience with foreigners. The central subway stations are marked in English but outlying ones on the private ones might not be. You can easily learn to recognize the characters for restrooms, exit, your station, etc.

    However, the language situation can be different away from Tokyo, for example in Osaka. There some hotel staff may be very unsure in English and you are more likely to get the no speak English treatment when problems and complaints arise. Foreigners seem to really stick out here as rare and exotic creatures, even more so in small towns and rural areas.

    I've never been to Okinawa, but if there are many tourists or foreign military, I would expect it to be more Tokyo like and very easy. Otherwise, there will be less English but you can still manage, so there is no reason to avoid the destination.
     
  6. LarryInNYC

    LarryInNYC Gold Member

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    Yes, in Japan you're considerably more likely to be met with the response "Please wait one minute while I resign my position as Executive Vice President of the Bank of Tokyo so that I can help you find the noodle shop you are looking for." than anything else.

    On the other hand, a friend who lived in Tokyo for several years and did learn basic Japanese would sometimes ask for directions only to be told that his interlocutor didn't speak English. He would have to say, slowly and clearly "Yes, I am speaking to you in Japanese". Even still occasionally someone couldn't process the concept.
     
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  7. Rejuvenated
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    Rejuvenated Gold Member

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    +1. I've been to Tokyo several times and while there has been communication barriers at times, it has never been a major issue for me and I barely speak any Japanese.
     
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  8. viguera
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    viguera Gold Member

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    By the way, Google Translate on your smartphone used in conversation mode is your friend. The biggest issue with translators is that you still have the problem of understanding what other people are saying.

    Using conversation mode actually lets you type/speak something in English and it's translated and spoken out in Japanese, then your phone can listen for the response in Japanese and translate it for you automatically. That way when you ask where the nearest public restroom is, you can at least understand the answer. :)
     
  9. DLroads
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    DLroads Gold Member

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    OK, I will give my take on it, though-fair disclosure, I do speak some Japanese (and traveled in Japan few times).

    Tokyo- no problem. For your basic concerns:
    English on plane? no problem
    Subway and trains? (especially in the tokyo system, but in all major systems)- no problem AT ALL.
    Resturants with menus in English? Tokyo and the major cities- no problem. Sometimes, the English may look a bit 'off' to you, but it would work. Also, pictures on the menus are common in some places.
    Boat issues- in terms of rental, areas that have tourists would also have English (or limited English speaking) staff. That's with regards to the boats. Now, I did make a quick phone call to a friend from Okinawa, and she confirmed that in resort areas- it should not be a problem.

    With all of that said- in my personal opinion, even by trying to speak VERY LITTLE japanese, people would treat you much much better. I think they do enjoy seeing someone trying. I encourage you to take a weekend class (even a one weekend class) to learn the basics, such as:

    HAJIMEMASHITE, WATASHI HA (HA pronounced as WA) M124 DESU.
    (I am M124, It is nice to meet you).
    Ohayo, Kon-ni-chi-ha, Kon-ban-ha (good morning, afternoon, evening)
    Genki desuka? (how are you), more polite- O-genki desuka? casual form- genki?

    If you haven't been in Japan before, let me give you one warning.... It's addicting... you will come back :)
     
  10. chaz4449

    chaz4449 Silver Member

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    You should definitely go. I did a study abroad program there in college. We went to Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Hirsoshima, Hitachi, and Mito. The language barrier is most apparent in the smaller locales. Don't let that deter you. The Japanese are such an accomodating people that I always felt welcome and got what I needed (and then some).
     
  11. m124

    m124 Silver Member

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    Thanks folks for your replies!

    One more question: when I sign a credit card receipt, how do I know how much I am being charged for? Do most ATMs offer English as an option?
     
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  12. DLroads
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    DLroads Gold Member

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    Most ATMs in central cities would have a language function (so you can switch between Japanese, English Korean and Chinese- these are the common options. In Hokkaido, they are also likely to offer you Russian)
    Credit Card Receipts (in stores) pending on the store-- most would at least print the amount in numerical values,
    i.e. 10,000 yen and not 一万円
    But it depends.

    Please note- even in central cities, you will find out that some businesses do not accept credit cards (if they do, many would not accept american express- even local amex). Again, it changes alot- most seven-11 and fast foods will accept all cards (with amex being challenging in some places). It is far more common to use cash in many places. Personal safety is very high, so you do not need to worry (again, not 'flash' out your yen in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, but rather then that- seriously, you will have great time.
    Still, 日本に行く前にちょっと日本語勉強をするほうがいいですよ。
    Before you go to Japan, it is good to learn a little Japanese. Even Rosetta Stone is a head start.
    Ganbatte!
     
  13. DestinationDavid
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    Okinawa has large numbers of US service members stationed on the island. You should be just fine. Yokoso! :)
     
  14. MSPeconomist
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    MSPeconomist Gold Member

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    However, where I would be cautious is the observation that the presence of the American military probably makes the area less safe than the rest of Japan. I recall some highly publicized rape cases which resulted in the base here being less welcome by the Japanese and their government.
     
  15. DestinationDavid
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    A cause for friction between the Japanese and the base inhabitants/US? Yes.

    A reason to be scared for your safety? No.
     
  16. MSPeconomist
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    Not scared, but it would be wise to treat the area as closer to the USA in terms of personal safety than the rest of Japan.
     
  17. DestinationDavid
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    To each their own, but as someone who is half-Japanese and has lived in Japan for 13 years in and around various military installations, I see no reason to be concerned about personal safety in Okinawa anymore than Tokyo or Osaka.

    Edited to Add for the OP: I always find Wikitravel is a fairly good way to research a destination ahead of time. Here is the page on Okinawa: LINK. They include many standard sections like "Getting In" to help you figure out how to get to the location, "Talk" to assess how easy it is to communicate with locals, and "Stay Safe" to discuss how you can remain safe during your visit. Not always the most authoritative source, but I use it frequently for my trips. :)
     
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  18. NYBanker
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    NYBanker Gold Member

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    You have absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Japan, like essentially all OECD countries, is extremely well equipped to handle English-speakers. While in general, the further from cities in Japan that you get (like any non-English speaking country), the less English you'll find, I can't think of a spot where you couldn't go in Japan. Invariably there were be some language-based confusion along the way...but have fun with it, don't stress about it.

    Many leading hotels - and certainly all western brands - will have all signs in English.

    I was in Japan last week, here are some pictures from my hotel (which is not a western-branded hotel).
    AsiaRS12-pt3-9.jpg AsiaRS12-pt3-32.jpg

    Absolutely. JL and NH principally fly Boeing aircraft. You'll find all announcements and signs on board, as well as in the airport, are in Japanese and English. Even the inflight magazine is in Japanese on one side, and English on the other.

    Depends. Many do; others have pictures of the food on the menus. I find the best locals places (the ones on the second floor of a building) don't...but you'll have no problem finding a myriad of very good choices that do.

    Funny...and absolutely correct. There is no more courteous country in the world than Japan.

    All credit card bills will have the amount in Yen. Divide by 100, then add 20% to come up with the approximate USD amount. If the bill is 8,000 Yen, divide by 100 (so now you get 80), then add 20%..so the bill is US$96 (approximately)

    Tipping isn't needed anywhere in Japan, though some people will see Americans and linger a bit hoping for a tip.

    Money is also easily identifyable.
    [​IMG]

    A few other pieces of advice of visiting Japan
    1. (I think I saw this mentioned earlier) keep a card with you that has the name and address and telephone number of your hotel in Japanese. Worst case, all else fails, get in a cab and give them that card. If I've had a lot to drink at a business dinner, I find the card to be very valuable.
    2. Only select mobile phones work in Japan. Many that are "international," don't work on the networks that are used in Japan (mine does....works fine...but not all do). Check with your carrier...but make sure to ask specifically about Japan, and not just international.
    3. One thing I do to keep costs down is I rented a pocket wifi hotspot from my hotel. It was about $15 a day, but worked throughout Japan. I then linked my iPad and blackberry to it...allowing me data access...including mapping on my iPad...all at a fixed daily cost. Having the mapping data available to me anywhere is a real blessing.
    Two final notes, one thing many Americans find as a novelty are the toilet seats in Japan. Many have a number of cleaning features...sort of an automated bidet. The other are the beds. In many hotels (and Japanese houses), you'll get two twin beds. You can request a king bed, and most will have some, but invariably you'll end up with at least one room like this during your visit. (No wonder the population is declining!)
    AsiaRS12-pt3-5.jpg AsiaRS12-pt3-6.jpg
    AsiaRS12-pt3-2.jpg
    Enjoy your trip...
     
  19. Gaucho
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    Gaucho Gold Member

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    The Japanese are the nicest most polite and helpful people in the world.... please do go on your trip and Im sure you will have the best time. Do come back and report when you have a chance.... :cool:
     
  20. flyingdawg
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    flyingdawg Gold Member

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    One note of caution. Credit cards are not as widely accepted in Tokyo and other cities in Japan as they are in the US. Usually small restaurants and shops is where this can be an issue. And as another poster mentioned AmEx furhter complicates the matter, so have a Visa or M/C as your back-up.

    Another trick with communicating: if you have a question or are trying to get directions, try writing it out (very neatly) in English. Many Japanese learn to read and write English in school, but do not understand the spoken word since they hear it so rarely. They can often reply to you in writting in beautiful script. Its a trick that's helped me a couple of times.
     
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  21. m124

    m124 Silver Member

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    Thank you NYBanker and everyone else!

    I had no idea that they use English characters for numbers. Hence my question about amounts. But now I feel much more confident.
     
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  22. Efilon87

    Efilon87 Silver Member

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    I was just in Tokyo, very easy to get around. The subway announces stops in Japanese, but lists the stops in with English lettering at the stations and above each door. Also, the metro map has Japanese and English, though it looks very intimidating at first glance. As for the restaurants, most of them will have English and/or pictures. I believe that all aircraft will have the local language written as well as english, im pretty sure thats required. You will have an awesome time.

    Screen shot 2012-02-18 at 1.26.22 PM.png
     
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  23. DestinationDavid
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    While I haven't been on every possible line in Tokyo, most lines I've been on including the Metro and JR have also announce stops in English. :)
     
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  24. Efilon87

    Efilon87 Silver Member

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    Youre probably right, I was on the metro at 5:30am right after a flight from LAX. I was drifting in and out of consciousness...
     
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  25. Extra Pack of Peanuts

    Extra Pack of Peanuts Silver Member

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    m124,

    I know you've gotten alot of advice here already, but let me add to the others that say "don't let the language barrier deter you". I currently live in Japan, about halfway between Tokyo and Osaka, and when I first came here two years ago, I spoke not a word of Japanese. IT DIDN'T MATTER!

    I still barely speak any Japanese, but have traveled all around this country. To bullet point some of your concerns:

    Tokyo will be no problem. Many people will speak English, especially in the trains. If you stand at the subway map looking confusing (because who cares what language it is in, it's still confusing!) someone willl be at your side in less than a minute, asking you if you need help. They love practicing their English. I've had people actually get on the trains with me and take me to the doorstep of my hotels, even after I insisted I was fine, knew where I was going, etc. One guy did this and then even tried to GIVE ME MONEY FOR DINNER! They are crazy, but oh so nice and accomodating. They'll bend over backwards for you, so don't worry about that.

    All ATM's will have an English menu, so you'll be fine there.

    Okinawa is AWESOME! In Naha, you won't have any problem with English because there are so many military people around. I found it to be the most English-prevalent area that I've visited in Japan. Most westernized or bigger places in Naha actually take American money (catering to the military).

    Getting from Okinawa to the smaller islands is also not a problem. You can buy ferry tickets at the port or from a travel agent, and really, as long as you can say the place names, they'll figure it out. Some places have English speakers, so that won't be a problem, but again, if you can spit out "Zamami", and hold up how many tickets you want, they'll understand. Oh, and if you like diving Zamami is great! Small island, really laid back. Rent a motorbike and go up to lookout points (I think there are 7 all told). Really fun, and there is a great yakiniku/toriniku restuarant (grilled meat and grilled chicken).

    Lastly, most restaurants will have either English menus or plastic food displays. Just point if there are displays.

    And again, everyone is SO FRIENDLY. They will do anything to try to help you, even if they don't speak English. It can be a little overwhelming at times, but...it is a super safe, super friendly country, so you have nothing to worry about.

    Enjoy your travels, and let me know if I can help you in any way with specific questions about Japan.
     
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