I want to take a minute to confront one of the most frequently questioned topics I receive from people back in the US about my current stay in Japan: the language barrier. I may have touched upon this earlier but I feel like it’s worth spending some time on considering the amount of concern I’m realizing people tend to give it. It is, after all, one of the most significant aspects of my stay.
Before coming to Japan I had studied Japanese at Temple for three semesters. It proved to be just as difficult as I expected it to be, due in part to the language itself being difficult and the class being taught pretty rigorously. Despite many long nights of studying, I think that the rigor of the class was fundamental to learning such a difficult language, and I’m glad that it was taught in such a way. Though the three semesters provided me with extremely valuable skills, I also learned a lot of words and phrases that I didn’t very often have to use in America as they were geared towards actually traveling to Japan. Of course those words and phrases were the first things I forgot while in America, and the first things I realized I needed to look up once I got here. Admittedly, had I studied more before my departure I may have had an smoother adjustment.
My Japanese was tested almost immediately because my host family does not really speak any English. It wasn’t too much of an obstacle at first because they were understanding, and I was able to get through the day without problems. However, after a week or two I wanted to be able to communicate more thoroughly and found myself getting really discouraged. Though I’m sure in a span of a week I pick up more Japanese than I may notice, there were many simple things I began to realize I didn’t know how to say. For example, my host mother asked me what kind of tea I wanted, and I did not know how to tell her that either of the teas she was offering me was fine. She quickly realized what I was trying to say and taught me the phrase (どっちでもいい, I’ll never forget it now), but I was still frustrated that I didn’t know how to say something so simple. That being said, my biggest struggle since coming to Japan has been understanding many of the colloquialisms that people use in conversation, specifically informal conversation, as I rarely used them in a classroom setting. Instead of taking the next course in Japanese this semester, Intermediate II, I opted to take Oral Japanese I which is helping me tremendously. Speaking with my family is no longer really an issue!
I also want to touch lightly on writing and reading Japanese as this seems to be another major concern of people thinking about traveling to Japan. For those who don’t know, the Japanese writing system is made up of two syllabaries, of which there are 48 characters each, and Chinese characters called Kanji, of which there are thousands. The syllabaries are fundamental to learning how to read and write Japanese, so I was forced to learn them within my first month of study. Kanji, on the other hand, often take years to learn and I regrettably have probably only a handful memorized. However, Japan is very English friendly, especially where transportation is concerned, and I think it’s safe to say that anyone could find their way around Japan without being able to read Japanese.
However, it’s hard to say how many Japanese people are able to speak English. It’s common for young people to study it in school, but I’ve adopted a habit of almost always assuming that people don’t speak English. Usually if they do, they will respond to me in English, but I have yet to find a pattern in those who know it and those who don’t. I don’t think one exists. Most of the English speakers I run into are in pretty touristy areas such as Roppongi, Shibuya, or Harajuku, but even then they always surprise me. Either way, areas such as these are used to non-Japanese speakers and are pretty accommodating.
While knowing some Japanese has been really helpful to my visit to Japan, I don’t think it should discourage anyone from visiting! I’ve found it’s almost always possible to communicate what you need to to someone, even if you don’t speak the same language.