I was pretty surprised with how English friendly Japan was. Almost all the signs have English under them and most people at least recognize some English. I’ve talked about not knowing Japanese when coming to Japan and how it is still manageable. However, not knowing any Japanese does cause me some anxiety. When I’m on my own, I find myself avoiding restaurants that have too much kanji written on them because I do not know what I am ordering. I did not want to waste my money on buying something I would not eat. I feel guilty every time I talk to one of the Japanese girls on our hall, in English. They struggle to use the English they remember from high school, while I take the fact that English is a global language for granted. When I volunteer with the kids at a Japanese elementary school, I feel stupid when they say something and I have no clue what they say. Reading the hiragana or katakana frustrates me because it takes so long and even when I know the sounds, I still don’t know what the label’s saying. I cannot ask for clarification because I don’t know the wording. For the first time in my life, I understood what my parents feel like, especially when they first came to America. I don’t know how they did it. At least for me, English is globally used, but their language is not commonly used in America. Not knowing the language everyone is speaking is lonely.
I recommend to anyone who is thinking about coming to Japan (or going to a foreign country), to study the language. I don’t think perfect fluency is necessary before coming to another country but basic phrases are a must. Knowing some basic verbs would also be helpful. There is only so much of a conversation you can have with pointing and nodding. Learning how to read in the language would also be useful. Not everything will have an English translation.
When it comes to going out without any Japanese fluent people, research where you are going beforehand. This way you know what you are getting into and you can take the time to look up unknown words. Going in armed with information is less scary than going in blind. If you want to wander around a place, feel free to, but I still recommend looking up restaurants beforehand, if you get anxious about unknown food items like I do. If you don’t care, more power to you.
This may be mercenary, but I do think making a friend who is decently fluent in Japanese would be useful. Sometimes a translation app is not enough and having an actual person who can explain things to you in English works best. Of course, as thanks, I recommend getting your friend treats. The custard cakes in Japan almost always a crowd pleaser.
If making a Japanese friend is difficult for you, you can always turn to a professor for help. When it comes to forms, just bring it in to a professor. I’ve seen a girl do that before and I’m sure professors will not mind. They want to help you. Just don’t do it for every little thing. They are not paid to be your personal translator.
Not knowing Japanese can be stressful in Japan, but the moments I can understand a conversation with no help are often pleasing enough to wash away the stress, temporarily.