Everything’s set—you have your tickets booked and your accommodations confirmed. All that’s left now is to pack your suitcase! But one thing is still bothering you: you can’t speak Japanese! Well, that’s ok. This article is going to clarify some common questions about communicating in Japan plus give you tips to break the ice and make friends!
Are the Japanese shy?
First thing’s first: are the Japanese shy? A bit. But you’re usually mistaking their reservation for shyness. Japanese people won’t just talk to a stranger on the train or smile when walking past someone. It’s just not in the culture; Japanese tend to be more reserved and avoid imposing themselves on others. If you want to connect with locals, you may need to put yourself out there more than you usually do.
What do you mean?
Often one of the biggest problems visitors face when talking with locals is understanding what they mean—even when speaking the same language! Communication in Japan is nuanced. The Japanese avoid confrontation, so they will not be direct—particularly when saying something negative or refusing requests. They might mean ‘no’ if they are avoiding eye contact, inhaling through their teeth to make a hissing noise, or saying something along the lines of “eto…” or “chotto…”
What can you do? First off, be mindful of the situation and the body language. If you’re unsure of what they meant, ask again politely. And don’t be blunt or rude. The Japanese are known for being polite, but they still have their limits.
Do the Japanese speak English?
The first thing people usually ask when planning a trip to Japan is “does anyone speak English?” You may be surprised, but children in Japan are required to take English classes from fifth grade, and some schools start before that. So, many younger generations know the basics. Still, the Japanese are shy about their English and may avoid using it as much as possible for fear of being mocked. In touristy areas, you can get by fine with little Japanese, but the further away from major areas, the less foreign-language assistance you can expect.
What can you do? Learn a few basic phrases to get by and show your respect for the culture. They’ll appreciate your effort regardless of any mistakes or weird pronunciations. And if they try to communicate in English, encourage them, too! But if this sounds like too much and you’re still worried, stick to the major areas and you’ll be fine.
Where to mingle with locals
If you can’t just start chatting someone up, where can you go to connect with locals? Since the Japanese tend to be more reserved, one of the easiest places to go is anywhere with alcohol. Izakayas, yakitori shops, bars—these are easy places to join in on conversations, and the little bit of alcohol will help both you and your new friends feel more confident to get past any language barriers.
Another great place to try is a sporting event. Head to a baseball game or a soccer match for a fun way to connect with the locals. You get to see how passionate sports fans are in Japan and learn a lot at the same time!
What can you do? Grab a drink at a bar, izakaya, or yakitori joint. Buy tickets to a sporting match. If neither of these interest you, join a meetup!
Topics to avoid speaking about in Japan
Keep in mind that some topics that are ok to talk about in your home country are taboo in Japan. Don’t mention these things when making new friends in Japan. Some topics are universally taboo (like politics or money) in initial conversations, but others are very specific to Japanese history.
・Takeshima/Dokdo Islands disputes
・Korean-Japanese “zainichi” residents and their place in Japan
・The Yakuza and their involvement in different areas
・Jobs; money; etc. (sometimes)
Phrases to break the ice with locals
With all that said, what do you even say? Start off on the right foot—here are a few phrases to break the ice with locals:
- Nice to meet you
- Nice weather, isn’t it
- Kyou wa ii tenki desu ne
- Can you take my photo?
- Shashin o totte kuremasen ka?
- Hi, my name is...
- Watashi no namae wa (insert name) desu
- Where are you from?
- Doko shusshin desu ka?
- What do you recommend? [To eat, to drink...]
- Osusume wa nan desu ka?
You don’t need to be fluent to communicate in Japan. Just be polite and try your best! The locals will see you’re making an effort. So, use these tips on your next visit to Japan to connect with the culture and make new friends.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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