Sep 2, 2010

Foreigner in Japan, not speaking Japanese

My name is Nyagoslav, but you can always refer to me as Nyago. I am Bulgarian but for the past two months I am living in Japan. And yes, I am not living in the Tokyo area. My current residence is in Kobe, Western Japan, about an hour by train to Osaka. I am neither native English speaker, nor I speak Japanese any more than being able to greet and build some simple sentences.

I am on a 3-month internship in a Japanese food labeling company (food label is the small text on the food package that informs about the calories, ingredients, nutrition, etc.) and I am responsible for the international relations of the company and partly for its marketing. AIESEC is the institution through which I managed to find out the internship I am currently on, but I will explain in detail about the AIESEC organization and internships system in some other post.

A person who is for the first time in Japan may face many problems, but the biggest and most difficult to overcome one is the language barrier. If you plan to come to Japan and you don't speak Japanese, and furthermore, you do not have any friends or relatives in the country, who could guide you, you are going to find yourself in bad trouble. Japanese DO NOT speak ANY English, and as I say ANY I mean that for 90% of them it is quite difficult to understand anything else than "hi" or "bye" (although they may not even understand the first one as it means "yes" in Japanese). Asking about the direction, street address or "is this food eatable", may prove to be a total fail. Ah, you are probably wondering right now "what about the other 10% who may still understand some simple English???" I am sorry, but those 10%'s English level is equal to the one of a 5-year old non-native child living in USA just for a few months. They may still understand some words, and even they may have quite a broad vocabulary, but when they start speaking you need to power up your patience to the maximum, and most importantly you must not be in a hurry, because the average speed of speaking for a Japanese "who speaks English at least a little bit" is 1 sentence per minute, simple sentence. Official data is that the English speakers in Japan are almost 12% of the population, but I told you at what level most of them are.

Done with the evaluation of Japanese English, now I could proceed to giving you some tips of how you could actually survive. The advices are targeted to people who are planning to permanently reside in Japan, but those who are purely making a Japan-through trip or going for a holiday or honeymoon, could also find some useful information.

First of all, before you depart from your home country buy a phrase book or even better - a dictionary and use it frequently. If you have totally no idea of Japanese the best for you would be to buy an English-Japanese dictionary (or "Any Language-Japanese dictionary"), where there is added a latin alphabet transcription of the Japanese words (so called "Romaji"). I would personally recommend that you purchase Kodansha's Basic English-Japanese Dictionary. When you need to go to the shop, pharmacy, restaurant, bus or train station, always consult it beforehand and look up the words you suppose you may need. Japanese may not be good in English, but they are quite smart in nature and saying even one word, like for example "Umeda" (the name of a central station in Osaka), would immediately tell them you are searching for the right train or bus to go there (depending on which is closer to the place you met the person you are asking). I discovered that Japanese are very logical thinkers and sometimes they even amaze me as they truly understand me just by a single word I am pronouncing. It will be a little topic shift but as far as Wikipedia is concerned, Japanese are one of the smartest nations on Earth, occupying the third place in the world in terms of IQ! Nevertheless, they are not prophets, so you need to give them some hint first. Usually in the trains there would be a map of all stops or even an electronic screen showing exactly where you are located right now, which stations have passed and which are to come. Names are very complicated and you have to be quite difficult about the table sign color of the train you are stepping in, as there are 4 different main types:

Limited Express (red color) - the fastest train, which is stopping at very few major stations
Express (yellow color) - fast and yet not stopping at every station, but missing the smallest ones
Semi-Express (green color) - not really frequent train and you don't have to care about it as it could always be substituted by the Express or the Local
Local (black color) - the slowest train, stopping at every station, which means a stop every 2-3 minutes (use it only if you are totally sure where you are going)

To tell the truth I am still not very familiar with the lines, and moreover there is more than one company which is operating the city trains. The major ones, however, are JR and Hankyu and you would need to use them most frequently. There are many guys with yellow hats all over the station and you will easily distinguish them by the funny hats. They are authorized to help you if you have any concerns about which train to take, but you should at least know the name of the train station you are heading to or the famous place you want to go to. For example: Golden Pavilion in Kyoto is maybe the most famous monument in Japan for foreigners, but in Japanese it's obviously not called like that and Japanese do not even know what Golden Pavilion means, therefore you need to look it up in a dictionary. However, situations like getting lost or getting on the wrong train are happening to me even now. Today I was late for work because the train I took did not stop at the station I was going to. In such cases the easiest and more uncomplicated is to just take the same train back to the station you started your journey from and give it a second try. It costs nothing (except your time of course).

Going to a restaurant is another topic, which would be very important for you as a "new Japanese". You would probably always wonder about what the food contains and if its eatable, as some foods may look poisonous (at least for me it was like that). Don't worry about that - Japan's food laws are one of the strictest in the world and the probability that you will eat something harmful is close to 0. However, you may still wonder how big your portion would be as there are nowhere listed the grams (or pounds) of the meal you are going to be served. Let me make it clear - all meals are smaller than you could expect. And believe me if you order only one meal you will definitely be starving only 1 hour later. Prices are extremely varying depending mostly on the area in which the restaurant is located, so if you catch the "Limited Express" (the red train) you will most probably head to some district where price is not worth the size. Don't be surprised if there are many Japanese and even there could be a queue for sitting in this restaurant - Japanese think of the food as an art or something very precious, so they often take plenty of pictures of the meal itself and of themselves eating it. If at some point you get homesickness over food, you may always go to Italian restaurant as there are such in almost every neighborhood.

For more details or tips, you could always drop me a message at

Kampai! ("Cheers" in Japanese)

1 comment:

  1. Nice one, Nyago! I totally agree :) Starting from the end - I do not agree about the food proportions. Keep in mind that you are almost 2 m boy! For me th proportions were just fine! I eevn couldn't eat all the rice at first but this changed after some weeks. About the English - totally agree but I acually met some Japanese with fair even good one. In Tokyo they were more of course and even in my rural city I could find some. So I guess North and West Japan really differ in alot of ways :)