Japan – Understanding the Language Barrier

Most people in Japan are not very fluent in English. And it can mean that one will have difficulty traveling or working in Japan, though things are getting better. Even very small railway stations have destinations in English letters as well as in Japanese. Taxis are generally very honest and friendly to almost anyone and no bargaining is required in the first place.

The one thing a foreigner in Japan should be aware of when asking assistance from the local people is the need to speak slowly, and preferably starting with “Kon Nichi wa (Hello)” or “Sumimasen (Excuse me)” which always gives some comfort to a Japanese listener.

While most public transportation is well indicated using signs in English, restaurants and toilets are not always so easy to use. One might see some plastic displays that enable one to learn what kind of food they serve or menus with photos. But some of the local restaurants do not post any information in roman letters and that is when one may encounter the first language barrier. It can be a bit challenging at first, but the traveller may be able eventually to discern the pattern of Kanji (the symbols in Chinese character) and recognize parts of place names. Public toilets in Japan are basically free to use and very convenient however, various instructions given on the walls or on control panels are somehow all written in Japanese. By the way, the characters 大 (meaning Big) & 小 (meaning Small) correspond to a big flush & small flush of water. If you are able to recognize those 2 characters things may be easier.

Speaking of “Control panel”, foreigners may encounter another language barrier after settling in to a new home. Other than high-end apartment for expats, buttons and signs on almost any remote control are written in Kanji. You will very naturally learn them in a week or so but you might want to know the following before coming to Japan.

Big (Flush for toilet), sometimes meaning Adults
Small (Flush for toilet), sometimes meaning Children
おしりMeaning one’s behind (activates the shower spray of the toilet seat)
冷房Air-conditioner for Summer (We call it “Cooler” in Japanese)
暖房Heater for Winter
除湿Dehumidify mode (This function is seldom used)
風量Air flow (Strong/Weak)
風向Fan direction
タイマーTimer mode

A lot of foreign words are used in everyday Japanese and though the expressions are similar there are differences. Here are some examples of the way Japanese English differs from the real thing!

MansionMeaning ordinary apartment, condominium, or flat (Does not mean a huge house!)
FlooringMeaning “wooden” floor
ReformMeaning renovation
Baby carMeaning stroller
ConsentMeaning electrical outlet
Note PCMeaning laptop computer
Gasoline standMeaning gas/petrol station
BikeMeaning motorcycle
VikingMeaning (All-you-can-eat) buffet style
WinkerMeaning blinker/turn indicator light
HotchkissMeaning stapler
Manner modeMeaning silent mode for your mobile phone
NaiveMeaning very sensitive
SmartMeaning (physically) slender
Fried potatoMeaning French fries
Pet bottleMeaning plastic bottle
ClaimMeaning complaint from customer