The ability to communicate and make oneself understood in English when travelling is often taken for granted, whether negotiating at a street stall or checking in at a five star hotel. The use of English in Japan thus warrants some comment at the outset.
Written English, on billboards, shop windows, even clothes, is ubiquitous in Japan and very fashionable, easily leading visitors to expect its use in spoken form is equally common. However, even though every student who completes high school has received at least six years of painstaking English tuition, this is far from the truth.
The teaching of English in Japan is largely grammar-based and not for the purpose of acquiring the ability to speak the language. Rather, its primary purpose is to enable students to successfully undertake English tests, particularly those that are part of high school and university entrance exams. Many of these tests simply require the filling in of blanks in sample sentences, for which pure guesswork can provide up to a 25% success rate.
A large proportion of Japanese teachers of English also have limited conversational English skills, including poor pronunciation, creating a significant hindrance in their students’ learning process. The English taught to and spoken by many younger people is nick-named katakana English, katakana being the Japanese writing form used for foreign words that have been adopted into the Japanese language. What this means is, people speaking in a kind of quite unnatural staccato manner.
The least emphasis in English tuition is on speaking and listening comprehension, so that even those who possess a good reading ability may still be unable to take part in anything more than a rudimentary conversation. For the increasing numbers of students, business people, travellers and others who need to be able to actually converse in English, attendance at schools specialising in English conversation practice is essential.
As a result, good English-speaking ability isn’t commonly found, and because of another trait, which causes the Japanese to avoid situations where they might be embarrassed or lose face, many are reluctant to use whatever ability they have when the necessity or opportunity might arise. When forced to do so, or when they’re brave enough to try, it can be clearly seen they’re making every effort to avoid mistakes and create grammatically perfect sentences, running each sentence over in their minds before giving it audible expression, a process that can take time.
Hence, apart from taxi drivers who service the main airports, shop assistants in souvenir shops in Tokyo and Kyoto, check-in clerks at major hotels and airports, and other airline staff, encountering English-speaking people in a service environment will be largely by luck. Yet it isn’t uncommon for visitors to be approached by someone, probably under 30, smiling and in good English offering assistance. In a country where English is the native tongue of about 0.2% of the population, some people jump at any chance for practice.
This situation makes group tours a popular and pleasant way of travel for visitors. But it shouldn’t mask the fact that solo travel, travel in pairs or small groups is entirely feasible, advisably undertaken after some pre-trip planning, and with the use of a phrase book containing both romanised Japanese, for the visitor, and Japanese characters for the locals. Pre-booking is advisable at busy times.
Phrase books with a selection of answers to individual questions which local residents can choose are also useful. Alternatively, it can be worthwhile writing questions on cards or pieces of paper, or even having pre-printed question cards with answer choices, and seek out people in the 18-40 age bracket for help. Virtually anyone approached for this purpose will try their hardest to help, even leading inquirers some or all of the way to their destination, or to someone they believe might be able to help.
Of the English on view, a selected reading will soon show it’s often there for show only, perhaps not grammatically correct, and quite possibly ranging from the farcical to nonsensical. To the unknowing Japanese eye, the placing together of a series of words in English simply looks good, the actual meaning being of little or no importance, as few people bother to actually read them, and of those who do few would be able to fully comprehend them.
With most of this English, it’s obvious either a direct translation from the Japanese, without any thought given to being checked by a native speaker, or a jumble of words was chosen purely for their aesthetic value. What else would explain the use of the sentence, “Our staff is best condition” on the window of a hairdresser, for example?