In some cases, we earn commissions from affiliate links in our posts.
You’ve been dreaming of going to Japan for years- but perhaps that enthusiasm for the land of anime and sushi hasn’t quite carried over into your Japanese language studies. Oops! If your Japanese studies are still in the early stages or you don’t speak a word of Nihongo – you’ll need to rely on your English skills to help you navigate the Land of the Rising Sun.
Before packing your bags and booking that flight, it’s a smart idea to know what to expect when the gates open and you walk into Narita Airport. Read on to learn about the dependability of English signs and how far your English skills will get you in Japan.
Table of Contents
The level of English in Japan
A search on the web may lead to conflicting information about the level of English in Japan. You may have heard that Japan requires English to be taught in schools, but then what explains those pictures of hilariously bad English signs shared online? The truth is that there are several factors that make English in Japan a bit of a mixed bag.
A brief history of English in Japan
Japan’s relationship with the foreign language of English dates back even before Japan was opened up to Western powers in the mid-1800s. The Second World War and Japan’s “Economic Miracle” led to Japan becoming a key player in the global economy in the 20th century and gave birth to new opinions about English. A language that was once seen as a mostly unwanted foreign influence in Japan became the much-desired language of global business, trade, and tourism.
English in Japanese classrooms
As Japan earned its spot in the global economy, English became such a desirable skill that it was added to the core curriculum of Japanese schools. Since 2020, English education is required from the third grade and is taught through high school.
Some schools choose to begin teaching the language even earlier- with select nurseries and kindergartens offering English programs. Additionally, many students choose to continue learning English at the university level.
English signs in Japan- quantity over quality
Quantity is one thing- but quality is a whole different textbook. The nationwide English education program and flourishing international industries don’t change the fact that English is a foreign language in Japan. It’s ranked as one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, and the English education system in Japan has often been criticized for its flaws.
A rarity of native English
The difficulty of English pairs with the fact that only about 2% of Japan’s population consists of foreign ethnicities. Native English speakers are still few and far between in Japan- with qualified English teachers making up an even smaller percentage. With native speakers in such short supply, it is natural that English signs in Japan don’t always read like signs in English-speaking countries.
The 2020 Olympics – a beacon for English
The Japanese government cranked up English learning to show their best to the international community as the chosen place of the 2020 Olympics. For the past few years, the government has been hiring more native English teachers and working hard to improve the quality of English signage throughout the country in preparation for the increase in tourism.
So are there English signs in Japan?
The short answer is: Yes!
With the bustle of global trade and the endless tsunami of tourists coming to enjoy all the country has to offer, it is only natural that Japan has gone to great lengths to make visitors feel welcome. Japan is a country prized for its hospitability and knows that English signage will help both business travelers and tourists to get around.
And with English ability improving in Japan, helpful English signs are more common while signs written in poor English are harder to be found. That means that those hilariously incorrect slogans and poorly written signs much-loved by social media are fewer to be seen in Japan these days.
Where will I find English signs in Japan?
During your overseas adventure in Japan, it is very likely that you will find a bounty of English around you. Keep an eye out on the streets and within train stations to see signs and maps that have English written below the Japanese. Many hotels, shops, and restaurant names are written in English and it is common for eating establishments to carry English menus.
Keep in mind that availability in English is much more prevalent in the cities- so while you can expect English in town, be prepared to bring your Japanese skills or a local friend with you into the countryside. As an added layer of reassurance, know that staff at tourist centers and main hubs of transportation throughout the country almost always speak English and are happy to help visitors navigate around.
Funny English signs and Japanglish
A much-beloved topic on the internet, it is likely that you’ve seen pictures of funny English signs shared by tourists in Japan. For a long time, it was common for visitors to experience ‘Japanglish’- a mix-mash of English and Japanese ranging in quality from downright terrible to harmlessly hilarious.
Due to the increase in English ability throughout the country, poor English signage and Japanglish are harder to be found. Despite that, old habits are as hard to break as a new language is to learn- so if you keep a sharp eye, you may still be able to spot some delightful English signs for yourself.
Here are a few funny signs to give you a chuckle!
Hopefully, you are now comfortable knowing that English will be enough to get you around Japan! As long as you plan ahead, follow our Japan Travel Tips, and book your stay with a reputable provider like Booking.com- you will be in for a wonderful vacation in the country of your dreams. You can rest assured that increased English learning and bustling global trade have helped English signs to flourish in Japan over the years, so you can navigate the country with ease.
While you may spot some Japanlish and see funny English here and there, these situations will not get in the way of you having a successful trip. On the contrary, English signs in Japan might give you a good chuckle and may even help to make your trip all the more enjoyable!