Surviving in Japan: Coping with the Language Barrier

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There are several things you can do to overcome the language barrier in Japan

Japan makes your head swirl. From the flashing neon lights to the chatter of computer games, arriving in Japan mixes excitement with a hefty dose of confusion. Don’t let the alphabets get you down, though. Grab a smile, some chutzpah and use these tips to help you thrive.

Always Be Nice

It should be obvious, but just in case it’s not: shouting, throwing tantrums and making snide comments will get you nowhere. Manners and etiquette are crucial so speak softly, apologise for misunderstandings and say thank you for every small gesture.

Show Respect

  1. Shoes matter in Japan. Sometimes you’ll be given three separate pairs of slippers: one for the corridor, one for the bedroom and one for the toilet. Watch out any time you see a line of shoes; you’ll probably have to change yours
  2. Exchange money with both hands or use a tray if you see one
  3. Respond to bows and waves by doing the same

Learn the Language

Not the whole language (unless you want to), but memorise a few key phrases at least. People make an effort to help if you make an effort first.

Get Practical

Have your hotel’s address, any medicines you take and your emergency contact numbers written down in Japanese. Don’t try to brazen it out. If you run into serious problems, find an interpreter.


Many signs are in English, many restaurants have plastic copies of their food and many Japanese people speak at least a few phrases.  No-one expects you to get it right first time – and neither should you. Relax, go with the flow and try your best. Part of the joy of travel is realising that you don’t really know what you’re doing – and that that’s OK.

Do you have any tips for overcoming the language barrier in Japan? Share your thoughts below…

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About Abigail King

Abigail King is a freelance writer and photographer with a passion for travel and a taste for adventure. Her work has appeared in National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel, France Today, Lonely Planet, easyJet Traveller, Desert Leaf, Travel Intelligence, The Huffington Post, CNNGo and more. She has circled the globe twice, camped in the snows of Kilimanjaro and Patagonia and tracked down tigers, turtles and panda bears. She’s then had a hot shower and embraced the city life of New York, Rio, Paris and Tokyo. Read more at Inside the Travel Lab, Abigail's award-winning travel blog.

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