Without a doubt, the hardest part of traveling in Japan is the language barrier. Suddenly you find yourself transported to a crowded land of 127 million people where you can neither speak nor read the language. To make matters worse, many Japanese cannot speak English. And outside big cities and major tourist sites, menus, signs at train stations, and shop names are often in Japanese only.
However, millions of foreign visitors before you who didn't speak a word of Japanese have traveled throughout Japan on their own with great success. Much of the anxiety travelers experience elsewhere is eliminated in Japan because the country is safe and the people are kind and helpful to foreigners. In addition, the country has done a mammoth job during the past decade updating street signs, subway directions, and addresses in Roman letters, especially in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and other destinations popular with tourists. There are local tourist information offices, called kanko annaijo, in almost all cities and towns, usually at train stations. While not all staff speak English, they can provide maps, point out directions, and help with hotel reservations.
In addition, the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) does a super job publishing helpful brochures, leaflets, and maps, including a nifty booklet called The Tourist's Language Handbook. It contains sentences in English and their Japanese equivalents for almost every activity, from asking directions, to shopping, to ordering in a restaurant, to staying in a Japanese inn. Pick up a copy at a Tourist Information Center in Tokyo or at Narita or Kansai airports. For more in-depth coverage, there are many language books geared toward travelers, including Japanese for Travelers by Scott Rutherford (Tuttle, 2009), with useful phrases and travel tips. It also doesn't hurt to be armed with a small pocket dictionary.
If you need to ask directions of strangers in Japan, your best bet is to ask younger people. They have all studied English in school and are most likely to be able to help you. Japanese businessmen also often know some English. And as strange as it sounds, if you're having problems communicating with someone, write it down so he or she can read it. The emphasis in schools is on written rather than oral English (many English teachers can't speak English themselves), so Japanese who can't understand a word you say may know all the subtleties of syntax and English grammar. If you still have problems communicating, you can always call the Tourist Information Center (tel. 03/3201-3331) to help with translation.
If you're heading out for a particular restaurant, shop, or sight, have your destination written down in Japanese by someone at your hotel. If you get lost along the way, look for one of the police boxes, called koban, found in virtually every neighborhood. They have maps of particular districts and can pinpoint exactly where you want to go if you have the address with you.
The Written Language -- No one knows the exact origins of the Japanese language, but we do know it existed only in spoken form until the 6th century. That's when the Japanese borrowed the Chinese pictorial characters, called kanji, and used them to develop their own form of written language. Later, two phonetic alphabet systems, hiragana and katakana, were added to kanji to form the existing Japanese writing system. Thus, Chinese and Japanese use some of the same pictographs, but otherwise there's no similarity between the languages; while they may be able to recognize parts of each other's written language, the Chinese and Japanese cannot communicate verbally.
The Japanese written language -- a combination of kanji, hiragana, and katakana -- is probably one of the most difficult in the modern world. As for the spoken language, there are many levels of speech and forms of expression relating to a person's social status and sex. Even nonverbal communication is a vital part of understanding Japanese, because what isn't said is often more important than what is. It's little wonder that St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary who came to Japan in the 16th century, wrote that Japanese was an invention of the devil designed to thwart the spread of Christianity. And yet, astoundingly, adult literacy in Japan is estimated to be 99%.
A note on establishment names: Many hotels and restaurants in Japan now have signs in romaji (Roman, or English-language, characters) in addition to their Japanese-character signs.
Other Helpful Tips -- It's worth noting that Japanese nouns do not have plural forms; thus, for example, ryokan, a Japanese-style inn, can be both singular and plural, as can kimono. Plural sense is indicated by context.
In addition, the Japanese custom is to list the family name first followed by the given name. That is the format I have followed in this book (with the exception of a few celebrities known outside of Japan), but note that many things printed in English -- business cards, city brochures, and so on -- increasingly follow the Western custom of listing the family name last.
And finally, you may find yourself confused because of suffixes attached to Japanese place names. For example, dori can mean street, avenue, or road; and sometimes it's attached to a street name with a hyphen, while at other times it stands alone. Thus, you may see Chuo-dori, Chuo Dori, or even Chuo-dori Avenue on English-language maps and street signs, but they're all one and the same street. Likewise, dera means "temple" and is often included at the end of the name, as in Kiyomizudera, which may be translated into English as Kiyomizu Temple; jo means "castle" and may appear at the end of a castle's name, as in Nijojo, or it may be left off and appear as Nijo Castle.
Written English in Japan -- English-language words are quite fashionable in Japanese advertising, with the result that you'll often see them on shop signs, posters, shopping bags, and T-shirts. However, the words are often wonderfully misspelled or are used in such unusual contexts that you can only guess at the original intent. What, for example, can possibly be the meaning behind TODAY BIRDS, TOMORROW MEN, which appeared beneath a picture of birds on a shopping bag? I have treasured ashtrays that read THE YOUNG BOY GRASPED HER HEART FIRMLY and LET'S TRIP IN HOKKAIDO. In Okayama, I saw a shop whose name was a stern admonition to customers to GROW UP, while in Gifu you can only surmise at the pleasures to be had at HOTEL JOYBOX. A staff member of the Hokkaido Tourist Association whose business card identified him working for the PROPAGANDA SECTION was probably more truthful than most. And imagine my consternation upon stepping onto a bathroom scale that called itself the BEAUTY-CHECKER. But the best sign I've seen was at Narita Airport, where each check-in counter displayed a notice advising passengers they would have to pay a service-facility charge at THE TIME OF CHECK-IN FOR YOUR FRIGHT. I explained the cause of my amusement to the person behind the counter, and when I came back 2 weeks later, I was almost disappointed to find that all signs had been corrected. That's Japanese efficiency.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.