Without a doubt, the hardest part of being in Tokyo is the language barrier. Suddenly you find yourself transported to a crowded city of 12.5 million people, where you can neither speak nor read the language. To make matters worse, many Japanese cannot speak English, and signs, menus, and shop names are often in Japanese only.
Realizing the difficulties foreigners have with the language, the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) puts out a nifty booklet called The Tourist's Language Handbook, with 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. For more in-depth coverage, there are many guide books geared toward travelers, including Japanese for Travelers, by Scott Rutherford (Tuttle, 2009), with useful phrases and travel tips.
If you need to ask directions in Tokyo, 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, try writing your question instead of speaking it. The emphasis in schools is on written rather than oral English (even many English-language teachers can't speak English very well), 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 call the Tourist Information Center (tel. 03/3201-3331). And if you're heading for a particular restaurant or shop, have your destination written out in Japanese by someone at your hotel to show to taxi drivers or passersby. 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 their district 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 that it existed only in spoken form until the 6th century. It was then that the Japanese borrowed Chinese characters, called kanji, and used them to develop their own form of written language. Later, two phonetic alphabet systems, hiragana (used for Japanese words that aren't written in kanji) and katakana (used for all foreign words), 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 some 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 systems of written communication 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, age, and sex. Even nonverbal communication is vital to understanding Japanese, since what isn't said is often more important than what is. It's little wonder that Saint 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%.
Pronunciation -- If you're having difficulty communicating with a Japanese-speaker, it may help to pronounce an English word in a Japanese way. Foreign words, especially English, have penetrated the Japanese language to such an extent that they're now estimated to make up 20% of everyday vocabulary. The problem is that these words change in Japanese pronunciation, because words always end in either a vowel or an n, and because two consonants in a single syllable are usually separated by a vowel. Would you recognize terebi as "television," koohi as "coffee," or rajio as "radio"?
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. 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 followed in this guide, but note that many things published in English -- business cards, city brochures, and so on -- may follow the Western custom of listing 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 the proper noun 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 are all one and the same street. Likewise, dera means "temple" and is often included at the end of the name, as in Kiyomizudera; ji means shrine.
Written English in Japan -- You'll see English on shop signs, billboards, posters, shopping bags, and T-shirts. The words are often wonderfully misspelled, however, or used in such unusual contexts that you can only guess at the original intent. My days have been brightened innumerable times by the discovery of zany or unfathomable English. What, for example, could possibly be the meaning behind "Today birds, tomorrow men," which appeared under 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 Matsue a "Beauty Saloon" conjures up images of beauties chugging mugs of beer, while in Gifu you can only surmise at the pleasures to be had at the Hotel Joybox. I appreciated the honesty of a Hokkaido Tourist Association employee whose business card identified him as working for the "Propaganda Section." But imagine my consternation upon stepping on a bathroom scale that called itself the "Beauty-Checker."
The best sign I saw was at Narita Airport many years ago. At all check-in counters was a sign telling passengers they would be required to pay a departure tax 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.