Tackling the Language Barrier while you are in Japan

One of the biggest obstacles between getting something done or not in Japan is the very aspect most of us take for granted…differences in language.

When my wife was a university student in Los Angeles, she would do many things to emerge herself into English language and American culture. For example, she would watch TV with her home stay family with the English subtitles on (the kind used in the US for the hard of hearing). She would do other things like hang out with one of the instructors at her language school with the other students. Also, she enrolled in classes at the nearby junior college. After I met her, I told her that it was OK to not attend school everyday during the week as long as the units were met to keep her as a full-time student. The Japanese can be very diligent in that regard.

But, like most foreigners who spend enough time in a country that is not their own, they miss out on things. My wife never ate at a Subway Sandwich shop until we started dating since she did not want to deal with, “What would you like on your sandwich?” “White or wheat bread?” “Swiss or cheddar cheese?” In the early days, I lived in San Diego and she was in the South Bay part of Los Angeles. Those early days were trying times since we lived 100 miles apart from each other and traffic in Southern California just plain sucks. But to top things off, my wife was a new driver at 25 years old since driving is discouraged (two-lane roads the size of a driveway and mirrors at every corner since they all contain “blind-spots”, gas 4 times as much as it is in the US, etc.) if you are from Tokyo. She had been driving for about 2 years and had managed to use the freeways in LA a few times. She managed to gain the courage and in those early days, we saw each other twice a month for a few days each time with me driving to LA and her driving to SD.

My first time to Japan was completely different that my current stay in Japan. My first time around, I only went to Kamakura, Yokohama, Tokyo and Hakkone. This was due to the fact that I had limited funds and time in Japan due to my military obligations but mainly due to my inability to breakaway from the pack and with determination venture out beyond my comfort zone. Furthermore, in those days, I did not have a laptop; Internet was yet to be released and did not have a cell phone or a land line for that matter.

The point being is, you have to strike while the iron is hot. If you are not confident of your Japanese ability, and worried about getting lost, there is only one way to cure the problem. Baptism by Fire. Through the international use of hand language, and sheer determination on both parties, use of the technology at our disposal and good, old-fashioned maps and dictionaries, you can make things happen when it comes to getting the most out of your stay in a foreign country.

Tip- If you are in Japan and need to ask for directions, ask a younger person if given the choice. Older people, especially train station employees, have been useless more times than not. Once at the mother of all train stations, Shinjuku, in Central Tokyo, I asked an old employee for directions to a train line IN JAPANESE. The guy began rattling off his reply in Japanese so fast that I was lost after the 3rd word. I then asked him to say it again in Japanese but this time more slowly, and he basically blew me off. I then found a younger female who was more helpful and took the time to help. Of course she didn’t speak any English.

I hope this helps and remember, don’t let the opportunity pass you by.

Picture was taken at Kawaguchi City’s Kita Junior High School on July 20, 2007. I’m giving a farewell speech in Japanese to the student body in their gym.

Daniel J. Stone
Saitama Prefecture