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Speaking the Language

Japan - Speaking the Language


Japan doesn’t have an official language, but most people in the country speak Japanese. The Tokyo dialect is regarded as standard Japanese, but each area has a distinct accent and varying use of grammar and vocabulary.

In Okinawa and some of the Kagoshima area in the Ryukyu Islands, Ryukyuan languages are spoken. Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages belong to the Japonic language family, but they are distinct from each other and aren’t interchangeable in any way.

The indigenous people of the Hokkaido island speak the Ainu language. Like the Ryukyuan languages, Hokkaido Ainu is in danger of disappearing as the local population increasingly speaks Japanese instead.

When the Soviet Union took over the area of Sakhalin from the Japanese, many people speaking Orok, Evenki and Nivkh moved to mainland Japan. Today, the descendants of these migrant communities tend to use Japanese instead of their ancestral tongues.

Other migrants have arrived from nearby countries, bringing with them their use of Korean, Zainichi Korean and Chinese.

However, if you need to speak or learn one local language to live or work in Japan, it would be Japanese.

Speaking English In Japan

Some people in Japan have a gift for languages and have learnt to speak English to a proficient level. Many of these have studied abroad in English-speaking countries and therefore have a good level of fluency.

However, most of the population are unable to speak more than a few basic words of English, despite it now being part of the school curriculum.

The extent to which this matters depends on your workplace, where you live and how far you want to become integrated into the local community.

If you have been transferred to Japan by your employer, it is likely both that you will be offered language classes and that your workplace values your specialist work above your language skills.

However, if you independently seek work in Japan without a reasonable grasp of Japanese, it will be a different story. Even tourist areas will not seek English speaking hospitality staff because there are not enough English-speaking tourists in the country to create demand. There are some jobs you could seek out, which we discuss in the Finding Employment section of this guide to Japan.

Culturally, Japanese people can find it hard work to socialise with Westerners, and the language barrier makes it even more difficult. At a basic level, you should learn enough Japanese to greet your neighbours and show them respect. However, settling into the local community will be difficult unless you have close families ties or are fluent in Japanese. This means that living in an expat community will help you avoid feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are a common issue for expats everywhere.

Everyone coming to Japan should, at the bare minimum, watch some videos about the correct body language and appropriate behaviour. It is easy to cause offence without knowing it and so find yourself ostracised. The YouTube channel Abroad In Japan can give you a good head-start from a seasoned expat.

Television Licences In Japan

In the early days of television and radio broadcasting, the Japanese government controlled the nation’s channels. However, in 1950, the system changed so that an independently operated public broadcaster operated under the principle of freedom of speech. This was paid for by implementing a public broadcasting fee, which still exists today.

In practice, this means all television owners sign up with public broadcaster NHK (also known as the Japan Broadcasting Corporation) and pay a compulsory monthly fee. The cost is similar to the BBC’s licence fee in the UK.

There have been legal challenges to the fee, which have not succeeded. Do not take any chances. Purchase the licence, whatever anyone says in a casual conversation.

Most households watch NHK’s news and entertainment programmes. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can watch NHK World programming in one of 18 languages, including English. Many cable and satellite providers include this in their packages, and the station is also available to download on the internet for free.

The NHK World website is similar to the UK’s BBC news website. It contains the top stories for weather, business, world events, culture and even lessons to learn Japanese.

Cable TV In Japan

Cable TV is popular in Japan. You can choose your package according to what you want to watch and how much you can afford to pay. For some sports events, for example, it may be more cost effective to find a local bar which screens the events you want to see.

BBC World and a range of US channels including CNN are normally included in cable packages.

Netflix has a strong presence in Japan. Indeed, in 2018 ChampionTraveler reported that Japan has a larger selection of streamed films and TV content than the US and UK. This has a lot to do with licensed content. The Netflix aspiration to offer all consumers across the globe a similar level of service has been a major factor behind its significant investment in making its own original content.

English Language Newspapers In Japan

The most popular newspapers in Japan are issued solely in Japanese. However, English speakers have a good range of websites to access.

The Japan Times covers a range of national and international news, as well as articles about education, health and politics, business and corporate news, and sports events.

In 2015, the Japan Times published an article alleging political bias of other English language newspapers in Japan and suggesting that a worryingly right-wing political outlook was taking hold.

The Mainichi was established in 1922 and today offers a free online English language newspaper.

Learning To Speak Japanese In Japan

If you need a few basics to get started on the Japanese language, start with the free website for public broadcaster NHK.

They have a specific section dedicated to this subject which is well laid out. You can listen to the audio, see the Japanese characters and read the English sentences from the same content box. The creators have designed these simple lessons around useful phrases and situations, and include separate grammar instruction boxes.

If you prefer game-like lessons, the free website and app Duolingo is helpful. They have a structured Japanese programme in five-minute segments which you can complete on-the-go. Interactive exercises have instant feedback to help you improve, and the scoring system motivates you to keep learning.

For those with the adequate resources to cover fees, language schools are a good place to learn Japanese. Gajonpot lists 12 facilities which offer language instruction to adults.

Alternatively, you can meet with a personal tutor for individual sessions. These are more expensive but will be focused on your specific needs.

In some areas, it is possible to find a conversation club. This is a good way to gain confidence in using your new language skills in a safe environment, and is affordable.

Quick Steps To Help You Get By In Japan

Japanese is a difficult language to learn for many Western people. The sound and characters are alien and so progress can be slow.

If you need a few basic pointers to help you get started, read the Expat Focus article Learning To Communicate With The Locals In Japan - Some Tips For Expats which covers basic phrases, non-verbal communication and business etiquette.


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