Nadia Lee | NYT and USA Today Bestselling Author of Contemporary Romance » Blog Archive » When You Come to Japan…
When You Come to Japan…

…you can’t just assume you can get by with English.

I just went down to 7-11 (which BTW is one of my favorite places to shop in Japan) to get a night snack just now. There was a woman who kept asking the 7-11 night clerk how to use a public phone outside.

First of all, it’s not his job since it’s not a 7-11 phone. The unit is owned by NTT, which is the Japan equivalent of ATT. If she dials zero, an NTT operator will assist her. In Japanese.

Which brings me to my second point:

The Japanese speak Japanese. Japanese is Japan’s standard language by law, and most Japanese people don’t need to learn English after they leave college. How many of us can still speak the Spanish, French, etc. that we studied in school fluently?

Besides, if the store clerk spoke English well, he wouldn’t be working the night shift at 7-11.

I helped the lady out, but please, when you come to Japan, bring a Japanese phrase book. It’s going to make your time in the country so much better.

10 comments to “When You Come to Japan…”

  1. Charlotte McClain
    · September 18th, 2009 at 11:23 pm · Link

    People in other countries speak foreign languages! Say it ain’t so! :roll:

    Actually, in Korea you have an excellent chance of bumping into someone who’s pretty fluent. I remember popping out to the local GS (convenience store) one night and chatting for a half an hour with the clerk. Koreans love to learn languages and love to practice.

  2. MsMenozzi
    · September 19th, 2009 at 12:44 am · Link

    I reckon it probably varies, depending on English-speaking cultures’ influences on a given country.

    In Italy, you find people who *think* they speak some English, only to find they don’t. Lots of shopkeepers and clerks have some basic English knowledge, so they can make sales transactions with tourist types. In the bigger cities, the majority of shops and restaurants will have staff who speak some English – but generally, they are by no means fluent.

    One of my students was impressed to find that everyone working in a particular bank in Portugal spoke English. Not just the management (as is the case in Italy), but EVERYONE in the bank, from tellers on to the higher-ups.

    I found that rather impressive, as well. :)

    I’ll stop rambling now.

    For the record, Nadia – I agree with you. I think a phrasebook as well as a basic awareness of the simplest phrases and standard customs are essential when traveling out of one’s own country.

    Thanks for making the point yet again. :)

  3. M
    · September 19th, 2009 at 5:31 am · Link

    I think it depends.

    The only reason why I went to Prague without one was because I knew if it came down to it, I knew I had a friend on speed-dial who would be glad to help, and because mostly I was doing touristy stuff where there are either English signs, or people who can handle tourists who don’t speak English.

    But a lot of people seem to speak it quite well anyway.

  4. M
    · September 19th, 2009 at 5:32 am · Link


    Anyway, but in Singapore, you often get the opposite.

    Which freaking annoys me because, you know, we are educated in English. What the hell else do you expect me to speak to a white guy? :roll:

  5. Nadia Lee
    · September 18th, 2009 at 11:44 pm · Link

    I think Korea’s unusual in that they love to practice their English.

    I don’t know that many people here who feel comfortable speaking in English with foreigners. It may be a different mentality.

  6. Hero Material
    · September 20th, 2009 at 6:33 pm · Link

    Now, now, stereotypes.

    The white guy might just speak something other than English himself, you know…

  7. Sam
    · September 20th, 2009 at 7:50 pm · Link


    Everyone thinks since JP is/was so global (in economy, anyways), then obviously ppl there know how to speak it.


    I was lucky I knew enough Japanese, otherwise I’m not sure if I would’ve been able to get a hotel room. I don’t know how people are in Tokyo but when I was in Fukuoka and sent BF to get a hotel room, he came back with this incredibly puzzled expression.

    FYI, he had a phrase book, but most people do not follow phrase-book protocall.

  8. Sam
    · September 20th, 2009 at 7:51 pm · Link

    Btw, I love the refrigged food section in the 7-11 there. Everything from soba to beef bowls. Yum!

  9. Nadia Lee
    · September 21st, 2009 at 12:02 am · Link

    MsMenozzi — WOW. Everyone?! That’s incredible. It’s almost like English is their unofficial language or something. (Or at least at banks…)

    M — Probably Swahili…?

  10. Nadia Lee
    · September 21st, 2009 at 10:13 am · Link

    Hero Material — True. He may speak German instead. Or French.

    Sam — I love 7-11. :) And I know what you mean by your experience in Fukuoka. I just assume that nobody speaks English in Japan. Makes it so much easier.

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