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English-friendly Japan
Written by Maciamo on 28 October 2005

Discaimer : this article is not trying to prove that Japan is an easy place to live or communicate with the locals for an English-speaker (that does not speak Japanese). It is a comparison of how accommodating Japan is to English and English-speakers compared to other non-English speaking countries.

This artcile will be divided in 4 sections :

  1. The Japanese government, transportation companies and the media.
  2. Disposition of the Japanese government toward the English language in education.
  3. Cultural affinities of the Japanese to assimilate English words in their language.
  4. Comparison of the status of English in Japan with other (developed) non-English-speaking countries.


1) The Japanese government, transportation companies and the media

A) Public signs

Effort have been made by the Japanese government to provide English translations for what may be useful for foreign visitors or residents.

Most of the signs in Japan are of course written in Japanese. However, there is a recent tendency to provide English translations (and occasionally also Chinese and Korean) for street signs, area maps, etc. Private train and metro companies usually have bilingual directions in their stations, especially in big cities (less in the suburbs). You can see examples in the gallery here. Tokyo Metro, among others, even has bilingual ads about train manners since 2005.

The Japan Post has bilingual signs in its post offices and banks. It was one of the first bank in Japan to provide English version of its ATM's. Post boxes around the country also have bilingual signs (example).

B) Websites

Websites of the Japanese government, ministries or agencies, often provide an English version. This is the case for such sites as the National Tax Agency, Meteorological Agency, Statistics Bureau, National Diet Library, Geographical Survey, Prime Minsiter & Cabinet's website, Self-Defense Forces, National Police Agency, most ministries and many prefectural and municipal government's websites, just to name a few.

Private companies are also following this trend. Most Japanese companies have at least a webpage with corporate information in English. Amazon Japan has an English-version enabling English speakers in Japan to order on their website. It is also interesting to note that Amazon France and Amazon Germany don't, despite the fact that much more English speakers reside in France and Germany than in Japan.

Budget business hotel chains like Toyoko-inn, have websites with complete English translation (not just a few practical pages like Amazon), and signs in the hotel both in Japanese and English too.

C) Media & Movies

Movies in Japanese cinemas are usually shown in original version with subtitles, rather than dubbed.

The national TV channel NHK provides bilingual programmes (including the news) in Japanese and English. NHK radio also has English programmes (among many other languages).

All the major Japanese newspapers or news agencies (Asahi, Yomiuri, Mainichi, Kyodo...) have an English-translation of the major news, updated on a daily basis. There is even the Japan Times, written in English only, yet directed at both a foreign and Japanese audience.

2) Disposition of the Japanese government toward the English language in education.

English is a compulsory subject in Japanese schools. In fact, it is the only foreign languages that the vast majority of Japanese schools provide. All Japanese people now have at least 6 years of English at school, and 4 more years if they go to university. It is now common for Japanese parents to make their children learn English from the age of 5 or 6 in English schools or juku. Japan certainly has more private English conversation schools per square meter than anywhere else on earth.

This does not mean that most Japanese can speak English. But the number of English speakers is increasing. In 2003 alone, approximately 1.5 million Japanese took the TOEIC test. Their results show that a high percentage of test sitters have at least a daily conversation level of English. Japanese companies often ask for TOEIC scores among qualifications, so learning English has become a national sport in Japan. This at least show a desire of a great number of Japanese to be able to speak English. No other foreign language has such an important place as English among language learners in Japan (although a substantial minority learns Chinese, Korean, French, Italian or German too).

3) Cultural affinities of the Japanese to assimilate English words in their language.

It is therefore not surprising, given the popularity of English, that many new English words enter the language every year. Japanese language uses more words imported from English than any other language (except Chinese if kanji compounds are counted as 'Chinese words'). There are thousands of English words used in daily life in Japanese.

This does not imply that English speakers will understand Japanese language easily. But it does means that English speakers will have a slight advantage on speakers of other languages regarding vocabulary, and are more likely to be understood if they say a word they don't know in their language than speakers of most the 6,000+ languages in the world.

A lot of Japanese people certainly have affinities for the English language.

4) Comparison of the status of English in Japan with other (developed) non-English-speaking countries.

Because of the above mentioned, the Japanese government seem to regard English as if it had a 'special status', similar to that of a minor official language in a multilingual country (like Belgium, Switzerland, Canda, India, China...). It does not mean that a majority of the Japanese can speak English.

English does not have such a special status in Continental European countries. Government websites are less constantly translated in English. European news websites and newspapers are almost never translated in other languages. Even in multilingual countries like Belgium, there are separate newspapers for each language. English is not always the first foreign language taught in Europe, and rarely the only one. European languages also resist more the invasion of English words into their language than Japanese.

In Asia, English is used as an official language in countries like India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Singapore or the Philippines, and communication language in Malaysia. In other Asian countries, English does not enjoy half as much government support as in Japan, except maybe in South Korea.

Conclusion

English is not an ordinary language in Japan. It is the language erybody wants to learn, the language in which signs, websites and media are first (and usually only) translated, when they are translated. Japan has never been colonised by an English-speaking nation (apart from the brief US occupation aftr WWII), nor does it share long cultural ties with English countries, as it does with Korea and China.

There are less than 100,000 native English-speakers residing in Japan out of 2 million registered foreigner. This means only 5% of all foreigners, or 0.07% of the total Japanese population. According to the JNTO stats (PDF), visitors from English-speaking countries represent 1,345,000 people out of 6,137,000 visitors in 2004, or 21% of all visitors.

Despite a greater number of Chinese and Korean people in Japan, and closer cultural ties, the Japanese government has chosen English for all the things mentioned above. It may be because it sees English as the current international language, or because of its close ties with the US, or just to attract more Western visitors. And other Asian countries seem to be trying to follow suit - although they still have a long way to go to be like Japan.

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