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  1. #1
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Post English-friendly Japan

    Japan is indeed a very English-friendly country for one that does not have English has its official or government language. Bilingual street or transportation-related signs (Japanese-English) are the norm, not just in Tokyo, but in most Japanese cities.

    If that is normal in almost any country in international airports, few European countries actually have street signs or maps in English. Government buildings, big shopping centres and some major companies also generally have bilingual signs. Amazon Japan has an English-version, but Amazon France and Amazon Germany don't, despite the fact that much more English speakers reside in France 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. Many restaurants (especially chains) have menus in English, which is rarely the case in most European countries.

    Japanese people all have to learn English at school (and cannot choose another foreign language in most schools). There are more English conversation (Eikaiwa) schools per square metre in Japan than anywhere else on earth.

    Movies in cinemas are usually in original version with subtitles, contrarily to big European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain) where they are dubbed. Even the national TV channel NHK provides bilingual programmes (including the news). 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. In comparison, European newspapers almost never have an English translation. France's great newspapers like Le Figaro or Le Monde are in French only. In a multilingual country like Belgium, rather than translate the news in both Dutch and French, newspapers are completely separated, and never have an English translation. In non-English speaking EU countries in general, the only English newspapers or news websites both in English and the country's languages are pan-European ones like EuroNews. I can only think of Deutsche Welle, which has news in both German and English (along 28 other languages !). In that sense, Japan is very English-friendly.

    What I find somewhat odd is that the English craze has gone so far in Japan that many signs (and sometimes even ads) are provided in English only, despite being used mostly by Japanese people. I have created a special gallery of pictures to illustrate this phenomenon.

    Has English become Japan's second language, like in Hong Kong (and somehow also Shanghai) ?

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  2. #2
    Omnipotence personified Mandylion's Avatar
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    Just to add -

    The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is really pushing to have all graduating high school seniors able to pass the ikkyu level of eiken and is (at least when I was in the system a year ago) sending officials out to proselytize their new "action plan" for English education in public schools.

    I can't recall what the time frame was for their goals but not too far out there if I'm remembering things right (MEXT speakers tended to put most of the hall to sleep to begin with....)

  3. #3
    遠いから行きません GaijinPunch's Avatar
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    Japan is indeed a very English-friendly country for one that does not have English has its official or government language.
    Can one that speaks/reads Japanese make that call? I can't, b/c I already had a few years of university under my belt before arriving so could at least communicate, but all my friends that have visited have complained about it being English-unfriendly -- not even comprable to most places in Europe.

    THe signs... yeah, sure. The people? I'd say not.

  4. #4
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by GaijinPunch
    Can one that speaks/reads Japanese make that call? I can't, b/c I already had a few years of university under my belt before arriving so could at least communicate, but all my friends that have visited have complained about it being English-unfriendly -- not even comprable to most places in Europe.
    How well do your friends know both Japan and Europe (and what countries in Europe) ? I doubt that they have my experience on the subject. The most English-friendly countries in Europe, where English also is a de facto second-language, are Nordic countries and the Netherlands. YET, there aren't so many signs, commercials or newspaper translations in English as in Japan. So from that point of view at least, they lose. As a short-term tourist, Northern European countries are probably easier for English-speakers, but the number of resources and services in English cannot compare to those found in Japan. The Japanese government even sends explanations in English to registered foreigners (automatically, without request) on how to pay taxes, how to fill out the population census form, etc. I get all my water bills in Tokyo (although not gas and electricity, probably because they are private companies, whereas water is still public) are bilingual Japanese-English. I don't think any (non English-speaking) European country provides all this in English. Even in multilingual Belgium with all its EU expats in Brussels.

  5. #5
    遠いから行きません GaijinPunch's Avatar
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    I never got my bills in English except from Citibank. I'm not really talking to live though - I'm talking about visiting, which is what the majority of foreigners due (for any country). You can't really expect Japan to have everything easily accessible to the English speaking population though, like parts of Thailand or other sunny places. There's no tourist industry (Indonesia, Thailand, etc.) and despite have occupational forces present Japan wasn't a colony of an English speaking country (HK). I still don't know why they speak English in Singapore.

    But simply mentioning those places, what parts of asia are less English friendly than Japan and are developed nations? Arguably Korea and China, but that's probably it.

  6. #6
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by GaijinPunch
    But simply mentioning those places, what parts of asia are less English friendly than Japan and are developed nations? Arguably Korea and China, but that's probably it.
    Only Korea, Japan, Singapore and HK are considered "developed". I have been to all South-East Asian countries except Laos, Myanmar and Brunei, and there is not a single country more English-friendly than Japan (except Singapore which officially is an English-speaking country). Of course if you only stay in tourist resorts that does not count. I mean really going anywhere in the country like a local would.

  7. #7
    遠いから行きません GaijinPunch's Avatar
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    I guess that's why visitors ***** and moan all the time about how they can't communicate with people. I even remember going to the immigration office when it was still in Shibuya and there not being a very strong English speaker in there.... or maybe it was his day off.

  8. #8
    Banned Mike Cash's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by GaijinPunch
    Can one that speaks/reads Japanese make that call? I can't, b/c I already had a few years of university under my belt before arriving so could at least communicate, but all my friends that have visited have complained about it being English-unfriendly -- not even comprable to most places in Europe.

    THe signs... yeah, sure. The people? I'd say not.
    If we're just talking about the signs Maciamo posted a link to in his post, I'd say they're appallingly poor specimens for supporting his contention. Almost without exception the English on the signs serves no functional purpose whatsoever, being nothing more than decoration on the signs. The functional meaning is conveyed by images, context, sign placement, etc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mikecash
    If we're just talking about the signs Maciamo posted a link to in his post, I'd say they're appallingly poor specimens for supporting his contention. Almost without exception the English on the signs serves no functional purpose whatsoever, being nothing more than decoration on the signs. The functional meaning is conveyed by images, context, sign placement, etc.
    I was thinking the exact same thing.

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    silent-buddhist Jack's Avatar
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    ditto, i thinks others would agree.....

  11. #11
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by GaijinPunch
    I guess that's why visitors ***** and moan all the time about how they can't communicate with people. I even remember going to the immigration office when it was still in Shibuya and there not being a very strong English speaker in there.... or maybe it was his day off.
    And was it better in all the non-English-speaking countries where you lived ? Please tell me which one they were !

  12. #12
    silent-buddhist Jack's Avatar
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    its strong arm to weave Maciamo, but im agreeing with you, you cant fault when a japanese person is speaking bad English, its the idea that hes trying to that counts.
    If someone makes the effort to talk in your language you make the effort to listen.

  13. #13
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mikecash
    If we're just talking about the signs Maciamo posted a link to in his post, I'd say they're appallingly poor specimens for supporting his contention. Almost without exception the English on the signs serves no functional purpose whatsoever, being nothing more than decoration on the signs. The functional meaning is conveyed by images, context, sign placement, etc.
    That's because the few pictures I took were signs that were only in English. But you can't deny that almost all street signs (including romaji versions of street names and neighbourhood names), area maps, train and subway directions, etc. are bilingual. How many countries that do not have English as an official language do you know that do the same ? I admit that it was the case in Shanghai (but surely not in most of the rest of China), but even in Seoul or Bangkok, there weren't half as many English signs. Tokyo Metro even has its ads about train manners in both Japanese and English (and not Chinese or Korean, although there are much more speakers of these languages in Japan/Tokyo).

    I mean, there is no reason for the Japanese government of private companies to translate all these signs in English, when countries like France or Spain that receive 16x to 10x more annual visitors (including proportionally much more English speakers) don't. Over half of all foreign residents and visitors in Japan are Korean or Chinese. So why are signs in Japanese and English, rather than Japanese and Korean or Chinese ? (some are in the 4 language, but they are few). Why are NHK's bilingual programmes translated in English and not Korean or Chinese ? I think it is pretty selfish for English-speakers to complain that Japan is not English-friendly, when it is more English-friendly than almost anywhere else, and much less Korean- or Chinese-friendly despite all good cause.

    There are less than 100,000 native English-speakers residing in Japan out of 2 million registered foreigners, so 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.

    I say that proportionally to the number of native English speakers in Japan, and for a country that was not a British or American colony and does not have English as an official language, Japan is remarkably accommodating to English speakers.

  14. #14
    Banned Mike Cash's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    That's because the few pictures I took were signs that were only in English. But you can't deny that almost all street signs (including romaji versions of street names and neighbourhood names), area maps, train and subway directions, etc. are bilingual.
    Oh, I could deny it, but that would make the second time I have denied that particular contention of yours and, frankly, it isn't worth the effort.

  15. #15
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mikecash
    Oh, I could deny it, but that would make the second time I have denied that particular contention of yours and, frankly, it isn't worth the effort.
    That was not very convincing. If you are just referring to signs used by truck-drivers, then it's pretty normal that they are not in English, as you are one of the very few English-speakers to do this job in Japan. Anyway, I have expressedly said "street signs" and not "road signs" remembering your post. Not my fault if you can't differentiate a street (in a city) from a road or highway (between cities).

  16. #16
    Banned Mike Cash's Avatar
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    So why not just say "All bilingual signs are bilingual" if you're just going to conveniently ignore the bulk of signs which disprove your point anyway?

    And I'm not referring to signs which apply only to truck drivers, either. There are tons of signs which apply to everybody in general and which are not bilingual.

    And placing any sort of reliance on there being romaji on road/street signs (there is no distinction between the two, other than the artificial one you just made up) would be ill-advised. Very often along a route consistency of signage with regards to having or not having romaji is very spotty. One can follow the signs with romaji along the road and find that the place where one must turn in order to continue to one's destination is marked in kanji only. That's not as common as it used to be, but such quirks of the signage still exist. In fairness, though, compared to how signage was back when I first started out there has been an absolutely astounding improvement in the quality and consistency of signage. It used to be embarassingly abyssmal sometimes.

    Perhaps the single largest improvement to come along in the last few years has been the numbering of roadways other than national highways. Navigating one's way around used to rely heavily on knowing the names of roads. For example, what we used to called the 前橋古河線 is now Gunma prefectural route 2. The 足利伊勢崎線 is now pref. route 39. I believe Tokyo's 環七 is 317. National hwy 15 is, in the Tokyo/Yokohama area, more commonly known as 第一京浜 while Hwy 1 is 第二京浜. Practically nobody knows that 山手通り is also 環六. It also has one of the newer numbers assigned to it, but I'll be hanged if I can recall it (despite driving it 6 days a week).

    In other words, the signage is on the tail end of a transitional period, in a sense. People used to the old system still use the names of the roads, while people who started later on are more familiar with the number system. Getting romaji onto the signs is, likewise, still in a transitional phase. You see lots of them because your eyes/mind self-select them; they stand out more because of their romaji and make a larger impression in your consciousness. But the change is by no means complete, and I doubt that it ever will be.

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    Wow! I think that in the month or so that I've been a member of JREF, this is the longest post I can remember from mikecash!

  18. #18
    Banned Mike Cash's Avatar
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    I try to keep in mind that the longer the post, the less chance people will actually read it and the greater the chance of being misunderstood. Both of which make the act of typing overly windy posts an exercise in futility.

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    silent-buddhist Jack's Avatar
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    thats kinda of true the longer posts are daunting for some to read, but i very good at skim reading so im alright.

  20. #20
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mikecash
    That's not as common as it used to be, but such quirks of the signage still exist. In fairness, though, compared to how signage was back when I first started out there has been an absolutely astounding improvement in the quality and consistency of signage. It used to be embarassingly abyssmal sometimes.
    Well, I don't know if you have ever driven in Continental Europe, but there is still nothing in terms of English signs. You may think it's useless as it's in Latin characters anyway. Well, not so. In Belgium, most cities have different names in Dutch and French (and often also in German, English, Spanish or Italian). The problem is that signs are always written only in the language of the region where the road/highway's location. So signs in Dutch-speaking areas are in Dutch only, and those in French-speaking areas are in French only.

    Some are fairly easy to guess. For example, 'Bruxelles' in French is 'Brussel' in Dutch, or 'Brussels' in English. Some are a bit less clear. Antwerpen in Dutch is
    Anvers in French or Antwerp in English. But others are so different that if you don't know them, there is no chance you'd find your way. E.g. Mons in French is Bergen in Dutch, Liege in French is Luik in Dutch, Lille (in France) is Rijsel in Dutch, and Aachen (in Germany) is Aix-la-Chapelle in French (and Aken in Dutch).

    Of course, there are also sign such as "slow down" or police annoucements about weather or traffic conditions, and they are also only in the area's language, and never in English, although Belgium is at the crossroad of all motorways between France, Germany, the Netherlands and even Britain (via ferry or Channel Tunnel). Depending on the day and place, 1/3 to 2/3 of all cars on the motorway are not Belgian. I wonder how Italian or Danish truck drivers that first come to Belgium manage to find some cities.

    Coming from this background, you may understand better why I find Japan rather English-friendly.

    In other words, the signage is on the tail end of a transitional period, in a sense. People used to the old system still use the names of the roads, while people who started later on are more familiar with the number system. Getting romaji onto the signs is, likewise, still in a transitional phase.
    And when this transitional phase will be complete, Japan will effectively have bilingual signage, like no European country, even in their own official languages ! All that for 0.07% of English-speaking foreign residents. We are pampered by the Japanese government !

  21. #21
    Banned Mike Cash's Avatar
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    I'd be more tempted to attribute the replacement of the signs without romaji to a convenient way to provide sweetheart government contracts to industry under the camouflage of kokusaika.

    You are correct; I have never driven in Europe. Nor do I ever wish to.

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    遠いから行きません GaijinPunch's Avatar
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    There's one important fact everyone seems to be overlooking. How many foreigners (even long term ones) drive in Japan? I don't know the exact number, but I'd bet my house it's no more than a small fraction. Even for the ones that do drive, I would assume driving signs would still be the least of their worries. What about finding a specific electrical part? Calling a locksmith when they get locked out of their house? Finding out the ingredients of the food they buy? Getting mustard on their french fries instead of catchup, or even ketsup for that matter?

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    Junior Member DoctorP's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    And when this transitional phase will be complete, Japan will effectively have bilingual signage, like no European country, even in their own official languages ! All that for 0.07% of English-speaking foreign residents. We are pampered by the Japanese government !

    Might I point out that you no longer live in Europe! (by your own choice I believe!)

    As for other countries not using bilingual signage. In the US we tend to use International symbols and a numbering system so that you really don't need to be able to read English in order to drive. I mean...if you have a map, you really don't need to read the signs in order to know where you are going. Within the next few years I really don't think that you will need signs in Japan in order to get anywhere by car. I use my GPS in order to find places I'm not familiar with. I can just input the phone number of the location and it will direct me to the most direct route. I can effectively drive there without ever checking the signs on the road...or even the street!

  24. #24
    Banned Mike Cash's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CC1
    Might I point out that you no longer live in Europe! (by your own choice I believe!)
    Amen. It gets amazing tiresome and tedious to see each and every thing about Japan constantly analyzed in minute detail as it compares to each and every European country.

  25. #25
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by GaijinPunch
    What about finding a specific electrical part?
    If you need something specific, it's very easy to check it first in a dictionary. That's just one word (or a few) to remember. Not a big deal, even for the least linguistically able person (people who can't do that shouldn't decide to live in another country in the firts place).

    Calling a locksmith when they get locked out of their house?
    And what if a tree fell on my house during a typhoon ? I have never been locked out of my house and neither do I know someone (close to me) who has. These are extremenly rare situations (I have never had to deal with a locksmith in my all life in any country). If it happens, it wouldn't be a big deal to ask a local friend for help, or again resort to an electronic dictionary (which you should always have on you if you live in a country where you don't speak the language, until you get reasonably fluent).

    Finding out the ingredients of the food they buy?
    Never had any problem with that. Just go to the supermarket and see by yourself what you need. If you need to read to name tag to know that a cabbage is a cabbage or a carton of milk is a carton of milk, then it is better to safely stay in your home country. My sister stayed one month in Japan this summer. She doesn't know a word of Japanese, but didn't have any problem to buy even Japanese ingredients. She could recognise the various kinds of sauces (bulldog, soy sauce, etc.) or guess from the image that one puding was "pumpkin" taste, while another was "mango". Even a child could do that.

    Getting mustard on their french fries instead of catchup, or even ketsup for that matter?
    Not sure what you mean. It's impossible to confuse in a supermarket (ketchup is red, FYI). In a McDonald or something, either ask (the Japanese words are the same : "masutaado" and "ketchappu") or see by yourself the colour of the package. What's more, most kinds of food having labelling in romaji - sometimes also in English. There are just so many imported products in Japanese supermarket. There is even Belgian jam (Materne) and chocolate (Cote d'Or), or French mustard and spices at my local supermarket, which isn't specialised in imports at all like Meiji-ya or Seijoishii !

    A few more things you can now get in English in Japan (some were difficult a few years ago) : bilingual mobile phone, bilingual ATM, PC with keyboard and Windows in English (e.g. from a Dospara/Prime PC store nationwide or directly online), legal service in English (just check in JREF's directory), English-speaking emergency services (police, ambulance, medical information, foreign residents advisory, etc.), etc. I am sure that many people don't know about them (they might not know JREF), but they do exist. I have done a lot of research to gather information for this website, and done the same for Belgium. I can tell you that Japan has much more services, signs, etc. in English than cosmopolitan and multicultural Belgium. Apart from mobile phones that have dozens of languages so that the same model can be sold Europe-wide, and ATM's that usually have several languages, most of these things are not so easy to find in Belgium. You might be looking for the airport and not find the sign on the road because it's only written "luchthaven" in Dutch. That doesn't happen in Japan.

    I also thing your disagreement about Japan being English-friendly are based on 2 things : 1) you confuse English-friendly with 'equal in convenience to an English-speaking country.', and 2) you forget that this is a compared to other countries in the world, not what you'd personally wish to find.

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