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Thread: Japan more accommodating to English speakers than to speakers of other languages

  1. #1
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Post Japan more accommodating to English speakers than to speakers of other languages

    After the long series of off-topics and misunderstandings in the thread English-friendly Japan, I have decided to start over again on less ambiguous grounds. Let me state from the beginning that this thread is not about how easy it is for an English-speaker (that does not speak Japanese) to live in Japan or communicate with the locals. It is a comparison of how accommodating Japan is to English and English-speakers compared to other non-English speaking countries.

    This thread will be divided in 4 main sections :

    1. Effort of the Japanese government to provide English translations for what may be useful for foreign visitors or residents.
    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) Effort of the Japanese government to provide English translations for what may be useful for foreign visitors or residents.

    A) Public signs

    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 mean 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 (you can compare the number of websites in English in the "Government" category for each country in the DMOZ Directory with those of the Japan Directory). 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 semi-official 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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  2. #2
    silent-buddhist Jack's Avatar
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    i like maciamo with his long winded thread so thrilling for the mind, i would have to state that English is such a widely spoken language that its not surprising that folk are adapting to it alot.

  3. #3
    もうすぐ卒業するんだ! ragedaddy's Avatar
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    I'm Back.....

    It's been a while since I posted here, and I guess there is still some drama on the J-Ref Forum (Which is not necessarily a bad thing). I will give some of my thoughts on whether Japan is a English-friendly county.....

    In some aspects it really isn't that friendly to English speakers, especially once you get outside of Tokyo. My first experience in Japan took place in Akita Ken, and at that time I didn't have any knowledge of the Japanese language. There really weren't too many signs in English, and also English speakers were minimal except for those students in our school. It was rather difficult to get around, but you know we managed to make it to the “nomihoudai” with the help of some Japanese classmates. I agree with the fact that if you have a good Japanese friend that speaks English, then they will be able to help you with major activities. However, the negative part is that you feel kinda helpless like a baby since you aren't bale to do things on your own. I still had a good time in Akita with a minimal knowledge in Japanese, but it really would have been more of an enriched experience if I knew more Japanese.

    I went back to Tokyo to study Japanese for two more years, and I'd have to say Tokyo is a lot more English-friendly compared to the countryside. At least the train signs had romaji for the most part, and there were a greater number of English speaking Japanese compared to Akita. Which leads me to the conclusion that big metropolitan areas are much more English-friendly when you compare them to the greater rural areas. Although, I did have a homestay in Shink-Akitsu which was on the Ikegami Line, and they really didn't have romaji or even furigana for the stations, so it was lucky at that time I had a decent grasp of Japanese. One thing I did notice the menus in Tokyo had much more English versions compared to other areas (From my observations of living and traveling 2 years inside of Japan).

    I really believe that learning Japanese will enrich your experience in Japan. There was this director at the School I went to in Akita Ken, and he had lived there for about 10 years. However, the only Japanese he knew was "Hai Douzo," so I was pretty surprised by this factor. This guy was American, and he expected that everybody spoke to him in English. I was thinking this guy was a total tool, man if you go to a foreign country to live for a while, you should at least try to learn the language. If a Japanese person went to the US, you know he would be expecting that person to speak to him in English. I thought it was common sense that if you go live in a foreign country (or even frequently do business there), that you should try to learn their language, because you will get a lot further, and you will fell a whole lot better. I guess if one doesn't want to learn Japanese in Tokyo, they could go to Roppongi all the time and fit right in.

    I studied in England as well for 4 months, and I was able to travel to several European countries at that time. It was easier traveling through the major tourist areas with little knowledge of their foreign languages, but once you get to smaller towns there's a good chance not many people speak English. I traveled through France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, and at times it was extremely hard to find an English Speaker. This leads me to the conclusion that there really isn't an absolute English-friendly speaking country that exists (In regards to a Non-English Mother Tongue country). It all depends on where you are at a certain time, so I guess it's kinda like the luck of the draw. I think France might be one of the most difficult places to live, because the general attitude is that if you want to live in France, you must act, dress, and be like the French. Although they have freedom of religion in France, they banned Muslim girls from wearing their Shawls (I really don't know the proper name) on their heads. It appears that it's a lot more difficult to express your identity their (That's what I have heard).

    Therefore, I think Japan is English-friendly in some aspects, but not so friendly in other ways. The best way to make your experience the most fulfilling is learn Japanese of course (Duh!), because you will get much more of everyday life. That's my 2 cents anyways.......
    ビール。。。Its what's for dinner......

  4. #4
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ragedaddy
    In some aspects it really isn't that friendly to English speakers, especially once you get outside of Tokyo. My first experience in Japan took place in Akita Ken, and at that time I didn't have any knowledge of the Japanese language.
    What about saying "once you get out of the beaten tracks" or "out of the big cities" ? In my experience, cities like Sapporo, Osaka, Hiroshima or Fukuoka were as well signed in English as Tokyo.

    I traveled through France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, and at times it was extremely hard to find an English Speaker. This leads me to the conclusion that there really isn't an absolute English-friendly speaking country that exists (In regards to a Non-English Mother Tongue country). It all depends on where you are at a certain time, so I guess it's kinda like the luck of the draw.
    I agree with that.

    I think France might be one of the most difficult places to live, because the general attitude is that if you want to live in France, you must act, dress, and be like the French. Although they have freedom of religion in France, they banned Muslim girls from wearing their Shawls (I really don't know the proper name) on their heads. It appears that it's a lot more difficult to express your identity their (That's what I have heard).
    I confirm that French (and Belgian) people expect foreigners in their country to behave as much as possible like the locals, learn about the local language, culture and manners. In Japan, the opposite is true. People don't expect any foreign-looking person to speak Japanese or know about Japanese culture, even if they have become permanent resident or been naturalised Japanese. I have personally found it hard to accept, being raised with the values of the French culture in this regard (with which I still agree).

    As for the ban on the veils, it is in fact a ban on all conspicuous religious symbols in public institutions (ministries, government, public schools...). It's as much directed toward Christians as toward Mulsims. But as the Muslims in France are mostly immigrants, many of whom were not born and raised in France, they do not understand so well why it is perfectly acceptable according French values of religious freedom. Since 1789, France has tried to maintain a strict separation between State and Religion. That is why anything public (part of the state) cannot have religious involvement. People are still free to wear religious symbols in the street, at home or in private schools though.

  5. #5
    もうすぐ卒業するんだ! ragedaddy's Avatar
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    What about saying "once you get out of the beaten tracks" or "out of the big cities" ? In my experience, cities like Sapporo, Osaka, Hiroshima or Fukuoka were as well signed in English as Tokyo.
    That is true, when I was traveling to Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto they had many signs that were written in English. That would be a more accurate statement to say once out of the big cities it may be a little more difficult for a non-Japanese speaker to get around......

    As for the ban on the veils, it is in fact a ban on all conspicuous religious symbols in public institutions (ministries, government, public schools...). It's as much directed toward Christians as toward Muslims. But as the Muslims in France are mostly immigrants, many of whom were not born and raised in France, they do not understand so well why it is perfectly acceptable according French values of religious freedom. Since 1789, France has tried to maintain a strict separation between State and Religion. That is why anything public (part of the state) cannot have religious involvement. People are still free to wear religious symbols in the street, at home or in private schools though.
    On a side note, I would have to say that the Europe is way more secular compared to the US, because you would never see Blair or Chirac mention the word god in their speeches compared to Bush frequently using god as a reference point......I just find that interesting for some reason....sorry for going OT.....

  6. #6
    遠いから行きません GaijinPunch's Avatar
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    I have to agree with ragedaddy. Is it shocking at all that of all the foreign langauges in the world, that Japan has adapted to the "richest" one of all?

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