Why Japan Is Changing Its Language to Help Foreign Visitors

Why Japan Is Changing Its Language to Help Foreign Visitors


With low birth rates, an ageing population, and persistent economic stagnation, Japan has good reason to want to attract working-age talent and foreign tourists with money to spend. But the country has a reputation for being insular and unwelcoming to foreigners – something that Japan is actively trying to challenge. One of the ways it is doing this is by trying to make its rather daunting language easier for visitors to understand.

At policy level, Japan’s government is making efforts to attract skilled workers in greater numbers by introducing a permanent residency system it claims is the fastest in the world. Japan stands out among the rich nations for being a rare example of a developed country that’s trying to encourage rather than drive away foreign workers.

Despite this unprecedented level of the facility of movement, the country remains relatively unappealing for mobile talent – ranking lowest of all the Asian nations in terms of appeal. This puts the clean and safe Japan well below polluted China or chaotic India in terms of attractiveness for expats.

The Japanese language is thought to be a major deterrent for skilled workers considering an international move and it’s also intimidating for tourists trying to navigate around the country. Spurred by the (now suspended) Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the country has been making efforts to change how it communicates in order to open itself up to foreigners without Japanese language skills.

Plain Japanese

The Japanese language is notoriously tricky. While it’s estimated that a native English speaker could acquire a decent level of competency in Swedish, Italian or Afrikaans with about 800 hours of study, the same person would probably need 2200 hours of study to reach the same level in Japanese. It’s assessed as harder to learn than Korean, Mandarin or Cantonese.

It’s not just the interminable kanjis you have to learn that make Japanese so daunting. There’s a level of cultural insight needed to understand the system of honorifics, and this can be really off-putting to someone trying to learn even tourist-level Japanese. The honorifics system can be particularly intimidating for anyone trying to communicate in a business environment.

There are people, and businesses, actively trying to overcome this by promoting the use of plain Japanese. This simplified form of the language helps eliminate some of the major difficulties of understanding for those with only basic Japanese language skills (and, serendipitously, for Japanese natives with hearing difficulties too).

One of the challenges being encountered is the stereotype many Japanese people have that all foreigners speak English. The campaign for plain Japanese aims to overcome this stereotype and promote a version of Japanese that underconfident speakers can use in day-to-day life, as well as in disaster situations.

Japan is also tackling how it communicates using signage in public spaces. Pictograms indicating things such as fire exits, onsens, and gender-segregated toilets are being redesigned so visitors to Japan can more easily understand them – something that’s going to be particularly useful during the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games.

Olympic swimmers swimming in a pool to the finish line

Japan hopes to overcome language and cultural barriers ahead of the Tokyo 2021 Olympic games which is expected to attract over 40 million tourists.

Unlike many countries at a similar level of development, the Japanese population doesn’t have a high or widespread proficiency in English. This can be an issue for the tourism industry as English tends to be a useful lingua franca for international travellers. Although Japanese people tend to be highly educated, the school system doesn’t really produce strong conversational English speakers.

This seems to be because of an emphasis on grammar rather than on spoken English, and on listening rather than participating in conversation. There’s also a cultural factor suppressing students’ confidence. Just as many non-Japanese are intimidated by Japanese, perfectionist native Japanese students may also feel intimidated by speaking English as they are afraid of making mistakes.

Cultural factors

Language isn’t the only thing deterring mobile workers from considering Japan. The country’s attitude to a work/life balance makes it unappealing, particularly for those with families. The corporate culture has historically focused on jobs-for-life rather than lucrative temporary contracts, which appeal to international talent.

Sadly the country also has a reputation, perhaps undeservedly, for inflexible and outdated corporate systems that don’t appeal to people used to modern management techniques. There’s also a dated view of women in the workplace that would definitely deter women from more progressive countries seeking work there.

These factors combined, no wonder international workers are deterred from considering Japan. It’s certainly true that things are changing in many places of work, including a major national drive to reduce working hours. But working culture isn’t changing at a fast enough pace for the nation to shed its negative image.

Japan has a long history of resisting the outside world – after all, it closed its borders for 250 years. It’s going to be hard to overcome that insularity and change ingrained habits.

Businesses switch to English

A small, but surprising, phenomenon in Japan has seen a few businesses deliberately switch their language of operation from Japanese to English. There are several reasons for taking such a big step.

The first is obviously to be more open to English-speaking customers and be able to work better with them. There are also benefits for attracting international talent who may have English as a first or second language. One other benefit is more surprising – it can help cut through Japan’s deferential culture and help modernise working practices. Some firms that have made the switch report a less hierarchical approach and even a more relaxed dress code.

Re-orientating the language of an entire company is an extreme measure taken by bold leaders and it’s not the right choice for every company. It’s not likely that many Japanese companies will take this step. Even the companies that have done it, while praised for their boldness, are criticised for not supporting their shell-shocked workers better during the process.

But it demonstrates that there are some individuals working hard and taking big steps to overcome the cultural insularity that they feel is holding them back.

Asian movement

There’s a thriving culture of movement of workers within Asia – nearby Southeast Asia has one of the highest rates of population mobility in the world. Despite this, Japan seems as daunting to workers from within Asia as it does to workers from the West. Although other Asian nations may share some cultural elements such as a collectivist mindset, a high work ethic and hierarchical corporate cultures, Japanese culture is resistant to being penetrated by outsiders.

Japanese national identity is extremely strong and there’s a clear ‘us and them’ mindset about foreigners even from neighbouring nations. This can make it hard for outsiders to exert any cultural influence.

Japan itself seems popular with many of its Asian neighbours, regularly polling high in sentiment analysis within the region. More than 80% of those polled in Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines had a positive view of Japan. However, historic conflict with China and South Korea means the nation is seen less favourably in these two countries.

Despite the hostility of this pair, Japan is one of the more popular countries in the region. Somehow this reputation isn’t enough to encourage the inflow of visitors and workers Japan wants.

Tourist appeal

Japan’s government is also actively trying to make the country more appealing to foreign tourists. A relaxation of visa requirements in recent years has helped boost visitor numbers, and Airbnb has now been allowed to operate in the country. The 2020 Olympics, postponed due to the coronavirus crisis, has also been a motivating factor for Japan trying to seem more prepared for visitors.

Language is seen as a major deterrent for tourists considering a visit to Japan. Other languages, English included, don’t tend to be widely spoken around Japan. Services that would be useful for tourists, such as the website to buy tickets for the bullet train, tend to be in Japanese only.

Some of Japan’s more unique cultural draws are also hard for visitors to penetrate. There are intimidating social rules around how to behave in tea houses or bathe in a traditional onsen.

International hotels are seeing faster increases in visitors compared to the charming historical inns, which tend to be family-run by people that don’t know how to offer web booking and only speak Japanese. These all combine to make the country and culture seem impenetrable and the country hard to travel around.

Japan needs to attract more foreign workers to run a thriving tourist sector. They are needed for their foreign language skills as well as the fact they are the type of young workers Japan is short of, due to Japan’s demographics. Many of the changes Japan is proposing to make to its language and communication style will attract both tourists and the foreign workers the tourism industry needs.

Japan isn’t just trying to bring in more tourists, it’s also keen to better distribute them around the country. Historically overseas visitors have tended to stick to major cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo, whereas rural tourism has come from within. With Japan’s population in decline, this domestic tourism is in decline and will likely remain so.

People in Tokyo, Japan crossing the road

Busy urban areas of Japan tend to be tourist hotspots as opposed to rural ones.

That’s why the government aims to encourage more overseas visitors to obscure parts of the country that are depopulating and in need of revitalisation. This will mean encouraging the smaller operators, such as the proprietors of onsens and ryokans, to embrace change.

Unfortunately, the Japanese are notoriously resistant to change and staying with the status quo is culturally ingrained. The population is homogenous and it’s hard for outsiders to have any kind of impact on the majority, which means change really needs to come from within.

Deference to change-resistant older generations is one of the barriers the country needs to overcome if it’s to make the adjustments it needs. Whenever Japan has successfully implemented the changes it has needed to make it has been because older generations of leaders have been fully on board. It’s hard to reach an agreement with all generations in achieving the type of changes that are needed in any society.

Will the virus change things?

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to change many things for Japan, some of them for the better. Whilst much international travel has been frozen by the pandemic, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games suspended for at least a year when international movement resumes there may be some positive outcomes for Japan.

For starters, work culture may have had a much-needed shakeup. Many managers will have seen that remote and flexible working can be effective and that productivity is more valuable than presenteeism. This could help challenge the clubby atmosphere and dated management practices that dog many Japanese industries.

On the negative side, Japan’s low birthrate is likely to be suppressed even further by the pandemic and its economy has also taken a hit. This means Japanese policymakers are under even greater pressure to attract outsiders who may be able to prop up the workforce and stimulate the economy. Overall, the shock caused by the virus could accelerate trends that were already underway.

You’d struggle to find a country cleaner, safer or more welcoming and helpful than Japan. Despite this, the country doesn’t get the visitor numbers it deserves. There could be a real opportunity if Japan could make the changes it needs to re-orientate perceptions of this fascinating country – language being at the very heart of them.

Written by Demetrius Williams
Demetrius Williams
Demetrius Williams is a Digital Marketing Specialist at TranslateMedia and has previous eCommerce experience working with a number of luxury brands in the fashion and beauty industry. He enjoys photography, binge-watching Netflix and can often be found roaming around London with a camera in his hand.

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