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The Language Barrier in Japan

I’ve just returned from a week-long vacation in Japan. As part of the trip, my wife and I visited two of the most popular cities: Tokyo and Kyoto. These cities welcome tourists from around the world every year and are enormous urban populations of millions. In such large cities, we were fortunate to have the benefit of Japanese hospitality given a language barrier that presented a totally foreign character set.

We’d have to count on at least two hands the number of hospitable and helpful Japanese people that we met on our trip. Though they are not outright convivial, no one ever turned down an opportunity to help us. And often they went out of their way to do so even when we remained at a loss.

For example, when we first arrived we realized that we hadn’t let our credit card company know that we’d be traveling. I became nervous that they would suspend our card and we would have no way to contact them. So we found a phone in the Narita Airport. Of course, all the instructions for the phone were in Japanese so we studied it as scientists might at an archaeological site. Eventually, a Japanese woman who spoke very little English offered us her help by giving us her prepaid phone card. By deciphering the pictographs, we eventually made our call with her card.

In addition to experiencing Japanese hospitality, the language barrier offered us a respite from advertising. Though we saw many posters, signs, and messages, the effect was negated by the foreign character set. It’s hard to get a slogan stuck in your head if you can’t read or understand the words. There were also many merchants and shops surrounding the historical sites but they carried such peculiar things that the novelty of them hadn’t worn off by the time we left.

Being back in the Bay Area now and feeling a barrage of messages everywhere I look and listen is somewhat overwhelming. I miss the language barrier and the freedom from distractions that it offered.

Last updated on February 16, 2022.