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Eating out in Japan, the language issue

So, I've just returned from a month-long trip to Japan. We spent one week in Tokyo and then travelled on to Kyoto, Nara, Koyasan, Fukuoka, Mt Aso, Matsuyama, Naoshima, Takamatsu, and Takayama. We had a fabulous time, fell in love with the country, and had some great food.... but when it came to eating out, language problems were definitely a big issue and I was just wondering how other travelling foodies are dealing with this.

For some background, I should add that this was the least researched trip I ever went on. Because of the tsunami / Fukushima disaster, we were unsure if we were going to go ahead with our travel plans until quite late. Because I felt there was a chance we would not be going, I kind of postponed looking into restaurants / places I wanted to eat etc until we were there. I did check out Chowhound threads but found the info there quite overwhelming. So, it turned out we often found ourselves in a town or city with no clue where to go, just walking around, hoping to stumble upon something inviting, which did not seem a good strategy in Japan where so much of the dining action takes place 'vertically' (on the 15th floor of a highrise for example) and where you really have to know where youre going.

And then there was language. We don't speak Japanese, and it happened a couple of times that we sat down somewhere to find out there was no English menu, no picture menu, no English speaking staff, no English speaking other customers to help us out, and no plastic food display to point at. This may seem nice and adventurous, but for a control freak like me, it felt pretty weird to order something off a menu without a clue what it would be...

I love perusing menus and deciding what I want to eat. Even in the places with picture menus I often found myself looking jealously at dishes on neighboring tables (and yes sometimes I ordered them).

I don't think I've seen this issue mentioned much here and I as just wondering: how do non-Japanese speaking travellers deal with these things?

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  1. In my initial cooking class at the kaiseki Tsujitome, the chef Tsuji did explain many particular products and forgotten stories and more than the act to learn about cooking the food, it was the talks that was memorable. Unfortunately, concerning history of food, it was very difficult to follow. But it was a great cultural food experience. 

    1. We have had luck with the hotel recommending a place, discussing it with us in English, calling ahead, explaning what we want and how much we want to spend. The welcome and meal is usually excellent and the restaurant is happy to have us. Dress well, bow, smile. Be sure to specify if you don't want to sit on the floor.

      1. The first time I lived in Japan, I just wouldn't eat anywhere that was unfamiliar to me. At that time, I could barely speak or understand Japanese, and I certainly couldn't read (except katakana or hiragana), so I was pretty limited to western-style or foreigner-friendly restaurants. It wasn't so fun foodwise, but luckily I had Japanese friends who would take me to interesting restaurants. Sometimes, I would try to memorize what they ordered, and if I went back to that restaurant, I'd just order the same things.

        One thing you can try is occasionally making use of "free" guides provided by tourist groups. You'd have to pay for their meal, but they can at least take you to more interesting restaurants that are well-known to locals, but perhaps not to tourists.

        Like beaulieu mentioned, talk to your hotel staff for suggestions.

        Talk to strangers. Whenever my mother visited me in Japan, she would just start talking to random people whether she knew if they spoke English or not. Sometimes they'd get scared looks on their faces and wave their hands while walking away, but sometimes they'd chat with her, regardless of their level of English ability. You can get lots of good restaurant recommendations that way. (Her random chatting, by the way, is how I ended up taking baking lessons at a Japanese cooking school.)

        Like you already did, just let go of any/all control and just point or let the staff choose all your food. When that happens to me, I like to see it as a test of my tolerance for ambiguity. I like control, too, but I'm trying to increase my tolerance for ambiguity so I can become a better person, and all that. :-)

        14 Replies
        1. re: prasantrin

          It's true - I've seen a lot of English-speaking tourists who seem to have an enormous sense of privilege, and go around speaking English to everyone around them and just expecting that someone will understand and go out of their way to help them. I guess that some of them just assume that eveyone will speak English, and others simply don't care how rude they're being.

          I don't know that I'd encourage that sort of behavior though, even though it obviously works sometimes.

          1. re: Robb S

            I know! I hate it when tourists try to interact with the local people, especially when they need help. Disgusting! Entitled!

            1. re: DeppityDawg

              It's not the interacting with local people that's the problem, it's the non-interacting - the people with scared looks on their faces who are waving their hands while escaping.

              Imagine for a minute that a significant percentage of, oh let's say German tourists behaved that way - just blithely spoke entirely in German to everyone around them while they were visiting a foreign country, regardless of whether anyone understood them or not. I know I'd think that that was on the rude side.

              1. re: Robb S

                I dunno, English has more of a claim to being an internationally current language than German, no? I am sure the German tourists, when in Japan, will try to speak English with the locals, and that just makes sense, no?

                1. re: Robb S

                  There is a certain rudeness inherent in the idea of visiting a country where you don't speak the language, because inevitably you will need to make some local people communicate with you in your foreign language. But there are more or less polite/intrusive/graceful/entitled ways of achieving this. Your out-of-left-field caricature of the imaginary German tourist is one extreme. I didn't get the sense that prasantrin's mother was acting anything like this, and the people that were willing to interact with her evidently did not find her behavior objectionable, either. On the other hand, I wasn't there, and I don't know how many innocent bystanders she had to "scare" along the way, and just how deeply offended they were by being exposed against their will to a few words of English.

                  I am not an expert on Japanese culture, and this may also be a stereotyped caricature, but a foreign tourist is always going to stick out, and even if they make a lot of sincere efforts to use a little Japanese and to approach people respectfully, the scared-face hand-waving escape is always going to be a possible reaction. I don't think it necessarily indicates that the tourist's behavior was rude and that they should stop trying to talk to people.

                  1. re: DeppityDawg

                    No, I would guess that probably prasantrin's mother was charming and polite, and I certainly didn't mean to single her out for criticism (and sorry if it sounded that way). But I have seen many English-speaking tourists who just assume that the average person in the street in Japan will understand their English, and that simply isn't true here - it's not Berlin or Copenhagen. Everyone studied written English in school, but having a foreigner in the street unexpectedly launch into English is like suddenly having a pop quiz - it's likely to lead to embarrassment and a great deal of stress.

                    So just as a practical matter I'd suggest not relying on strangers, bringing along a phrase book wherever you go, and working out some simple Japanese phrases. Obviously if someone's lost and in trouble they should ask for help, but other than that it really helps to try to be self-reliant and prepared.

                    1. re: Robb S

                      Why not simply start any interaction if you need help by politely asking, "do you speak English" rather than launching into it? Or learn that phrase in Japanese? It removes the arrogant presumption that everyone speaks English and gives the local 'victims' a good opportunity to quickly end the interaction if that's what they want.

                  2. re: Robb S

                    To be honest, I think the hand-waving/scared look is ruder than the initial talking.

                    If a German tourist came up to me and asked me something in German, I would just shrug, look apologetic, and say "Sorry, I don't speak German." Japanese people sometimes seem to take it as an attack, thus the frantic hand-waving and backtracking away.

                    1. re: Japanecdote

                      just ask 'do you eat Japanese (=nihongo o tabemasuka ?). They might laugh or run...

                      1. re: Ninisix

                        Nini, you just asked "Do you eat the Japanese language?" :-). So they may laugh...lol

                        "Washoku tabemasuka?" means do you eat Japanese food, but then everybody would say yes. I know I'm not being very helpful...

                          1. re: Tripeler

                            'it's more a 'nihongo o tabemasen'. It's very helpful in certain situation to show that you don't understand, for exemple with NHK.

                      2. re: Japanecdote

                        The hand-waving and scared look is pretty typical to the Japanese culture. It's the embarrassed reaction which, once you've seen it a few times, you understand that it's not rude at all. They generally wave their hand in front of their mouth with an embarrassed explanation that they don't speak English (and are usually ashamed that they don't... even though they shouldn't be).
                        A Japanese person on the other hand might interpret your shrug as rude and dismissing (even though it makes sense to you from your background). It's another difference of culture and communication that makes travel fun.

                        1. re: Ninisix

                          Folks, this sub-thread is getting pretty far away from anything to do with food, and we'd ask that people let it go. If you've got tips for navigating restaurants and menus, please share them.

              2. i simply walk up to someone eating something that looks good point at it and say 'one, please.' it's also fun when there's no menu (never know what i'm about to eat). at some places they even take me to the kitchen and let me pick out the ingredients, and know exactly what they are going to make for me. also works the same way if i just tell them some ingredient words.

                at least learn how to say those incredibly useful number words, thanks and please. when there's a menu but it looks like chicken scratches on bare earth to me then i pull out a phrase book to look up food words and match them.

                i am probably going to Seoul next month to fulfill my dream of eating kimchi 3 times a day and know absolutely zilch about Korean pronunciation. gotta learn some words fast.

                1. Let me offer a few words of advice.

                  First, on finding places: I highly recommend to travelers these days to look into renting an Iphone or other smartphone while you are visiting Japan. This is a rather new service and if you google around, you'll find companies that offer it. They will send the device to your hotel or where you stay, along with a return envelope to send back when you are done. I can speak and read decent Japanese, know Tokyo better than any other city I know, and yet I found it an invaluable tool the last time I was visiting. You can type in the restaurant phone number and the GPS will guide you right there on Google maps. If you do read Japanese, the free Tabelog app is very helpful for finding spur of the moment places to dine. I suppose there might also be language software that you can use on the device as well to help you communicate or translate. With no device, you can approach the local koban (police box) outside of most train stations. To varying degrees of friendliness, officers can be quite helpful in helping you find your way. Taxi drivers used to be famously poor about helping to find locations, as most travel main roads, worked off of verbal turn-by-turn directions from passengers, or pulled over and consulted maps. Taxis nowadays though are, themselves, equipped with GPS (ok, they call it "car-navi"), so having to drunkenly explain where you live is a thing of the past. A taxi is fine for places a long distance from the station, on rainy days, or after train hours. But most restaurants discussed here are within at least 10-15 minute walking radius from a train station. I wouldn't recommend as a general strategy simply dumping yourself into a cab and bypassing the neighborhood every time you need to get somewhere. Also, taxi drivers, in Tokyo at least, are not particularly good source of dining intel as many good places are on side streets that taxis do not regularly patrol and they cannot park conveniently.

                  I'm not sure about the idea of randomly approaching people all over and just speaking to them in English. While Japanese can be really friendly and the ones who speak English are often dying for a chance to help someone, there is something to be said about maintaining some social grace. I know exactly where Robb is coming from with his comments as you can sometimes witness a sort of annoying sense of privilege-entitlement-expectation from some foreign travelers. I wouldn't walk out in the morning with the notion that I'm going to depend on people on the street to help me out, but I can see the enjoyment of these types of encounters and interactions with people. Just don't go slapping people on the back when you thank them like I saw this one guy do in front of Shinagawa Station a few years ago…And don’t ask for advice in convenience stores. They don’t speak English.

                  Reading menus and ordering. I would say that close to 99% of the restaurants in Japan do not have English menus. Perhaps many of the Michelin guide places do because of their higher profile now.?. And places around tourist spots and Roppongi may. But most places do not. The places that have picture menus or plastic replicas in the window- well, they are generally not the type you would come to Chowhound to discover. My Japanese friends joke that I can't read the Nikkei Shimbun well but that I can read a menu better than them. I have to translate or explain for my wife sometimes and she's a native. But this has taken me a matter of years to learn. Hiragana and Katakana are almost useless. You simply have to be able to read food kanji and know dishes. Further, most of the really cool places (that I like at least) do not have fixed printed menus but hand write them on blackboards, wood panels, or on paper. This means one has to also be able to sometimes read stylized script. Unless you or someone you are with can read, you are left to communicate verbally. Politely pointing at a neighbor's dish here and there is reasonable enough as a foreign tourist, but it's not a generally accepted social practice. You can't enter every restaurant with the intention of doing this.

                  In general, I would advise the following communication tactics to eat well in Japan:
                  Learn or at least be prepared with a book of some key phrases. Learn how to ask for the chef, staff, or daily recommendations. Learn how to ask for local, regional, or seasonal recommendations. These are what Japan is all about. You can use terms like "osusume" and "omakase" at nearly any type of restaurant. Learn how to politely ask what your neighbor is having. If you want to try and pick up some kanji, know that menus are often organized with headings by how foods are cooked- i.e. sashimi, steamed, fried, grilled, etc. Understanding the kanji for the cooking method is a big first step and if you can then pick up kanji for meat and fish, you'll at least get a better idea of what you are ordering if you are doing the random point thing. It goes without saying, but doing research ahead of time is key. Restaurants are known for certain dishes, preparations, etc. Knowing what to order ahead of time is obviously best. Online coverage allows you to also print photos from a restaurant's website or even Tabelog page. Finally, you can use this board as a venue for language issues if you find places you are interested in and want recommendations.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Silverjay

                    There's some great advice here and if/when I get back to Japan (which I'm pretty sure will happen, because I did love our trip!) I will be better prepared. I guess this time I just wasn't really prepared for the difficulties we would encounter on account of our very limited knowledge of Japanese.

                    with regards to to 'speaking in English to people in the street': to turn this around, it happened a number of times that we were in a shop, restaurant, public place and approached someone, and were asked the question if we spoke Japanese. If we shook our heads and said no, they would still proceed to talk to us, and I mean not just saying one word, but expressing looooong sentences, leaving us completely bewildered and not sure how to behave... it seemed rude to interrupt them, at the same time, we felt so silly listening to what was obviously interesting information that we could not understand at all!!

                    On the other hand... whenever we looked lost, at a train station or street corner, invariably someone would walk up to us and ask (in English) if we needed help.

                    For me, the getting around part and getting directions etc usually worked out but was not nearly as frustrating as the lack of control I felt I had in restaurants when it came to choosing and ordering. Once I had accepted I had to give up that control, I felt much better. Free therapy ;)