Moving to Japan without Knowing Japanese Is Easier than You Think

David Taylor

David Taylor is the creator of the Forever Foreign Podcast. He's been a full-time liver and Part-time lover of Japan for... possibly too long at this point.
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Thinking about hopping across the pond to live in Japan and kicking yourself for not taking that Japanese 101 course in university?

Moving to Japan without knowing Japanese can be a challenge, but it’s far from impossible. English teaching companies prefer that you don’t speak Japanese in schools, and if you get a job with one, they’ll organize the hardest parts of moving. Looking for other work may prove more difficult.

Whatever your situation, most of your fears will be put to bed by the end of this article.

Do You Have to Know Japanese to Teach English in Japan?

When it comes to teaching English in Japan, knowing some Japanese is more of a bonus to your application than anything. Proof that you have an interest in Japan. In fact, many companies will tell you in training not to speak Japanese to students, so not knowing the language is fine.

However, one of the biggest English teacher recruiters, the JET Programme, has stated in their FAQ page that they expect ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) to learn the language once they arrive.

Still, there will never be any supervisors floating above you counting the number of kanji you can read. So if you don’t have your sights set higher than teaching English in Japan, continue on in blissful ignorance of the Japanese language.

The Percentage of English Teachers Who Cannot Speak Japanese

It’s difficult to find proper statistics on how many English teachers move to Japan without knowing Japanese, so here’s some anecdotal evidence from the author of this article.

I currently supervise 12 ALTs. Of those 12, 5 arrived with JLPT N4 level Japanese. According to the JLPT categories, that corresponds with “The ability to understand basic Japanese.”

Some of them were stretching toward the N3 level, but nothing past that.

The remaining 7 teachers came to Japan with literally no more than “My name is so-and-so” under their belt. Mayyyybe they could answer the question, “What fruit do you like?”

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Actually, it’s where many of us were when we landed our first jobs in Japan.

I would also say that it’s pretty close to what I’ve seen across my entire ten years in the country.

You can do it! No Japanese necessary!
Photo by Kenny Eliason

Getting Work in Fields Unrelated to Education without Japanese

While there don’t seem to be statistics on Japanese levels when teachers arrive in Japan, the JET Programme does occasionally keep tabs on Japanese levels as they progress.

According to the JET Programme career fair participant statistics, “Around 50% of participants held level N2 or higher on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), while around 20% either held JLPT level N1 or had a higher equivalent skill level.”

Those are some very impressive linguistic skills. And if you’re looking for jobs past English teaching you’ll need to hit that level at some point.

The one exception may be working in tech. Developers often get away with lower Japanese proficiency because their programming skills outweigh a lack of Japanese.

Even then, better communication skills will help.

How to Get a Job in Japan without Speaking Japanese

Maybe you’ve guessed the answer to this by now, but if you’re looking for work in Japan without speaking Japanese, your best shot is to get your foot in the door with an English teaching company.

They don’t require any Japanese ability and they’ll set you up in the country. From there, it’s up to you to blaze a trail.

If you want to live in Japan long-term, the best advice is to think about what field you want to end up in from day one and work toward that goal. That will include learning Japanese 99% of the time.

You’ll naturally improve from immersion, but studying your booty off can’t help. Shoot for the twice-yearly JLPT tests and keep your eye on job boards like gaijinpot and LinkedIn.

Crack those books!
Photo by Hiroshi Tsubono

How Long Does It Take To Learn Japanese?

How long it takes to learn Japanese depends on your linguistic ability, work ethic, and what you consider “learning Japanese.” But a good bar to set is passing the JLPT N3 as it shows that you can hold a decent conversation. Give this 1-4 years depending on ability if you’re starting from scratch.

This author considers himself dead average when it comes to the ol’ Nihongo and it took him roughly 3 years to pass the N3 level test. Another couple years to slay the N2.

Quality of Life in Japan without Knowing Japanese

It’s not all about work, right? After all, you probably want to live in Japan because it looks fun.

A previous article covered everything that’s good and bad for foreigners in Japan, and your Japanese skill level can definitely make some of those better or worse.

Making Friends Is Straightforward

Bittersweet news incoming. Japanese people with an interest in English will flock to you as long as your metaphorical door is open. Even those without an interest in English may wander your way, too.

Why is this bittersweet? Because it can (repeat, can) start to feel like that’s the only reason they’re interested in you. Because of that, it’s best to establish other common interests and hold onto them for dear life.

No Problems with Accessibility

Have no fear, Japan is here… and so are a mountain of apps to help you understand your way around the confusing streets and train times. They’ll even help you find that apple cider vinegar you’ve been trying to get a hold of. Here’s a brief list of helpful apps:

  • Google translate (with the godly ability to take a picture of a sign and have it translated for you)
  • Google maps
  • Takoboto (all-around Japanese dictionary and study tool, complete with JLPT flashcards)
  • Norikae Annai (for train schedules, routes, etc.)
You’ll want at least a few apps when for Japan
Photo by Rami Al-zayat

Work Can Be a Challenge

For cultural as well as linguistic reasons, the workplace can be tough for many people new to Japan. Not to mention that it can be difficult to improve your financial situation and support yourself while living alone.

The truth is that without speaking any Japanese, you may struggle to connect, but that can also add to the fun. If you challenge yourself, each new phrase unlocks new potential relationships, and over time you’ll notice how much you’ve improved.

Final Thoughts

Moving to Japan without knowing Japanese is a daunting proposition. And let me be the first to congratulate you for even considering it.

Thinking about packing up and heading to another country means that you have courage, if nothing else. And if you make the flight over, you’ll come away one day with a whole lot more.

Looking to head to Nihon for the first time? Check out our article on Japan’s travel restrictions first. Once you’re here, there’ll also be plenty of visitor restrictions, too.

Oh, and if you need ideas for that first trip. Here’s the bucket list for newbies looking for places to visit in Japan.