second language in Japan


Many Westerners are familiar with Japanese culture and cuisine. However, many are also not aware of the second language in Japan and the fascinating linguistic diversity within the country. 

Beyond Japan’s official language, Japanese, one prominent secondary language in Japan is English. It has become a vital tool for communication in various sectors, reflecting the state of bilingualism in Japan. However, aside from English, Japan boasts a multilingual landscape, with several languages coexisting alongside the predominant ones, showcasing the language diversity in Japan.

In this article, we will delve into the second language of Japan, the Japanese language education system, and the role of language schools in Japan. We’ll also look at the other indigenous languages spoken in this country and discover their role in shaping Japan’s multicultural identity. 

What is Japan’s National Language?

Most Japanese people speak Japanese, whether in the government, educational sector, media, or businesses. It’s also the language of official documents like legal and administrative paperwork, reflecting the language policies in Japan..

Notably, the Japanese language is part of the Japonic language family, which has its own structure and writing system. The writing system employs kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Japanese people use Kanji for nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Meanwhile, hiragana and katakana are for grammatical components, particles, and borrowed words.

However, it is important to note that regional dialects and variances exist within Japan. These dialects may have diverse vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar patterns that reflect regional culture and history. Standard Japanese, based on the Tokyo dialect, is used in formal contexts and is taught in schools throughout the country, promoting language diversity in Japan.

What is Japan’s Second Language?

Many Japanese experts and officials consider English as the second language in Japan. It is a compulsory subject in schools. The usage of this language is also prevalent in many fields such as commerce, tourism, and international communication. This highlights the importance of Japanese language immersion programs in the country’s education system.

Notably, English instruction in Japan begins in elementary school and continues throughout students’ academic careers. However, individual competence levels vary, and not all Japanese citizens are fluent in English. Nonetheless, many Japanese people, particularly the younger generation and those working in foreign businesses, have a basic understanding of English, showcasing the level of language fluency in Japan.

Moreover, Japan has a largely homogeneous population, yet English proficiency levels may vary by area. Individuals with superior English abilities likely settle in large cities and tourist sites than in rural areas. This reflects the cultural significance of learning a second language in Japan.

Why is English Considered the Second Language of Japan?

English’s role as Japan’s second language entails a variety of factors. All of these factors have led to its widespread adoption and importance within the country. Understanding why English is regarded as Japan’s second language provides insights into the country’s global orientation and efforts to engage with the international community. Here are some of the factors that have led to a widespread acceptance of English as a second language in Japanese society:

Globalization and International Communication

Japan is a key global economy player that understands the value of excellent communication with international partners, customers, and stakeholders. As a result of Japan’s continuous active participation in global trade, economic, and cultural relations, English has emerged as the primary language for international communication. English proficiency enables Japanese people and organizations to engage and collaborate effectively with people from other countries and cultures. It enables excellent communication with global clients, suppliers, and investors, resulting in solid ties and mutual understanding. 

Furthermore, being able to communicate in English assists Japanese professionals in navigating multiple cultural contexts. They also use the language to comprehend different business methods, and adapt to the needs of a global market. Indeed, proficiency in English enables Japanese diplomats, government officials, and representatives to participate effectively in international forums. They also learned how to use English for negotiations, and policy-making discussions. Notably, because of the demands of a globalized world, the Japanese recognized the importance of English as a second language in Japan. This propped them to invest in English language education. They want to remain competitive, forge strong international relationships, and thrive in an increasingly interconnected world.

Economic Importance

English proficiency is incredibly valuable economically in Japan. In today’s globalized economy, English has become the language of global business and commerce. Japan, as one of the world’s leading economies, recognizes the value of English in maintaining competitiveness and attracting global investment. English proficiency contributes to Japan’s prominence as an international commercial hub. Japanese professionals must be fluent in English to manage complex commercial agreements, contracts, and collaborations. Clear and effective English communication ensures all parties understand the terms, circumstances, and expectations, promoting successful commercial relationships. 

Furthermore, many multinational corporations build regional headquarters or subsidiaries in Japan, capitalizing on its strategic position and superior infrastructure. Thus, English knowledge is essential for Japanese companies looking to grow into worldwide markets. Japanese companies must articulate their brand slogans. They must also value propositions, and marketing campaigns in English to effectively advertise their products and services to a global audience. This includes developing English-language websites, advertising materials, and social media content to engage clients all over the world. The ability to make business proposals, describe growth goals, and discuss financial problems in English increases the likelihood of attracting foreign investment and boosting economic growth.

Education System

The Japanese education system places a great value on English education. Many institution require English as a subject from elementary school to high school. This emphasis on English language abilities is intended to provide pupils with the tools they need to succeed in an increasingly globalized environment. Notably, Japanese educators are aware that English fluency is required for future educational and employment opportunities.

Grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, listening, and speaking abilities are taught to them to develop well-rounded communicative competence. This holistic method seeks to ensure that students can communicate successfully in English not only in academic settings but also in real-world situations. In fact, many world-renowned universities and research organizations offer English-language programs and scholarships. They also encourage students to pursue further education overseas, cooperate on research with worldwide partners, and contribute to cutting-edge breakthroughs in their particular disciplines.

Furthermore, Japanese students who have received a strong English foundation throughout their education are better prepared to compete in a global workforce and pursue careers that need international collaboration. Japan seeks to empower its future generations by educating them with strong English language skills that will allow them to succeed in a range of academic, professional, and cultural settings, while also fostering international collaboration and contributing to global achievements.

Tourism and Hospitality Industry

With its rich cultural legacy, majestic landscapes, and iconic monuments, Japan attracts millions of tourists each year, necessitating the use of English in the tourism and hospitality industries to meet their demands. English-speaking staff members are commonly employed in different areas of the economy, including hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, and transportation services, to provide information and support to visitors from all over the world.

English proficiency also has a significant impact on the tourism industry in Japan. Japan attracts millions of international visitors each year with its unique cultural attractions, breathtaking landscapes, and world-renowned landmarks. English fluency among tourism professionals, such as hotel staff, tour guides, and restaurant workers, enhances the visitor experience, improves customer satisfaction, and encourages repeat visits. By having tourism professionals who are fluent in English, such as hotel staff, tour guides, and restaurant workers, the visitor experience is greatly enhanced. Effective communication in English not only helps in delivering accurate information and providing personalized service but also creates a welcoming and inclusive environment that fosters positive interactions. 

This linguistic competence allows for seamless interactions, effective problem-solving, and the ability to cater to specific requests, ultimately ensuring a memorable and enjoyable experience for visitors. Ultimately, this leads to higher customer satisfaction, a greater likelihood of repeat visits, and positive word-of-mouth recommendations to others.

International Relations and Diplomacy

English has become the dominant language of international diplomacy, acting as a universal communication medium among diplomats and officials from many countries. English proficiency is essential for Japanese diplomats because it allows them to properly represent their country’s interests and engage in productive international discussions and negotiations. It functions as a neutral and widely known language, allowing diplomats from various linguistic backgrounds to converse and understand each other’s points of view.

Japanese diplomats with a high level of English proficiency can confidently express Japan’s positions, convey nuanced messages, and advocate for the country’s interests on the global stage. This linguistic competence fosters effective dialogue, boosts diplomatic credibility, and makes Japanese diplomats contribute meaningfully to discussions on pressing global challenges.

English proficiency is also important outside of formal diplomatic situations for building rapport, bridging cultural differences, and cultivating mutually beneficial partnerships. Japanese diplomats can create understanding, promote cooperation, and traverse possible areas of partnership with their international colleagues by communicating in clear and expressive English. Japanese diplomats with high English language skills can actively participate in formulating foreign policies, advocating for Japan’s interests, and forming alliances with other countries to meet common global concerns. 

How many in Japan Speak English?

Estimating the exact number of English speakers in Japan is difficult, but it is often assumed that approximately 30% of the population speaks English. It is crucial to remember, however, that the level of proficiency might vary greatly amongst individuals. Younger generations and those working in foreign businesses tend to have better English skills, but older people and those who have never been exposed to English schooling may have limited ability.

That said, you are more likely to encounter people who speak English fluently in large urban locations and prominent tourist attractions such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto than in rural areas. Additionally, Japanese working in hospitality, tourism, and international business industries are more likely to have a strong command of the English language. Nonetheless, it is critical to remember that English fluency is not universal in Japan. While a sizable section of the population may understand English, perfect fluency is not the norm.

Exploring English as a Second Language in Japan

There are various English-speaking localities in Japan. Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto are popular areas, offering numerous opportunities for English-speaking individuals. Here are more key areas where English is commonly spoken:

Major Cities

English is widely spoken and understood in urban regions such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. These areas have international enterprises. Tourism is strong, particularly among younger generations, professionals, and those working in the hotel and service industries. These cities experience a significant influx of international people, visitors, and corporations with global connections. Many multinational corporations have operations in these cities. Notably, English is the primary communication language within these enterprises.

Airports and Tourist Areas

English is widely spoken at international airports such as Narita Airport (Tokyo), Haneda Airport (Tokyo), Kansai International Airport (Osaka), and Chubu Centrair International Airport (Nagoya). Airport staff, immigration officers, and airline personnel are accustomed to communicating in English to assist international travelers. In order to accommodate international visitors, personnel in these regions are frequently instructed to speak in English.

Hotels and Accommodations

Hotels and accommodations in Japan, particularly those catering to international guests, place importance on English proficiency among their staff members. This is done to guarantee that guests from all over the world feel welcome and receive the help and services they require throughout their stay. They have been trained to speak well in English, allowing guests to easily ask questions, obtain information, and seek assistance. Staff members who speak English can propose area attractions, provide transportation, conduct check-in and check-out processes. Furthermore, they can also resolve any questions or difficulties that may occur during a guest’s visit.

Restaurant and Cafes

Restaurants and cafes, especially those located in popular tourist areas or establishments focusing on international cuisine, often have English-speaking staff members or English menus available. This enables guests to order their meals in comfort, inquire about ingredients or dietary concerns, and obtain advice. To meet the different needs of their multinational customers, restaurants may offer menus in multiple languages in some circumstances.

Universities and International Schools

English proficiency is also valued in educational settings, especially at the university level. Many Japanese institutions provide English-taught programs and courses. They attract international and Japanese students looking to improve their English abilities for future employment. English language schools and private tutoring programs are also available around the country. The main objective is to assist individuals in improving their English fluency.

Business and International Industries

Many people in Japan use English in professional situations involving international trade, finance, technology, and multinational organizations. Notably, when employing staff, global firms operating in Japan prefer English language proficiency. English proficiency is frequently essential for positions requiring cross-cultural communication, project management, customer service, and international business growth. Employees with high English skills are likely to serve as significant assets in companies. They are highly capable of effectively representing the company in worldwide markets. They also communicate with international clients and colleagues, and contribute a lot to the company’s international growth and success.

While English may be more prevalent in these areas, it’s important to note that the overall English proficiency level in Japan can vary. Outside of these specific contexts, English proficiency may be more limited, especially among older individuals or in rural areas. When communicating in English in Japan, it’s advisable to be patient. Use simple language, and prepare yourself for potential language barriers.

What are the other Languages in Japan?

Japan’s linguistic diversity is an important part of the country’s social culture. It contributes to the country’s distinct and vibrant tapestry of languages and cultures ranging from English to indigenous languages to immigrant languages. Each Japanese language has its own unique culture, reflecting both the country’s historical interactions with adjacent regions and its expanding worldwide links.

Furthermore, minority communities in Japan speak indigenous languages. Ainu, for example, is an indigenous language in Northern Hokkaido. It has tremendous cultural significance and bears evidence of the Ainu people’s distinct heritage. Other minority languages spoken by specific locations or communities, such as Ryukyuan languages in Okinawa Prefecture, exist in addition to these well-known languages. These languages, each with its own distinct grammatical traits and cultural nuances, add to Japan’s complex tapestry of languages.

Japonic Languages

Japonic languages are members of the large Japanese language family. It also contains the Japanese language and dialects, as well as the Ryukyuan languages. While Japanese is the family’s most commonly spoken and recognized member, the Japonic languages have unique regional variations. Over 125 million people speak a language from the Japonic family. It has a distinct writing system that includes kanji (Chinese letters), hiragana (two syllabaries), and katakana (two syllabaries). A complicated honorific system, a pitch accent, and a rich vocabulary influenced by Chinese and English distinguish Japanese.

Furthermore, Japonic languages are deeply intertwined with Japanese culture and history. The language structure reflects cultural values and social hierarchies, with different speech patterns used based on formality and respect. Traditional Japanese literature, such as haiku and tanka poetry, are celebrated for their linguistic beauty and intricacy.

Ryukyuan Language

The Ryukyuan languages are a group of languages within the Japonic family spoken in the Ryūkyū Islands. The islands are divided into four main groups. These groups showcase significant variations in phonology and grammar, contributing to the diversity of the greater Ryukyuan language family. These languages possess unique characteristics and stand out within the broader Japonic language family. Although there is linguistic diversity within the Ryukyuan language family, different language groups share certain lexical items and grammatical structures.

While there is no official data on the number of Ryukyuan language speakers, their use has declined over time. Okinawa prefecture has led efforts to preserve and revitalize the Ryukyuan language, motivated by a dedication to multiculturalism. In fact, the prefecture of Okinawa has established programs to encourage using Ryukyuan languages in educational settings, cultural activities, and media. These language revitalization programs include creating study materials, language courses. They also celebrate cultural events to increase awareness of Ryukyuan languages and encourage their usage. 

Ainu Language

The Ainu language by the Ainu people of Japan, is among the list of endangered languages by UNESCO, along with some Ryukyuan languages. This language is an isolated language family. It means it cannot be classed alongside other language families that share a common ancestor. Ainu’s writing commonly uses the modified form of the Japanese Katakana syllabary or a Latin-based alphabet due to the lack of an original written script. Furthermore, the Ainu have adopted features and terminology from early Japanese, and vice versa. Ainu was predominantly an oral language, and the Ainu were well-known for their ability to tell stories. 

Ainu speakers are usually in Southwestern Hokkaido. However, according to reports, all fluent native Ainu speakers are already 80 years old or older, with only a few semi-fluent speakers in their 60s. Without concerted efforts to preserve and revitalize the language, it faces the risk of disappearing. Thus, officials often launch various projects to conserve and rehabilitate the Ainu language in response to its decline. Documenting the language, developing language learning resources, establishing language classes, and raising awareness of Ainu culture and heritage are all part of the effort. The preservation of the Ainu language is not only crucial for linguistic diversity. Notably, it also plays a significant role in recognizing and celebrating the unique cultural history of the Ainu people. 

What is the Second Language in Japan: Key Takeaway

While Japanese remains the dominant language, the presence of secondary languages within Japan reflects its openness to global influences and its recognition of the value of cross-cultural exchange. The adoption and importance of a second language, particularly English, in Japan has grown significantly in recent years. It is now a vital tool for communication, education, career advancement, and participation in the globalized world. It enables the Japanese to better serve international visitors, engage in global collaborations, and excel in international business environments. Embracing English as a second language in Japan enables the Japanese to better serve international visitors, engage in global collaborations, and excel in international business environments.

While there has been progress, there is still potential for development. Thus, encouraging and promoting the continuous growth of English language abilities in Japan is critical. If you want to learn more about the Japanese second language and other ethnic languages, Denwa Sensei is the best place to start. We offer tailored language learning experiences with native English speakers via one-on-one online classes. Embrace the opportunity to learn from native English speakers and engage in conversation-based learning to enhance your language abilities. And ultimately, you can gain the confidence to communicate effectively in an increasingly interconnected world.

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