Friday, 27 April 2012

Guest Blogger Series: Introducing… Ashley Thompson

We’re excited about this week’s guest blogger, Ashley Thompson of Surviving in Japan – a blog sharing many valuable tips for expats living in Japan. Ashley’s blog offers an unconventional how-to guide for living in Japan, including navigating through its complicated transport system, freelancing in Tokyo and deciphering Japanese food labels. Here, Ashley shares with Expat Explorer readers…

How to survive in a country when you don’t understand (or can’t read) the language

Stepping off the plane and navigating through Narita Airport, Japan’s largest airport, for the first time, I felt fairly confident with my basic knowledge of Japanese. I could order food from a restaurant; asking for directions was no problem; and I could read hiragana and katakana, two of the Japanese character “alphabet” sets, and about 80 Chinese characters, otherwise known as kanji. I had a long way to go, but it was a decent foundation.

At least, I thought so, until I had to do things like request a package redelivery from the post office, read the ingredients on items at the supermarket, or find products such as hydrogen peroxide or canker sore (mouth ulcer) medicine. In your native language, these are all (generally) simple tasks. However, in a foreign language, even if you know the basics, the task is suddenly a giant mountain in front of you that you lack the tools and experience necessary to climb.

So in those first months I often found myself requesting help from native speakers to accomplish some of these daily activities. As an independent person, I knew moving to Japan would require me to rely on others more - something I needed to learn how to do. Except that I soon felt like I was burdening those around me with my many questions, despite the fact I tried to do as much as possible on my own.

This resulted in me attempting to do nearly everything without help (with the exception of critical issues such as medical problems or immigration matters). Granted, I still needed help (and still do) with these complicated issues, I just gave birth in Japan last year and though I could manage much of the process alone, there was plenty I couldn’t do by myself.

So the next time a postal worker left a redelivery notice in my mailbox, I went online to the national postal service website, opened the Japanese-English dictionary on my Mac, and set to work copying and pasting words until I found the redelivery section. Then I copied and pasted my way through the entire redelivery request online. When the confirmation email came, I stared at it for a minute (one, because I couldn’t read most of it, and two, because I couldn’t believe I had actually done it correctly).

It took me a few hours to do, but each subsequent time became easier and faster, and within a few months I could do it quickly without needing to translate any of the words. Not that the spoken Japanese to arrange a redelivery is that difficult, but at the time I could never understand what was being said to me over the phone, so the online request was easier.

As health-conscious as I usually am, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t read the ingredients at the store. So I downloaded some smartphone apps and one in particular, Shinkanji, was most helpful. I drew kanji I didn’t know from the ingredient list on the input area of the app, even when I had to stand in front of that item for 15 minutes. Doing this every time I went to store eventually resulted in me learning how to decipher a myriad of ingredients at a glance, making shopping faster, easier, and reassuring that I knew exactly what I was getting.

Though every country differs as to what resources are available, here are a few tips that have helped me, and might help you, survive wherever you might be in the world, or at least give you some inspiration.

1) Determine what you can do online, if this is at all possible, both in English (or your native language) and the country’s primary language. While you should still practice speaking the language as much as possible, I found that doing things online made me feel more functional. My reading ability and vocabulary have also improved as a result. I’ve learned that I can request redeliveries, order veggie boxes, find products not available in my local stores (that don’t also require being shipped in from abroad), look out for new or helpful Japanese products, and read more about what the locals do in various situations.

Web browser tools such as Google Translate or another translation tool (though the phrase translations are not always accurate/perfect), online dictionaries or your computer’s dictionary, or any other language-reading tools available in that particular language is most helpful for this. For example, Chrome and Firefox both have extensions that allow a user to scroll over Japanese kanji while the English translations pop up next to the cursor.

2) Use apps. If you have, or can use, a smartphone in your country, take advantage of it and downloadsome apps that help you with translation or understanding. Whether it’s a language dictionary, the use of Google maps, or an app that translates words from images, use them as survival and learning tools.

3) Learn food and personal product ingredient translations. At the very least, you’ll know what you’re eating and what you’re putting on your body. It can be nerve-racking to try a product like toothpaste or shampoo if you have no idea what’s in it (Will this actually clean my teeth? Will this bleach my skin?), but depending on what country you’re in, you might be surprised that the products are not all that different from those in your home country, and some might even be better. If that’s the case, you’ll save money not having everything shipped from home.

4) Learn commonly used keywords or phrases. Especially if you know what “finder,” “locator,” “search” and “dictionary,” or similar terms, are in your host country’s language. The goal is to figure out what the locals actually use versus what the books teach you. Doing this I’ve found helpful websites in Japanese such as an internet cafe finder, a women’s site with reviews and lists of doctors, restaurants, schools and kid-friendly places to go across the country, various stores to order hard-to-find food items from within Japan (in English and Japanese), websites to look up Japanese over-the-counter and prescription medication, a medical Japanese-English dictionary, and many other helpful resources, all by knowing certain terms. Also, simply by searching for something on Google, the auto-fill or alternative search terms often tell me what the commonly used words or phrases are.

All that said, of course, when you’re stuck, it never hurts to ask one of the locals or other expats who have been there a while. However, though it may seem daunting, it is possible to be independent in a country where you can’t read or speak the language well. You never know, it might even be simpler than you think.

About the author

Ashley Thompson writes valuable step-by-step how-to guides and provides useful resources for expats living in Japan on her site, Surviving in Japan (without much Japanese). You can also follow her on Twitter for important Japan-related news, resources and other information, @survivingnjapan.


  1. Thanks again for the opportunity to guest post! :)

    1. Hi Ashley! Great post – thank-you for your thoughts!


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