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How Many People in Japan Can Really Speak English? My Honest Report

how many japanese can speak english?Japanese Life & Travel

Hi, it’s Junko from Japan. How many people in Japan speak English? Indeed, this is a difficult question to answer! According to research by a Japanese marketing company, 8.7% of 1000 people answered “I’m good at English.” Does that mean 9 people in 100 can speak English fluently in Japan?


Absolutely, NO!

How Much Can Japanese People Understand English?

English has been a required subject in Japanese junior high schools, so we can read and understand basic English words to some extent. But when it comes to speaking, I bet many Japanese will shut their mouths tight.

How are you? I’m fine thank you, and you?
What is this? This is a pen.

These are the most typical English phrases we learn first. And our English speaking stops here while recent education is changing into more practical teaching and learning.

Personally, I think it’s less than 1 in 100 people who can communicate with foreign people in English. Nah, it may be lesser. 1 in 1000 might be right.

I was born in Japan and have been here for more than 40 years. Yet I’ve met only a few Japanese who were fluent in English.

On the other hand, those who can read and write English are much more than English speakers since we’re good at learning English grammar. English reading and grammar are important subjects for the entrance exams of universities in Japan, and many candidates desperately study them.

Even so, I imagine that very few Japanese are able to write in English on a par with japanese without using dictionaries or other translation tools. We may be good at English grammar quizzes, but that isn’t equivalent to using English freely.

Why Are You So Bad at English Speaking?

photo: a japanese young girl who's crossing her fingers and denies something

Firstly, we can’t listen to spoken English since the English sounds are so much different from ours. For example, we don’t have an R sound in the Japanese language. As a result, R and L sound the same to our ears. 

Also, the words in spoken English are frequently linked, and we’re so bad at listening to the linking words and phrases. “Can’t listen” makes “can’t pronounce,” then that makes “can’t speak.” Japanese characteristic of being afraid of making mistakes accelerates the vicious cycle. How hopeless!

The difference between English and Japanese matters too. But personally, I think the sounds and pronunciation are the biggest issues.

How Can I Meet English Speakers in Japan?

Go to Tokyo or visit luxury hotels, maybe? In Japan, both people and big companies including foreign ones concentrate in Tokyo. I have been in Tokyo for more than 10 years before, and it was common to pass by foreign people or meet someone who worked for a foreign company. Being good at English is mandatory in some companies, and most companies with English requirements are in Tokyo. So you may be able to run into English speakers.

Generally, Japanese restaurants and stores including public facilities such as police offices and governmental agencies don’t have staffs who are capable of English. Expensive stores may have, but it’s not always.

If you plan to travel to Japan, I recommend you bring some apps or cheat sheets for basic Japanese conversation. English isn’t available in many places, especially in rural areas.

Where Do Japanese Learn English?

photo: a japanese school girl who's sitting at a desk and studying

In the past, English education started in junior high school in Japan. The new educational guidelines were applied in 2020, and now English is compulsory in elementary school.

As a result, English schools for kids are becoming increasingly popular in Japan. I often think I wouldn’t have had such a hard time studying English if I have begun to learn it much earlier.

As for adults, there’re countless English schools in Japan. It’s a contradiction, but Japanese people are eager to study English while (or because?) they’re bad at speaking. I think English conversation is one of the most common learnings in Japan. Many people are interested in studying English and regard it cool to be good at English.

Well, I wonder why we have few English speakers in Japan despite having so many schools. Guess those who are fluent in English will leave Japan soon for business or study?

Anyway, it’s true that English conversation is popular as a practical hobby in Japan. And many people are interested in polishing their English skills for business in Urban areas such as Tokyo and Osaka.

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