Do They Speak English in Okinawa? Using English in Okinawa


Do Okinawans speak English? Most Okinawans speak Japanese and do not speak English. Those who do know English, are often too shy to use it. Regardless, Okinawa is easy to get around without knowing Japanese. Major hotels, popular tourist areas, and areas near U.S. military bases, often know and are willing to use English. 

That’s right, getting around the island is pretty easy without knowing Japanese, but there are some important things to know to make your stay easier.

What is the Primary Language Spoken in Okinawa?

The primary language is Japanese. But, it’s Japanese with an Okinawan twist; there is a certain accent and some words are different than mainland Japanese. Also, Okinawan Japanese has more words borrowed from the English language than mainland Japanese, due to the U.S. military’s influence. 

Then there is the Okinawan language. And there are several different dialects of Okinawan. Mostly the older Okinawan generations speak Okinawan. The use of Okinawan is slowly declining, as the upcoming generation is influenced more and more by mainland Japanese.

Are Okinawans Accepting of English?

Okinawa has seen some major changes in the past decade. Since 2010, the number of tourists has just about doubled:

201020112012201320142015201620172018
# of Tourists (million)5.185.535.926.587.177.948.779.589.99

Source: Japanese Municipality of Okinawa Prefecture (https://www.pref.okinawa.jp)

It’s important to mention though, the majority of these tourists are from mainland Japan. In fact, in 2018, only 30% of tourists were non-Japanese. And most of those foreigners are from non-English speaking countries:

TaiwanChinaKoreaHong KongOtherTotal
% Tourist Visiting per Country of Origin (2018)9.18%6.95%5.54%2.34%6.01%30.02%

Source: Japanese Municipality of Okinawa Prefecture (https://www.pref.okinawa.jp)

Okinawa is very tourist-friendly. There are plenty of English speaking services and those services are expanding every year. As you can see though English is far from the dominant language with foreign visitors.

Regardless, Okinawans are very accepting of hearing English. You’re not going to see any dirty looks or people confronting you because you’re using English or because you don’t know Japanese.

So what does this all mean when you’re out there exploring the island?

Ordering Food in English

The closer you are to a military base, the more likely the restaurant will have an English menu. And most of the time, you don’t even have to ask. They easily see that you’re a foreigner and bring the English menu. All you do is point at the item and use your fingers to signal how many you want.

If you’re off the beaten path or a good distance from a U.S. base and the restaurant doesn’t have an English menu, most restaurants have photos on their menus. This is very common throughout Japan. With photos, you may not know exactly what you’re getting, but you’ll get close enough. Once again, just point.

If you have a food allergy or have specific dietary needs, it’s going to be difficult to find waitstaff that will understand this in English. So, for things like this, it’s best to have someone with you that speaks Japanese, or perhaps come prepared with something that has already been translated (not by Google translator either).

Getting Directions and Finding Your Way Around

Road Signs

Most road labels in Okinawa (and Japan, in general) have English written under the Japanese. And it doesn’t matter if you’re way up north or down at the southern tip, road labels will have English.

Now as far as other road signs (e.g., stop signs, no parking signs, etc.), these do not have English translation. Not all road signs are intuitive; it’s best to read up on those before you arrive.

Rental Cars (& English GPS Navigation)

Renting online is so easy and a great way to avoid any language barriers.

As for GPS navigation in English, most rental car websites have an option or tell you whether the car has English navigation. Here is a list of companies that either show English as an option or allow you to preselect the language:

Google Maps

Google maps is alive and well in Japan. So, if you’re going to have your cell phone with 4G connection, this is such an easy way to get directions, get around, or communicate where you need to go to others.

If you will not have 4G, you can still use Google Maps with your cell phone:

  1. Download the GoogleMaps App if you don’t already have it
  2. Zoom into the general area you will be traveling around that day. It’s better to go broader, than too narrow.
  3. Press the slider on the bottom, and slide it up.
  4. Press the icon on top right of the screen
  5. Choose “Download Offline Map”

Great option to use on your phone. It even lets you grab directions (though no traffic data) while offline.

Taxis

Most taxi cab drivers don’t speak English. However, they’re familiar, comfortable, and friendly with tourists and U.S. Military personnel. So, there’s no reason to be intimidated because of the language barrier.

Before entering a taxi, it’s best to be prepared with a map or at least something written down (even in English; Okinawans understand the English alphabet) to show your driver.

Buses

Buses can be tricky if you don’t come prepared. Not so much getting on and off the bus (the bus drivers are good with helping you when you have trouble), but figuring out the bus schedule from each bus stop.

The timetables at the bus stops aren’t always in English. So, it’s best to have this downloaded or pulled up on your cell phone before you go out wandering Okinawa on the bus: Bus Map Okinawa.

Hotels

If it’s not a major hotel, it’s going to be hard to book a room over the phone. However, most hotels, no matter the size, are plugged into the major hotel dealers online. Booking online is the best way to do it.

If you have to make some last-minute changes or get in contact with the hotel about something, email is a great option. Most Okinawans are going to be less shy over email than over the phone. And most are better at reading and writing than speaking.

If you have an urgent need to contact your hotel, and email is not an option, you might first try to call yourself. Just ask, in English, if anyone there speaks English. If it becomes clear you’re not getting anywhere, it’s best to enlist the help of someone who speaks Japanese to call for you. Ask around at your current hotel, a convenience store nearby, or even the random passerby (the worst they’ll say is no).

Other Tips

The younger generation speaks better English

If you need some help in English, your best bet is people in their 20’s or 30’s. Any younger than that they’re probably too shy and any older, they most likely never learned English well enough.

When in doubt, write something down

Most Japanese know a little bit of English. And they are better at reading and writing than they are at speaking. On top of that, they are less shy to read and write compared with speaking.

If you ask someone if they speak English, there’s a good chance they will tell you no, even though their English is good enough. But, if you just show them a piece of paper, you’ll probably have more luck.

Learn Some of the Language

I know you were expecting this and I know this is probably making you cringe. You don’t need to become fluent in Japanese, however, if you know a little Japanese, you’re time in Okinawa is going to be much more fulfilling.

Learn basic greetings

It’s no fun to travel in Okinawa if you can’t at least say “Hello” and “Thank You” to waitstaff or your taxi driver. I highly recommend to anyone visiting Okinawa (no matter the length of time you’ll be visiting) to learning the very basic phrases and practice them before you get here.

Learn Katakana

What is Katakana? The Japanese language uses a significant number of borrowed words from the English language (nudge, nudge). And Katakana is the character system they use to spell out these borrowed words.

Let me give you some examples:

EnglishKatakanaKatakana –> English AlphabetPronunciation Link
RestaurantレストランRE-SU-TO-RANHear Pronuciation
CoffeeコーヒーKO-HIHear Pronuciation
Air ConditioningエアコンE-A-KO-NHear Pronuciation
BeerビールBI-RUHear Pronuciation
JuiceジュースJU-SUHear Pronuciation
ButterバターBA-TAHear Pronuciation

If you’re going to be here for a year or longer, or just want to dive into the language a little more, this is a relatively quick way to do it. You can learn Katakana easily, in two weeks. There are just 46 characters to memorize.

There are so many programs or apps to learn Katakana; but, it’s not something you really need to pay for. I really like flashcards that associate it with something you already know; it makes the learning process very quick. Take for example ToFuGu, this is a great article to learn the characters.

Conclusion

Though English is not the primary language in Okinawa, and even though not too many Okinawans speaking English, traveling is still easy. You can easily get by without knowing Japanese.

But, why just get by?

Try to learn a little Japanese before you go. I promise, if you do, you’ll be much happier with your stay here.

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