This is an outrageous statement, and the truth is, I only really mean it when compared with the other languages I’ve spoken in their countries of origin: French, Thai, Korea, Peruvian Spanish, English, and Chinese. Although many people who have never spoken or even started studying Japanese make complaints like “it’s too hard!”, they have never had the opportunity to put it into practice in a convenience store in Hokkaido, a train station in Kyushu, or a school in Hiroshima.
The truth is, it’s remarkably easy to get through most day-by-day situations in Japan without speaking at all. One reason foreign visitors tend to complain about the language barrier is simply because they aren’t experiencing what most locals are, e.g. finding the bus to a random corner of the country, asking about the history of a shrine, deciding what to order in a restaurant when they don’t know the food.
Consider the last scenario, and assume you can read everything on the menu. Without fail, waiters and waitresses across Japan aren’t going to throw you off by starting with small talk. They’re going to greet you entering their establishment with a customary irasshaimase and wait until you press the button at the table before even approaching you… with the exception of water and oshibori. When it comes time to order, there’s no fanciful talk like “Yes, I believe we’d like to try the lobster, assuming it’s in season”, only “One of these, please, and one of these, and two of these. That’s all.”
It’s not as though you can’t chat someone up on the streets and be thrown by the difficulty of the conversation in Japanese, but to get you through the intricacies of daily life, long conversations aren’t necessary to survive in the modern world. In Japan, the language makes it even easier to function as an adult without knowing everything:
– In a convenience store, they don’t ask you if you want a bag or chopsticks; that’s a given. The only question is whether you want something heated up.
– In a train station, you don’t even have to speak to anyone if you know where you’re going. Tokyo’s trains can be confusing even for experienced city dwellers, but most locals wouldn’t need to ask the station attendants directions to the right platform, the time the train leaves, or if it makes a particular stop.
– Even in a professional setting like an office, stock phrases reign supreme, from a standard “good morning” (おはようございます) to “thank you for your hard work” (お疲れ様です). Certain protocol is to be followed when addressing superiors, I hear the same sentences of acknowledgement over and over again.
There are many reasons why the language is structured this way. Personally, I happen to think it makes Japanese even easier for the listener than the speaker, because there’s an intuition that comes from knowing the language. Japanese, in contrast to English, has a subject-object-verb sentence structure, versus the subject-verb-object ones we enjoy as English speakers. As a result, native speakers can often see where the sentence is going by knowing the subject and object without even considering the action. However, English speakers get the action out of the way so quickly it’s impossible to understand the full meaning without every word, e.g. “the cat ate the mouse”… the cat could be eating anything; in Japanese, “cat mouse ate” can make you guess what the cat did to that mouse before the word is spoken.