Why Some Japanese Restaurants Insist on “Japanese Language Only”


As inbound tourism to Japan skyrockets, more businesses are printing menus and signs in multiple languages, letting visitors know they’re welcome. However, not every

“Japanese language only” vs. “Japanese only”

This subject recently came up on X (yes, yes, it’s just Twitter) when several people posted a sign from a restaurant in Teramachi, Kyoto. The sign tells visitors that the staff can only speak Japanese – and thus, if you can’t speak the language, you should consider another store.

We reposted this photo (from another user) to the UJ X account and asked people what they thought. Some people expressed offense. But others said they didn’t see a problem with it. The store wasn’t saying foreigners weren’t allowed, after all. It just said it couldn’t support non-Japanese speakers.

Sadly, other stores have crossed the line from language preference to outright prejudice. In an infamous case last year, an izakaya in Naha, Okinawa put up a sign that read: “Because we can only speak Japanese – JAPANESE ONLY (sorry) We don’t allow customers from overseas to enter our bar.”

The sign became a flashpoint after a local activist group noticed it and filed a complaint with the city. Indeed, forbidding entrance to a restaurant based on race or nationality violates the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racism from 1969. Japan became a signatory to this Convention in 1995.

Japanese courts have also upheld the principle that keeping customers out based on race or nationality is discriminatory. In 1999, a Shizuoka court ordered a jewelry shop to pay damages for consistently refusing to serve foreign customers.

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In the Naha case, the store took down its sign, insisting that it never meant to discriminate against anyone. The owner said they had one person in the kitchen and another running tables. They weren’t equipped, they insisted, to serve non-Japanese-speaking customers.

That doesn’t explain the flat refusal to serve any foreign customer, even if they do speak Japanese. But the problem this store raises is real.

As many commenters on our original post noted, many restaurants in Japan are small mom-and-pop shops run by two or three people. Many struggle to keep their heads above water, squeezed between the rising cost of goods and the consumer demand for low-cost meals. For these stores – especially those not located in traditional, high-traffic tourist areas – the demands of multilingual service exceed the benefits.

Serving Japan’s diverse tourist base ain’t easy

Serving Japan’s growing tourist and foreign resident base isn’t easy. Especially when you consider where the country’s visitors are coming from.

Let’s look at the numbers presented by the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO). In February 2024, a record 2,788,000 tourists visited Japan. Where did they come from? The majority – over 818,000 – came from South Korea. Next up is China which, despite a 36.5% drop due to ongoing tensions between the countries, still represents the third largest source of tourism for Japan. Visitors from historically friendly Taiwan make up the third largest number, followed by Hong Kong. You have to go to fifth place to find the first predominantly English-speaking country, the US, at 148,700 visitors.

If you total up visitors from the countries whose official first language is English – The US, UK, Canada, and Australia – you get 275,000 visitors. That’s not even 1/3rd of the visitors from South Korea alone. By contrast, in February 2024, 70% of Japan’s total visitors were from countries whose predominant language was Korean, Mandarin Chinese, or Cantonese Chinese.

How do restaurants handle this diversity? Many cope, for better or worse, by relying on English as a lingua franca. A 2018 survey by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture found that, of restaurants that catered to non-Japanese speakers, the majority did so through a combination of translating their menus and including pictures so tourists could see what they were ordering.

Of those that translated their menus, upwards of 90% provided English translations. Between 26% and 51% provided either menu item names and/or descriptions in Korean, Mandarin, or Cantonese. A lesser number included Thai and other languages.

The site Honichi Lab, which helps businesses cater to inbound tourism, recommends that businesses that want to draw in foreign travelers support English-language menus at a minimum. Those who can afford it, it says, should also include Mandarin, Cantonese, and Korean.

Survey: 70% of Japanese restaurants have no inbound tourist plan

Of course, not every restaurant can afford to do this. The economic hurdle is even higher for restaurants that have Web sites and reservation systems, which also need to be translated into Japanese to cater to foreign visitors.

Given these hurdles, it’s not surprising that some businesses want no part in this. An October 2023 survey of over 1,000 restaurant and bar operators by online reservation operator TableCheck found that, post-pandemic, restaurants report a huge spike in tourist traffic. Interestingly, only 4-5% of reservations came from inbound tourists.

When TableCheck asked businesses if they wanted to increase the number of inbound tourists who visit, a majority said yes. However, 22.6% said they didn’t. That represents a drop from 2020, when 32.3% said they had no interest in seeking out more foreign tourist traffic. Additionally, only 13.1% “strongly” wanted more foreign tourists. 23.6% said they somewhat wanted to increase the number of inbound tourists who visited. 28.2% said they didn’t care one way or the other.

Survey by TableCheck showing 22.6^ of restaurants don't want more foreign tourists.

Why does that 22.6% say they don’t want more inbound tourists? Of 231 respondents, 60.2% cited the difficulty of overcoming the language barrier. And 29.9% percent said they think foreigners are ill-mannered. Other reasons cited include:

Making menus (in multiple languages) is difficult: 29%

Foreigners “don’t fit the store’s atmosphere”: 15.6%

They’ll drive away Japanese customers: 10.8%

Foreigners tend to cancel their reservations: 10.4%

It’ll decrease the average order per customer: 6.9%

Other: 4.3%

However, even those restaurants that want to service inbound travelers may not be able to. When asked whether they had initiated an inbound tourism strategy, 55.6% either said they had no plan or had quit planning one. Smaller percentages said they were either planning or considering one. That means a total of 72.8% of the operators surveyed had no plans for handling inbound tourists.

Visiting the places where you’re welcome

It can’t be overstated that the number of stores outright refusing to serve non-Japanese-speaking customers – or non-Japanese customers as such – seem few and far between. Many shops are doing their best, even though many feel they can’t effectively surmount the language gap.

Long story short: if you come to Japan and know Japanese, you’ll do just fine. If you don’t know Japanese, you’ll still do fine, especially in the most highly-touristed areas. Many businesses are willing and eager to interact with inbound travelers.

If you encounter a shop that can’t accommodate you, chalk it up to growing pains. Japan’s government has pursued a pro-tourism strategy for years. However, as the recent controversies around overtourism show, Japan’s infrastructure is still struggling to come to grips with the nation’s post-pandemic popularity.

Sources

今すぐできる飲食店の多言語対応とは?おすすめの方法や対応すべき言語も紹介. Honichi Lab

「ジャパニーズオンリー」と張り紙 那覇市の居酒屋、外国人客拒む. Asahi Shimbun

人種差別撤廃条約. Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan

Number of visitor arrivals to Japan 2,788,000 in February 2024. JNTO

コロナ前の3倍、インバウンド外食市場進まない。飲食店側の対策、7割以上が未実施. TableCheck via PRTimes





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