The language of Japan is Japanese. Japanese is a language with several different dialects, although standard Japanese (hyōjungo 標準語), based on the Tokyo dialect, is taught in schools and is known to most people throughout the country. The slangy dialect of the Kansai region is particularly well known in Japanese pop culture. On the southern islands of Okinawa, many dialects of the closely related Ryukyuan languages are spoken, mostly by older people, while in northern Hokkaido a few still speak Ainu.
Japanese is written with a convoluted mixture of three different scripts: Kanji (漢字) or Chinese characters, along with “native” Hiragana (ひらがな) and Katakana (カタカナ) syllabic scripts, which were in fact derived from Chinese characters more than a thousand years ago. However, hiragana and katakana do not carry the meaning of the original Chinese characters from which they were derived, but are simply phonetic characters. There are thousands of kanji in everyday use and even the Japanese spend years learning them, but the kana have only 46 characters each and can be learned with a reasonable amount of effort. Of the two, the katakana are probably more useful to the visitor, as they are used to spell loan words from languages other than Chinese and can be used to figure out words like basu (バス, bus), kamera (カメラ, camera) or konpyūtā(コンピューター, computer). However, some words like terebi (テレビ, television), depāto (デパート, department stores’), wāpuro (ワープロ, word processor) and sūpā (スーパー, supermarket) can be more difficult to decipher. Knowledge of Chinese is also a good start to tackle kanji, but not all words mean what they seem: 大家 (Mandarin Chinese: dàjiā, Japanese: ōya), “everyone” to the Chinese, means “landlord” in Japan!
Many Japanese have studied English for at least 6 years, but lessons tend to focus on formal grammar and writing rather than actual conversation. Outside of the major tourist attractions and large international hotels, it is rare to find people who can speak English. Reading and writing usually work much better, and many people are able to understand some written English without being able to speak it. If you get lost, it can be handy to write a question in simple words on paper and someone will probably be able to point you in the right direction. It can also be helpful to carry a hotel business card or matchbook to show a taxi driver or someone if you get lost. Take comfort in the fact that many Japanese will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you want and to help you, so it’s worth learning at least basic greetings and thank yous to put people at ease.
Some of the major tourist attractions and large international hotels in Tokyo have staff who can speak Mandarin or Korean, and many major airports and train stations also have signs in Chinese and Korean. In Hokkaido, some people living near the Russian border may be able to speak Russian.