Concerned about communicating in Japan? Make your travels in Japan as smooth and hassle-free as possible with a translation app. Discover the translation apps we’ve tested in real life and find out which ones actually work with our in-depth guide.
Six translation apps for Japan travel. – image © Florentyna Leow
One of the most intimidating things about traveling somewhere new like Japan used to be language barriers – being unable to communicate your needs and wants to people, or indeed understand anything they were saying to you.
Fortunately, you won’t need to slip Douglas Adams’ small, yellow, leech-like Babel Fish into your ear to understand what anyone’s saying on your travels. Instead, you can use today’s modern equivalent on your smartphone to communicate with locals: a translation app.
In this guide, we show you some of the best translation apps out there for traveling in Japan. By ‘best’ we mean useful and practical – translation apps are never 100% accurate, but they’re fantastic for breaking down those language barriers.
This guide contains the following sections:
- Japanese–English and English–Japanese Translation Apps for iPhones
- What makes a useful travel app?
- Test-driving translation apps for Japan travel
– Text translation
– Image translation
– Voice translation
- Final thoughts
Spoiler: It’s not 100% accurate, but out of all the apps I tested, Photo Translator performed best with handwritten menus. – image © Florentyna Leow
Japanese–English and English–Japanese Translation Apps for iPhones
There are quite literally hundreds of translation apps out there. The goal was to find useful, intuitive apps that non-Japanese speakers could use to communicate with locals, figure out what’s what, and generally get around. For this reason, I didn’t include grammar-focused Japanese-learning apps, ‘phrasebook’ apps, or dictionary apps.
I took six translation apps out into the Tokyo wilderness for a spin. These were downloaded from the App Store on an iPhone, though some of these will also be available on Android. I’ve noted wherever this is the case.
In no particular order, these are the apps I tested:
1. Google Translate
There are three main parts to this app: photo, voice, and text translation. Using this app, you point your phone camera at the text you want to read, and the optical character recognition (OCR) technology “reads” the text and displays the translation directly on your phone screen, displacing the original text. You can also type in English text that will be translated into Japanese (or other languages) and vice versa.
There’s also an option to speak into the phone’s inbuilt microphone. Google Translate records and renders your words into text, then produces a translation. This is then read out to you in the target language. Google Translate also works offline. It’s available on iOS and Android (but of course) and is free for use.
This app allows you to write or ‘draw’ kanji characters onto the screen. This does rely on some prior knowledge of Japanese, Chinese, or Korean characters. You are also able to hold the phone up to a given text or set of words and have Waygo render a translation. The app limits you to 10 free translations a day; beyond this, you’ll need to purchase the app. Available on iOS. There’s also an official website.
This app offers text, voice, and photo translation. While you can translate between English and Japanese, there are around 40 language pairs available. As a bonus, it works offline once you’ve downloaded the requisite language packs. I tested this with a free trial of the paid version. Available on iOS and Android.
Developed by Naver, this app does text, voice, and photo translation. It also allows you to have a simultaneous conversation in two languages using the app. You’ll be passing the phone back and forth between you and another person speaking a different language into the phone. PapaGo also translates between various Asian languages, including Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese. If you’re traveling around Asia, you might want to check this out. You will need to be connected to the internet to use this app, but on the bright side, it’s free. Available on iOS and Android.
5. Japanese Translator Offline
In this app, you’ll type in the sentence you need and it spits out a Japanese rendering for you. You can also speak into the app. As the name suggests, you won’t need WiFi to use this. It’s a free app. At this point in time, to our knowledge, this is iOS only.
6. Photo Translator + +
This is the companion app to Japanese Translation, also by Evolly.app. You can either upload a photo with Japanese text from your camera library or take a photo of what you’re looking at, and it will give you a translation superimposed on top of the original text. This particular free app will require you to watch the occasional video ad (30 seconds at most, and usually about 10 seconds), but it’s a small price to pay. Available on iOS and Android.
A handwritten drinks menu I tried the apps on. – image © Florentyna Leow
What makes a useful Japanese translation travel app?
The real test, of course, is;
- a) how practical they are when you’re actually traveling around Japan
- b) how useful they are for communicating
- c) how easy and intuitive the apps themselves are to use. I’ve compared these apps by their respective functions.
These are a few of the criteria I considered when testing the apps:
- If I typed in English sentences, would they be translated into accurate or understandable Japanese?
- Similarly, if a native Japanese speaker typed in something, would the English rendering be accurate?
- How good is the app at deciphering and capturing Japanese text?
- Would the app be able to render this text into understandable English?
- Could the app read handwritten menus and signs?
- How accurately can the app decipher English-language sentences spoken into the phone?
- How accurate were the Japanese translations of our words?
- Would this be as accurate for Japanese speakers?
Test-Driving Japanese Translation Apps for Japan Travel
Using Google Translate’s text input. – image © Florentyna Leow
Google Translate has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few years, which is evident in the above-average quality of its translations. It does reasonably well with sentences a traveler might potentially ask. For the best results – and this is true of all the apps below – you want to communicate in simple sentences that leave no room for ambiguity.
In the same way, Japanese to English translations work best with uncomplicated sentences and concepts. You might not be having deep, philosophical conversations with another local – unless you’re willing to sit down for a good length of time – but you will at least find out where the nearest bathroom is.
Using iTranslate Pro’s text input. – image © Florentyna Leow
iTranslate fared decently, though the translations that emerge aren’t always 100% correct. For instance, in the middle example, the word for “top up” is translated to “上げる” or “raise,” which doesn’t make any sense in Japanese. Contextually, someone might eventually understand it. If you receive a puzzled look in return when you show them a translated sentence, your intended meaning might have been lost in translation, so consider rephrasing.
Something else I noticed with iTranslate is that it does not always perform well with compound sentences. The third sentence above has two parts: defining ‘warabimochi’ and asking if it’s vegan. The translation that emerged only translated the first half of the sentence and not the second. This is something that can happen with translation apps generally, so you’ll want to keep your queries and statements short and simple.
Using Japanese Translator Offline. – image © Florentyna Leow
As expected of an app specializing in Japanese–English translations, this performed well. The interface is clean and straightforward. The Japanese translations the app gives you are generally on the formal side, but that’s an observation rather than a complaint. It’s great for casual travelers. But, this is also a useful app for beginner to intermediate learners of Japanese, as you’ll see not only what you wanted translated, but also similar example sentences to reinforce your learning.
Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese Translator Offline is good at capturing sentences spoken into the app – I tested all the examples above by typing and speaking them in. It works well with Japanese-language input too.
Text translations for PapaGo. – image © Florentyna Leow
Not only were they accurate, PapaGos’s Japanese translations of our text-based queries were some of the most natural-sounding out of all the apps we used. They won’t always be ‘formal’ but they sound like someone you might actually hear talking on the street, which is a nice bonus. The app itself is also easy to use, with colour-coded and easily understandable functions.
Reading text on a Dyson vacuum cleaner box with Google Translate. – image © Florentyna Leow
I had high hopes for Google Translate’s much-feted Word Lens. I trained the phone camera on printed text on the side of a Dyson vacuum cleaner box to reasonably clear results. The translation wasn’t perfect – the first sentence is more accurately rendered as “Continuing to challenge
Four instances of using Google Translate in the wild. – image © Florentyna Leow
Word Lens produces decent on-the-spot translations when you hover over clear, printed text. But you have mixed results in various real-life situations. The menu on the left is imperfectly translated, and the non-Japanese reader would be hard-pressed to order from it, though the app did its best with the vertical text.
The third example above (second to right) shows Word Lens trying to interpret a handwritten menu. In general, the app does not do well (yet) hovering over handwritten text regardless of legibility, so it’s not useful in many Japanese restaurants. It does better when you take a photo of something and use the app to read it from your library.
Still, if you just want to figure out what flavour of chocolate you’re buying from the convenience store (far right), Google Translate’s photo function doesn’t do too badly.
Using Waygo in the wild. – image © Florentyna Leow
For all the praise it has received for its East Asia-specific character recognition, Waygo was surprisingly unhelpful when it came to practical use in Japan. It was able to read some printed text but not most things I trained the camera on, whether handwritten, printed, vertical, or horizontal.
More instances of using Waygo. From left to right: a sandwich board, a handwritten menu, a train ticket, and an entrance ticket to the Golden Pavilion. – image © Florentyna Leow
In more cases than not, it was unable to detect any text or find any translations for the text I looked at. There was just one occasion where it managed to translate something accurately! The OCR technology just was not up to par with some of the other apps I tried out.
Waygo is purportedly useful for language learners in East Asia when it comes to identifying kanji characters, especially in China. But if you’re looking for a straightforward and intuitive translation app for Japan travel, Waygo isn’t it – especially not with just 10 free translations a day. Given the existence of other better apps out there, you can skip this.
Reading a handwritten sign. A rough translation is: “A request to customers. When it is busy and when you are queuing, please stand close to the person in front of you as much as possible. Please cooperate for queuing. Thank you.” – image © Florentyna Leow
With PapaGo’s photo translation function, you point your phone camera at a scene or text that you want to read. Once you snap a photo, the app scans it for any text and highlights any Japanese text in white outlined box. You can then tap on each highlighted box to read what it says.
To its credit, PapaGo performs much better than Google Translate when it comes to deciphering handwritten text, even if what comes out is barely understandable or outright inaccurate. The middle translation is just on the mark; the second should read “please cooperate and queue.”
More instances of using PapaGo in the wild. – image © Florentyna Leow
The left translation should have read “mutton keema” towards the end, and 温玉 is an onsen egg rather than a “hot ball” – but it’s possible to at least get an idea of what’s on the menu, even if it’s written on a chalkboard in vertical text.
Also, ‘salmon-bashing warship’ is a direct translation of what’s written there, even if it actually refers to gunkan-style sushi with chopped salmon.
iTranslate’s results are a mixed bag when it comes to image translations. – image © Florentyna Leow
Out of all the apps here, iTranslate proved the least useful for image translations. Sometimes it wouldn’t be able to detect any printed text in the image, and when it did, it wasn’t the most pleasant to read. If you tried to move the borders of the white box on the screen, your translation would disappear. It’s not the most intuitive app around.
Reading a drinks menu – it’s not half bad. – image © Florentyna Leow
Photo Translator was the surprise winner in the battle of photo translation here. You won’t go thirsty with the drinks menu in front of you, for one thing. It helps to first take a photo of what you want to decipher and upload it to the app from your library.
Translating the entrance ticket to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. – image © Florentyna Leow
I wasn’t seriously expecting the app to be able to read the ticket you receive from the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. The translation that came out wasn’t really accurate, but it does give you a sense of what’s on the ticket.
Reading gas bills and information from TEPCO. – image © Florentyna Leow
In general, though, this app out-performed even Google Translate when it came to reading and translating more complex texts. If you ever have to read longer printed sentences in Japanese, this is the app to use.
Testing Google Translate’s voice recognition software. – image © Florentyna Leow
Google Translate’s voice recognition is surprisingly good. It picks up English sentences accurately as long as you speak quite clearly, and the resulting translations are fine. It worked with a Malaysian accent, too.
Testing simple sentences with PapaGo. – image © Florentyna Leow
PapaGo’s voice recognition also works well for simple English sentences that a traveler might ask about directions and food allergies. Though it ultimately doesn’t make too much difference, PapaGo’s Japanese (female) voice rings clear and cheerful. Coupled with the bright green background and large, clear text, the app is just that much more fun to use than the others mentioned here.
A number of sentence tests with JTO. – image © Florentyna Leow
Japanese Translator Offline managed to capture all the sentences above into the microphone on the first go – I liked this app a lot. While not pictured, it also performs admirably for Japanese-language input.
Testing both English and Japanese-language voice recognition. – image © Florentyna Leow
iTranslate works fine in English in most cases, though the Japanese-language input leaves a little bit to be desired. (The sentences should have captured and translated: “Sorry, everything contains dashi” and “Sorry, we can’t remove the dashi.”) The onus will be on the Japanese local to get this right, however!
Comparing voice recognition software on three apps. – image © Florentyna Leow
I did a comparison of the same phrase across three of the apps above. They produced accurate if slightly different translations. In this case, PapaGo’s rendering was the most natural, using Japanese that the average speaker would most likely use. However, all of them get the point across.
Trying to ask for directions to the inn. – image © Florentyna Leow
What is so far true across all the apps I tested, though, is that they’re not great at picking up Japanese words mixed in with English sentences. ‘Ryokan,’ which refers to a Japanese-style inn, proved to be a good test for the voice recognition function – it’s not easy for non-Japanese speakers to pronounce accurately.
The first three sentences from PapaGo above resulted from attempts to ask for directions to the ryokan – “real kind” was possibly the closest it came. Saying it in Japanese, on the other hand, produced perfectly understandable results.
Asking for directions to the inn. – image © Florentyna Leow
This was also true of Google Translate’s voice recognition, though it outperforms PapaGo in these terms if you’re willing to try a few times. It took several attempts for it to understand that I was saying ‘ryokan’ instead of ‘dokkan,’ ‘Yukon,’ ‘know you can,’ and other variants.
Testing out Japanese words mixed into English sentences. – image © Florentyna Leow
I also asked a friend to say some sentences with Japanese words mixed in to the English. To wit, the original sentences spoken into PapaGo above were:
- 1) I need a bowl of sukiyaki (beef and vegetables cooked in soy, sugar, and sake)
- 2) Where is the kissaten (a retro Japanese-style cafe)
- 3) I would like the tempura please.
Asking for directions to Meiji-jingumae Station. – image © Florentyna Leow
When it came to asking for directions to Meiji-jingumae Station, only Google Translate managed to pick up something approximate. The rest of the apps didn’t quite pan out. (One of the attempts with Japanese Translator Offline came out with the chuckle-inducing “which way to make you think of my station.”)
Why should this be the case? The short answer is that the technology for machines to recognize several languages in a single sentence just hasn’t reached the point where it can displace multilingual humans. (On the bright side, it means that interpreters won’t be out of a job just yet.)
What this means for an app user: for best results, speak clearly, in simple English-only sentences with key words that communicate exactly what you’re trying to say. If you have place names or particular words in Japanese you want to say, a typed translation is likely to give you better results than a spoken one.
Japanese-only menus become a great deal more approachable with translation apps – up to a point. – image © Florentyna Leow
Is there a particular app I would recommend? As you can see, each had their strengths and weaknesses. None of them were 100% accurate – they all had their fair share of funny errors and misunderstandings. But, outside of Waygo, most of the apps on this list performed quite well. Most of them were available for offline use, but they worked best when the phone was connected to WiFi. Choosing one will boil down to personal preference: whether you like the interface, what you’re using it for, and whether it gets the job done for you.
If you wanted to choose just one app for traveling in Japan, PapaGo would be a decent contender. It’s the most natural-sounding out of all the apps above – and the voice issuing from the app actually sounds quite friendly – so it’s useful for communicating with locals. It also fared reasonably well in practical situations like reading menus and deciphering signs. The only real downside is that you’d need to have pocket WiFi to use this app on the ground.
If you’d rather speak into the phone than type your text in, Google Translate probably has the edge on the other apps, but only by a slight margin. PapaGo and Japanese Translation also perform well when it comes to voice translation.
For better-than-average translations, Japanese Translation is a good choice, especially for anyone who’s actually learning Japanese. As I’ve shown above, the app gives you not just a translation but also related examples existing in its database. The accompanying Photo Translator app by the same company (Evolly) is great for image translations, especially if you want to understand entire paragraphs in a single go – for example, to read printed signboards for an artifact or attraction.
Bear in mind that these translation apps are technologies in flux. A few years ago, machine translation wasn’t capable of producing translations that made any sense; they’ve now reached the point where they’ve begun to be more useful out in the field. I expect that all of the apps above will continue to improve with time.
So, download a couple of them for your travels in Japan and have fun with them. The most important thing with these translation apps to actually use them in the wild. Any of these will make communicating with people that much easier, and as a bonus, you might end up with a few hilarious gaffes and stories at the end of it.
About the author: Florentyna Leow is a writer and photographer based in Tokyo. When she’s not eating or roaming the streets for food, she can be found with a book and pen in hand. Her work has appeared in Lucky Peach, Roads & Kingdoms, and Kyoto Journal. Her newsletter can be found here and her photographs can be found at @furochan_eats, @doorwaysofasia, and @lovemeleafme on Instagram.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
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- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router.
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass - here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy - here's how.
- Get travel insurance for Japan - we recommend World Nomads (and here's why)