Many a language learner will tell you that the best way to master a language is to immerse yourself in it, so surely there’s no better way to progress in Japanese than to be forced to speak the language frequently during a holiday or a period of short- or long-term residency in the country.
However, with this in mind, such an experience should not immediately be equated with other linguistic holidaymaking opportunities such as a trip across the Rio Grande for an American or on the Eurotunnel to Paris for a Brit.
The average Japanese is far less used to meeting or speaking with people who have limited proficiency in their native language.
Your tentative attempts to order a meal, buy a train ticket, or ask for directions may be unsuccessful not necessarily due to your incoherent pronunciation or poor grammar, but simply due to the object (or self-perceived victim) of your inquiry being petrified, and thereafter beating a hasty retreat. The advent of the JET program that has brought foreign teachers to many Japanese schools and the increasing emphasis placed on kokusaika (internationalization) and English proficiency in the workplace have changed matters; however, this is Japan, in which change often occurs very gradually.
The average Japanese is not used to meeting or interacting with individuals who do not look or act Japanese.
So, for individuals who do not have an Asian appearance, even error-free Japanese may simply be met with a refusal to attempt to understand what has been said, given the conventional wisdom that people who don`t look Japanese don`t speak Japanese. Alternatively, the unease caused by your appearance or body language may result in a retreat into keigo (honorific form of the Japanese language), which can make understanding much more difficult for less advanced learners. An awareness of these potential obstacles will save first-time visitors and students of the Japanese language some disappointment or frustration, and provide insight that a thick skin may be required to practice and pick up Japanese on the street.
Of course, there are regional differences in the tendencies described above. Most Japanese urbanites, especially in Tokyo and the Kansai cities of Kyoto and Osaka, will see, if not interact with, foreigners on a daily basis. Nonetheless, Japan`s long period of isolation and the dearth of established foreign communities (with the notable exception of Koreans) in Japan compared with the West are still reflected in people`s tolerance for mediocre Japanese, or in their willingness to attempt to work out the intended meaning of a sentence in which an incorrect preposition, for example, has been used. This is particularly noticeable in more remote parts of the country, such as the fishing villages of Hokkaido or the interior of Shikoku (the northernmost and the smallest of the four main islands, respectively).
These problems can be exacerbated by the fact that the Japanese are a very proud as well as obliging people, such that they may perceive that the need to hold a conversation in Japanese with a foreigner reflects badly on them, namely, in their inability to help you in your own language. A general understanding of these issues and an awareness of the novelty of a foreigner speaking Japanese are definitely helpful.