A lot of friends and family have recently been or are planning to go to Japan soon, and a major concern for many people seems to be whether Japanese people, in general, speak English. Firstly, I think it is pretty funny that we assume most people speak English. It is only spoken by around 20% of the population of the planet, that is about 1.4 billion people, and of those, only around 25% speak it as their first language, around 350 million. (Around 6%)
Most Japanese do learn English at school, however the way it is taught is through reading and writing, and very little speaking practice. Therefore, even if someone understands you, they may be too embarrassed or too shy to respond. This is, of course, a generalisation, and some Japanese are very happy to practice their English. Most JR staff, at railway stations, speak English, and are always a wonderful resource if you’re looking for something or lost. Quite a few Japanese study abroad and become fluent and many study through University. But, as a rule, most people you will encounter will speak little or no English.
This is, surprisingly, not even the slightest problem. The first time I went to Japan, I listened to a Learn Japanese CD. It was not overly useful. I could say please and thank you, and couldn’t remember much else. Any Japanese that you speak will be very well received. A very tiny amount of effort is generously rewarded. However, it is not essential. I found transport very easy to negotiate. Particularly in Tokyo. Trains in Osaka were definitely more challenging, with far less English translation. Buses in Kyoto and Hiroshima were not difficult. Many restaurants in tourist areas had English menus, and when they did not, pointing at the wax reproductions of the meal in the window seemed to be the best way to communicate the desired meal.