Don’t Know What to Take to Japan? Try Talking Picture Cards!

If you don’t know what to take to Japan, and you’re not yet fluent in the language, then most people will tell you to get a good phrasebook to bring along with you.

But considering how powerful smartphones have become, you could potentially download an eBook or two and just use those while you’re there.

Back in the day, before everyone had a phone in their pocket, some people used to use Talking Picture Cards to overcome the language barrier!

Check out these vintage cards that double as both a translator, and a full deck of regular playing cards!

What Are Talking Picture Cards?

Back in the late 60’s, Northwest Orient Airlines invented a deck of playing cards to help people from Asia (who had limited knowledge of English) while they were visiting America.

The cards, which contain all 52 standard playing cards plus the two jokers, contain a total of four languages on each one that all say the same phrase, in each of their respective ways.

The four languages are:

  1. English
  2. Japanese
  3. Korean
  4. Chinese

In addition to these, there is also a picture that illustrates what’s being said on each one. The idea behind the cards is that you can search through them in order to find the one that you want, and then simply show it to the other person and they can then read what it says in their own language.

Although I’m not sure how they are supposed to respond back to you if you don’t know their language… Perhaps by pointing in the direction you need to go and smiling?

What’s cool about these cards is that, even though the original people it was intended for was for Asians visiting America, you could potentially use it in any country that primarily speaks one of these four languages, and you yourself could be a native of any as well.

These cards were given out as a nice gift to the customers who flew Northwest Orient Airlines, so there’s not that many left in circulation (they don’t make any more of course). And besides that, there are some things on it that are outdated by today’s standards.

Not too many planes will accommodate you requesting to “remove the armrest” these days… But there’s a card for it!!!

Can You Use Them To Learn Japanese?

Of course!

Although “language learning” wasn’t the original purpose for the creation of these cards, there’s no reason why you couldn’t pick up some new Japanese phrases with them if that’s what you want to do.

There are a few challenges that you will have to overcome, like the fact that there’s no furigana to help with the pronunciation of unfamiliar kanji.

And some phrases like “asking where the nearest travel agency is located” are probably useless considering that nobody really uses travel agencies anymore (thank you, Internet).

But it’s great to see how Japanese and English use different ways to say the same thing.

For example, these next two sentences basically mean the same thing, but when you translate the Japanese version literally, you can see what the exact differences are:


May I have a blanket and pillow? (written on the card)

Please bring me a blanket and pillow. (more literal translation)

The use of pictures is also a nice way to learn Japanese, since humans are very visual creatures when it comes to taking in new information. Being able to combine a new sentence that you are learning with an illustration that matches it will help it to really stick in your mind.

The next time you see one of these things in real life, the phrase will probably resurface in your memory for you to use!

Even though these cards are pretty cool, I think I would still have to recommend a quality phrasebook for when you travel to Japan, and also when you want to learn some common phrases.

These cards are primarily focused on things to say in places like the airport and hotels, places where Japanese people are actually the most likely to speak and understand English.

Like I said, they’re more meant for Asians visiting an English-speaking country than vice-versa.

But I still wanted to share them with you as I thought that they were pretty cool!

Language Tools are Advancing

People have spoken different languages for thousands of years, and it’s interesting to see the different tools that have been created to help overcome the primary barrier when visiting another country.

Back in the day, they used cards to do the trick! But in today’s world you see a lot of wearable technology that does translating work for you on the fly.

I remember seeing ads like this one below that have you speak one language into the gadget, and then it takes over from there to speak the second language to the listening natives.

While I think that these are super cool, and great for people who are simply visiting other countries to enjoy a vacation, I wonder just how far it will end up going.

Do you think that the technology will get to the point where you can say anything into it in your own language, and it will perfectly translate the meaning into all other languages?

Perhaps it will one day, but then again maybe not.

Let’s say that technology does happen to master interpretation. Would people stop learning foreign languages and instead just use technology as the go between for their international conversations?

Personally I think that there will always be an emotional aspect (that human connection) which will drive people to learn the language so that they can use it all on their own.

But what do you guys think about it?

Will translation technologies dramatically change the way we learn and use other languages?

Will people always feel the need to communicate without them?

Let me know your thoughts with a comment below!


  • Alejandra

    Hi Nick,
    I didn’t know about these Talking Picture Cards, but think it’s a good idea.
    Even today we get to know about how cell phones make life easier and today there’s more ways to understand people with different language just pushing on a key on a cell phone, and voila, you can understand all.
    I work as a “nanny” for three boys now 7 years old, they are French Canadian and my mother tongue is Spanish, I began to work with these boys (they are triples) when they were one year and a half, I got the job to teach them to speak in French, at that time I didn’t know how to speak any French, but the mother told me, “don’t worry, you’ll learn at the same time as the boys”
    I used a memory cards game to show the boys the picture on each card and then I told them the sound of the word.
    It work the best!! everyone learned to talk French, even me, I need to tell you the boys talk full French today, and me… well I do my best.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, that’s a great point. One of the best ways to learn a language is by using flash cards that have words and sentences written on them.

      I didn’t think of it before, but you could absolutely use these Talking Picture Cards with a Spaced Repetition System in order to learn Japanese and then test yourself.

      And yeah, it’s pretty amazing how quickly kids learn new things, and languages in particular. 

      I think that kids have a few unique advantages when it comes to language learning. But adults also have some strengths as well that kids don’t have. It’s an interesting concept, and perhaps I’ll write more about it sometime.

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