The good news is that you don’t have to spend months or even weeks learning Japanese – all you need to know is a few common (and very handy) phrases that can be picked up in minutes and mastered in days.
Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be throwing these out like a boss. And your new Japanese friends will be like, whoa.
Note: The polite enders desu and masu are pronounced “des” as in “desk” and “mas” as in “mask.” Well, unless you’re an anime character. The hiragana ha (は) particle is pronounced “wa.”
In Japan people don’t usually say hello, but rather greet each other according to the time of day. Say ohayo in the morning, and konnichiwa in the afternoon. From 6pm onwards use konbanwa. Note that konbanwa is a greeting, and it’s not used to say goodnight – the word for that is oyasumi. Confuse the two, and you’ll probably get some laughs or strange looks. Don’t ask me how I know.
2. That’s fine, or I’m OK
This is a very useful phrase that has many nuances depending on the situation (it can sorta mean yes or no). But for our purposes, use it to:
- Let someone know you’re ok (’Tis but a flesh wound!)
- Politely decline something (the Japanese equivalent of “Oh I’m fine, thanks.”)
For example, if the lady behind the counter asks if you’d like to have your purchases gift wrapped, you can politely decline by saying daijoubudesu.
3. Thank you
Saying arigato without the gozaimasu to someone you don’t know well, like the cashier or server, is a bit too casual. As a foreigner you’ll get away with it, but the more natural way to say it is arigato gozaimasu. Use it when receiving your change, or when someone helps you find the used panty vending machine, and so on.
4. Excuse me, sorry, thanks
If you only learn one phrase to use in Japan, this should be it. This phrase is magic. You can use it in almost any situation: Accidentally step on someone’s foot? Sumimasen! Trying to get the server’s attention? Sumimasen! Someone holds the lift door for you? Sumimasen! The maid at the cafe serves your drink? Sumimasen! Don’t know what to say? You guessed it – sumimasen.
But wait, why would you say sorry to someone who serves you your drink, you ask. Good question. When I first got here I was thrown for a loop too. I eventually found out that it doesn’t mean sorry as much as it does “I appreciate the trouble you went through to make me this cute and delicious drink (even though you’re charging me through the nostrils for it.)”
Sumimasen is essentially acknowledgment that you’re troubling or inconveniencing someone. So the legendary Japanese politeness is somewhat true, even if it’s superficial. You can (and should) say sumimasen before any of the phrases below.
5. Where is (the train station)?
Feel free to pull this out when you want to know where anything is – the Totoro section in a shop, a train station or museum, or – and this is very important – the toilet. That last one could save your pants in an emergency.
(えき) は どこですか？
(Eki) wa doko desu ka?
6. How much is this?
Of course you’re going to do some shopping in Japan. Most shops usually display their prices prominently, but when there’s no price tag and you want to know what something costs before buying it, just sumimasen the nearest floor staff and fire away.
これ は いくら ですか？
Kore wa ikura desu ka?
7. May I have the bill please?
Okaikei onegai shimasu.
Use this phrase at places like izakayas that ask you to pay at your seat, but if you find a bill on your table, there’s no need to ask. Just take it straight to the cashier.
On a side note, onegai shimasu is another very handy phrase. Think of it as “please.” You can use it whenever you request something, like the bill. Just replace the word okaikei in the example above to whatever you need, like “Sumimasen, omizu onegai shimasu.” (Can I get some water please?)
8. Does this train go to (Shibuya)?
Tokyo’s sprawling network of trains can be confusing if you’re using it for the first time, so it helps to know how to ask if a particular train is going to your intended destination before you board, just to be sure. Replace Shibuya with the name of the train station you’re heading to.
この でんしゃ は (しぶや) いきますか？
Kono densha wa (Shibuya) ikimasuka?
9. Do you have (an English menu)?
Sometimes you’re in a hurry and need to find a specific thing in a store. Instead of shuffling around looking for it, you could just stop by the information counter or ask a nearby staff member if they have it. If they do, they’ll almost certainly walk you there. Job done.
(えいご の めにゅう) は ありますか？
(Eigo no menyuu) wa arimasuka?
This phrase is great in restaurants too – if the menu is all in Japanese, don’t do it Bruce Lee style and randomly poke at the menu. Instead, ask them if they have something you’d like to eat, like chicken (tori), fish (sakana) or strawberry ramen (sutoberii ramen). Just replace the words in the brackets with anything you like.
So there you have it, some simple Japanese phrases for your next visit here. This list is by no means definitive, and there’s plenty more that we didn’t cover, so it’s over to you – what other phrases do you think would be useful while you’re in Japan? Share them in the comments! And if there’s anything you’d like to know how to say in Japanese, we’ll do our best to translate.