9 Super Useful Japanese Phrases You Can Learn In Minutes

This could be you.

Boss.

Imagine being able to say thank you in perfect Japanese to that really cute server and seeing the surprised smile on her face. Or being able to ask for the bill like a local, even though it’s your first time in Japan. How cool would that be? Your next trip to Japan could be twice as interesting if you know a little Japanese. It’s a lot more fun when you can interact with the locals with something other than awkward grunts and flailing limbs.

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.”

 

1. Hello!

Ohayo (morning)
おはよう

Konnichiwa (afternoon)
こんにちは

Konbanwa (evening)
こんばんは

hello

Uh, konnichiwa? (Photo by Leishangthem)

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

だいじょうぶです。
Daijoubu desu.

I'm fine... she was a bitch anyways.

Yeah I’m fine, she was a bitch anyways. (Photo via happydogphotos)

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

ありがとう ございます。
Arigatou gozaimasu.

So thanks. Wow.

How most foreigners probably sound like to the Japanese.

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

すみません。
Sumimasen.

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.

 

maid cafe

They’re not sorry for taking all your money. At. All.

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)?

(えき) は どこですか?
(Eki) wa doko desu ka?

I'm like RIGHT HERE, dude.

Dude, I’m like, RIGHT HERE. (Photo via YouTube)

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.

 

6. How much is this?

これ は いくら ですか?
Kore wa ikura desu ka?

Sit down before asking the price of this one.

Hint: It’s over 9000. (Photo via Vietnam Investment Review)

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.

 

7. May I have the bill please?

おかいけい おねがいします。
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?)

 

bill and a bucket

Did someone ask for water AND the bill? (Pic via YouTube)

8. Does this train go to (Shibuya)?

この でんしゃ は (しぶや) いきますか?
Kono densha wa (Shibuya) ikimasuka?

train dude

Don’t ask this guy. Because you know, it’s not polite to disturb someone sleeping. (Photo by Jordon Cheung)

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.

 

9. Do you have (an English menu)?

(えいご の めにゅう) は ありますか?
(Eigo no menyuu) wa arimasuka?

It happens sometimes. (Photo via myfigurecollection)

“I have no idea why Hawkeye was in the damn movie.” (Photo via myfigurecollection)

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.

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.

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  • Hanayo Koizumi

    Hello! For # 9, I think you spelled a word wrong. The Japanese word for “English” is 英語, not えいご. 語 is the Japanese character for “language”.

    • Pepper

      Is OK to write in hiragana if you don’t know the kanji. えいご is the hiragana reading for 英語 c:

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