For many travelers, one of the interesting points about Japan is its utterly different culture compared to the US. This brings incomparable sightseeing destinations and experiences and a completely different language, which is already noticeable in the Japanese writing system with Kanji and Kana but continues even with grammar and vocabulary. Although learning the language is not a piece of cake, knowing a few phrases and characters can make your trip much easier and more enjoyable.
How much Japanese is needed?
You can generally understand yourself quite well in English, especially in big cities and popular tourist destinations. For example, transportation, train stations, and airports are usually signposted in English. In addition, many restaurants have either English or illustrated menus. However, once you get into rural areas, communication becomes more Japanese. In many cases, translator apps can be a good help. Despite this, you can significantly enhance your experience – and appear more polite – by understanding key phrases and responding appropriately.
Helpful phrases and idioms
Some phrases and idioms you will hear over and over again in Japan. Others will help you understand everyday situations more easily or behave politely. I find the following particularly useful:
- sumimasen – excuse me
You can use it like our ‘excuse me.’ Whether you have to get off the train, talk to someone, do something clumsy, or want to call the waiter.
- arigatou gozaimasu or arigatou – thank you
You should use the longer version depending on how much you have been helped. You can also combine the statement with a very slight bow.
- daijoubu – Everything ok.
As a question, possible to ask for permission or to inquire about the other person’s condition. Likely a statement to declare that everything is fine. For example, when someone apologizes to you for some carelessness.
- shashin – photo
- shashin o totte mo ii desu ka? – May I take a photo?
If this is too complicated, holding the camera/smartphone and saying ‘shashin ok?’ should also be enough.
- eki wa doko desu ka? – Where is the station?
While I’d rather recommend GoogleMaps if you’re lost, in a pinch, I’d always ask for the station – even if you want to go somewhere else. Many stations have maps and free WIFI, which allows you to reorient yourself. If you were to ask directly for directions to your destination, you would eventually have to understand the complete answer in Japanese.
Often restaurants in big cities have an English menu. However, display items like the one in the picture are even more helpful in choosing food.
In Stores and Restaurants
- irasshaimase or irasshai – welcome.
You’ll hear this almost every time you enter a store. You can simply ignore the statement which you shouldn’t respond to.
- nanmeisama desu ka? – For how many people?
Sometimes you will be asked for the number of people in the restaurant so that a suitable table can be assigned to you. The best way to answer is to show the number with your fingers.
- okaikei onegeishimasu – The bill please.
You pay at the vending machine or cash register in many restaurants. Still, especially in Japanese pubs (izakaya), it is customary to ask for the bill.
- gochisousama deshita or gochisousama – Thank you for the good service.
Depending on the restaurant, it is polite to say this after the meal to thank someone for the food. One way to do this is when paying or leaving the restaurant. If you are unsure if it would be appropriate, you can pay attention to what the locals do.
Emergencies and the unexpected
- gochui – Attention.
Widespread expression when you are alerted to ‘dangers’ like closing train doors or uneven sidewalks.
- jishin – earthquake.
Sometimes smartphones and loudspeakers in public places have a warning announcement during earthquakes that says something like ‘jishin desu. gochui kudasai.’ There is an earthquake; please be careful.’ In that case, you should take your lead from the locals and pay attention to how you behave during earthquakes.
- kyuukyuusha – ambulance.
- taskette – help!
Characters – Kanji and Kana for your trip
To help you quickly find your way around Japan and reduce the need for translator apps, it helps you memorize some typical characters.
- 女 / 男 – woman/man
Toilets, onsen, and the like usually use clear red/blue markings.
- トイレ toire / お手洗い otearai – restroom
- 喫煙 kitsuen / 禁煙 kinen – smoking allowed / smoking prohibited.
Gradually smoking will be banned in restaurants, but until then, you might still encounter these kanji.
- 税別 zeibetsu / 税込 zeikomi – excl. / incl. VAT
On 10/01/2019, VAT was increased from 8 to 10 percent, which is why some stores might mark their prices without taxes.
Shinkansen are the fastest trains in Japan. Since they are popular with tourists, most signage and announcements are available in English.
For train rides
Older trains and rural areas may lack English descriptions for the following kanji:
- 駅 eki – station
- 自由席 jiyuuseki – seats without reservation
- 指定席 shiteiseki – seats with reservation.
- 優先席 yuusen seki – priority seat (release for sick people, pregnant women, etc.).
It is helpful to learn the kanji of the numbers. Mostly Arabic numerals are used, but sometimes only kanji or a combination of Kanji and Arabic numbers. The typical number kanji are as follows:
Numbers are then formed simply by combining the kanji:
三十一 – 31
七千 – 7000
10万 – 100.000
If you have a lot of motivation, it helps to learn the characters for katakana. With these, you understand many terms taken from English. You especially can often decipher advertisements and packaging this way. However, you need to learn about 50 characters. For example, you can get an impression of Katakana on Wikipedia; there are many free apps and games for learning.
Example of words you can read with katakana:
コンビニ konbini – convenience store
エアコン eakon – air conditioner
カメラ camera – camera
ビール biiru – beer
ジュース juusu – juice, soft drink
ラーメン ramen – ramen
コーヒー koohi – coffee
Helpful words depending on the season
Japan is seasonal, so it’s worth learning additional terms depending on your travel time.
- sakura – cherry blossom
- hana – flower, blossom
- hanami – flower show
Especially during the cherry blossom season, this term is used to describe the viewing of the cherry blossoms. People like to have a picnic under the trees.
- hanabi – fireworks
- nomimono – drink
- mizu – water
- atsui – hot; In fact, you can fill entire conversations with this one word in summer.
- koyou, momiji – autumn leaves
- yuki – snow
- samui – cold
Photo by Akira Deng
Depending on the season, different words are heard frequently. In spring, the cherry blossoms Sakura and picnicking under the trees Hanami is particularly significant.
As mentioned in detail, you can probably travel through the country without knowing a single word of Japanese. But, of course, it will be easier with some knowledge anyway. Especially after I could read katakana, shopping and choosing drinks at vending machines were much more manageable. Knowing numbers can also help you avoid embarrassing slip-ups when making purchases. But, based on my experience, I can also say that traveling is much more fun even with basic knowledge. After all, you at least get to interact easily with the locals and have to wonder about phrases a little less often.