Over the course of six months living in Japan, our family hosted over 20 people who were visiting Japan for their first time.
We compiled the following list of Japanese phrases to help those visitors pick up just enough Japanese to smooth out a lot of day-to-day interactions and make their stay in Japan more enjoyable and, in some small way, more authentic.
Generally speaking, the Japanese speak a little to say a lot, so you really can learn just a handful of fixed phrases and get an incredible amount of mileage using them during a short stay in Japan.
Furthermore, locals in Japan are visibly delighted when tourists use even the smallest bits of Japanese. It’s not uncommon to say “this, please!” in Japanese and for a shopkeeper to respond, “nihongo jyozu!” (“You speak great Japanese!”)
The goal here is to keep this as accessible as possible, so I’ll be sidestepping almost any discussion of Japanese grammar, which I would normally really enjoy.
Compared to English, pronunciation in Japanese is quite straight forward. Overall, there are fewer distinct sounds in Japanese than in English, so this shouldn’t be too hard. For example, the five vowels are always pronounced in the same way:
- “A” as in “father”.
- “I” as in “meaty”.
- “U” as in “food”.
- “E” as in “egg”.
- “O” as in “old”.
That’s really good enough for now, although there are other aspects of pronunciation worth picking up later, after you’ve learned some phrases.
We’ve tried to present the phrases here in order of importance, based on our limited experience, so if you can’t complete the entire list, hopefully the phrases you have learned will provide the most value possible on your trip.
Thank you — “Arigatō gozaimas(u).”
The first half of this phrase means “thanks,” and the second half makes it polite. When you’re in Japan, you may hear customers say just “arigatō” and be tempted to follow suit, but there are other situations where it would be impolite, so generally it’s better to err on the side of politeness and always include “gozaimas(u)”.
You'll notice with phrases that end with "mas(u)" or "des(u)" that I've put the "u" in parenthesis. Although the "u" is part of the proper spelling of these words, in the common day-to-day interactions you'll be a part of, you would drop the "u" when speaking. So "desu" is pronounced "dess" (and not "deh-sue") and, as you'll see later, "masu" is pronounced "mahss" (and not "mah-sue.")
Excuse me; Sorry — “Sumimasen.”
This is probably the phrase you’ll say more than anything else. You can say this when you’re apologizing, when you’ve bumped into someone, when you need someone’s attention, when you need to get pass someone, when you feel bad for speaking so little Japanese. I’m Canadian, a people known for how much they apologize, so I basically start and end every conversation with “sumimasen.”
I don’t understand — “Wakarimasen.”
The meaning and value of this phrase are both self-explanatory.
I don’t understand Japanese — “Nihongo ga wakarimasen.”
“Knee-hawn-go gah Wah-kah-ree mah-sen.”
This is the same as before, but this phrase is helpful when being preemptive in explaining to someone that you’re not going to be able to understand anything they say in Japanese. “Nihongo” is the Japanese word for Japanese and “ga” is the appropriate grammatical glue in this case.
Yes — “Hai.”
Like “high,” or “height” without the “t”.
You’ll hear and use this word a lot. You might also expect us to also list the word for “no” here, but we don’t, and we’ll explain why with the next phrase.
It’s good; I’m alright; It’s okay; It’s fine; No, thanks. “Daijyōbu des(u).”
Mostly this phrase is used in an affirmative sense, exactly as you’d expect. For example, if you bump your head on something or tip your bike over, but you’re not injured, you can say “daijyōbu des(u)” to let onlookers know you’re OK.
However, there are some situations where it’s meaning may be a little ambiguous, confusing, or the complete opposite of what you’re expecting. For example, my father-in-law ordered a latte, and when the barista asked if he would like sugar in it, he responded in Japanese: “Daijyōbu des(u).” He wanted sugar, but in this case the meaning was completely the opposite and the barista thought he meant, “no, it’s fine!” The latte came with no sugar. (In this case, he would have done better to respond with “yes, please do,” which we’ll teach you shortly.)
We sometimes do the same thing in English, but it’s pervasive in Japanese. Compared to English, it’s relatively rare to say the word “no” in Japanese and in many situations it is considered a little abrupt. Instead, the Japanese soften the rejection by using other words. “It’s okay,” or “daijyōbu des(u),” is one example.
(Another common example, when someone is asked for a service or favor, is to say that it’s “a little difficult.” If a service person says that to us in English, we might consider begging them for the favor in exchange for our gratitude, but in a Japanese context their meaning could not be more clear: They don’t want to be rude, but they either can’t do it, or they’re not willing to do it.)
So this phrase gives you an opportunity to engage in this unique aspect of Japanese culture: When someone is asking if you want something, like sugar in your coffee or a receipt for your purchase, you can politely say “daijyōbu des(u)” and make a subtle, dismissive hand gesture and they will understand that you don’t want it or need it.
Is it OK? Is it alright? Are you alright? May I? “Daijyōbu des(u) ka?”
“Die-joe-boo dess ka?”
This is exactly the same phrase you’ve just learned, (with all the same nuance,) but by adding “ka” to the end, it becomes a question. It’s like a verbal question mark.
Without learning some actual vocabulary and grammar, this is probably the easiest way to ask for permission in Japanese, sometimes in combination with some miming and charades. For example, if you’re in a store and you want to look at something closely, you might say “Sumimasen. Daijyōbu des(u) ka?” while motioning as if you want to pick something up with your hand. If it’s OK, you’ll hear them respond with something like “Hai!”, “Daijyōbu des(u)!”, “Dōzo!”
Please do this favor. “Onegaishimas(u).”
This phrase is probably the most versatile way of asking for someone to do something for you. So when they ask if you want sugar in your coffee, you can say “hai, onegaishimas(u).” It has an advantage over “… o kudasai,” (which we’ll teach you next,) in that it sounds proper without requiring any additional vocabulary for specifying what you want them to do. Instead, the favor you’re asking for is implied from context.
This please. “Kore o kudasai.”
“Ko-reh oh kudasai.”
This is the first phrase here where it isn’t basically a fixed phrase, but instead it’s a structure that allows you to introduce other words you learn in order to communicate your desires more accurately.
In this phrase, “kore” means the thing you’re holding, the thing you’re pointing to on a menu, or something you’re pointing to that is close to you, and “o kudasai” means “give me the aforementioned object, please.”
As you start picking up some other Japanese nouns along the way, you can use the in the place of “kore” in order to ask for them. For example, to ask for coffee, or “kōhī” (“koh-hee”,) you can say “kōhī o kudasai.”
Go ahead. Here you go. “Dōzo.”
There are a lot of people in the cities of Japan, and they’re sharing a lot of the same space, so it’s inevitable that you’ll want to defer to someone at some point. You can use this phrase then. You will also hear this phrase a lot of when someone is trying to give you something. Likewise you can use it when you’re handing someone something.
Things to Listen For
When you ask for something or ask for permission, you’ll mostly be able to understand the responses you get from body language and the hand gestures of the person responding. You’ll also frequently hear one of the phrases you’ve already learned above.
However, another stick that sometimes help is listening for one of the following in the middle of whatever they're saying to you.
“… masen” and “… nai”
“… mah-sen” and “… nigh”
This often translates to “isn’t,” “can’t,” “don’t,” or “won’t.” (or in grammatical terms, it’s the negative form. “Mas(u),” which you’ve also learned, is the positive form.)
When someone says this, they’re saying “can not,” “must not,” “not allowed,” or “not good.” Very helpful to be able to recognize this.
That’s enough for now, but there is more!
I’ve done my best to make sure this guide is approachable and not overwhelming, so I’m going to take a break at this point.
Whether you work through this guide before you go to Japan, or whether you make reference to it once you get to Japan, I’ve both experienced it myself and have now watched numerous visitors do the same: Learning these phrases will change your experience in Japan for the better. Armed with even tiny crumbs of the Japanese language, you will connect with people in a way you’ll remember and treasure for years.
However, despite this being a complete guide in-and-of itself, there is one other major thing we’ve helped some of our visitors do to help them unlock even more of Japan during their time here. I’m going to write a separate article about it, so please sign up for updates below if you’d like to know when I publish that article.