You have scored that business trip to Japan. Or you decided it would be nice to stop over in Tokyo while en route to somewhere else. Japan is well-geared for English-speaking visitors, but if you don't want to feel like a complete idiot, you might want to learn the "bare minimum" for survival in Japan.
Most of the important signage in Japan is bi-lingual or tri-lingual, including Japanese, English, and sometimes Korean. You may have heard that Japanese students take six full years of English, which is true, but don't assume that the average student remembers any of it.
If you have only a short time to prepare for a trip, then you must focus on the ten things that make the most difference in enjoying your time with Japanese people.
- sumimasen - excuse me
- gomen nasai - I'm sorry
- XXXX o kudasai - I'd like XXXX please
- kore o kudasai - I'd like THIS please
- kore wa nan desu ka? - what is THIS?
- ikura desu ka? - how much?
- XXXX wa doko desu ka? - where is XXXX?
- toire - toilet
- denwa - telephone
- tokyo eki - Tokyo Station
- hai, iie - yes, no
- ohayou gozaimasu - good morning!
- konnichiwa - hello, good day
- konbanwa - hello, good evening
- oishi desu - it's delicious
- doumo arigatou gozaimasu - thank you very much
sumimasen: soo mee mah SEN
This is the basic "excuse me" phrase, suitable for those situations where someone steps on your foot or when you step on theirs. If you have to squeeze through a crowd, or you need to get a clerk's attention, sumimasen.
gomen nasai: go MEN nah sigh
This is a bigger "I'm sorry" phrase, in case you find you have spilled your tea or have worn the wrong shoes into the wrong room. Let's hope you have no need for it, but it will surely add emphasis to your apology if you do it right. The usual "apology accepted" is iie, which means no. In this case, take it as "no, that's alright." (More about yes and no below.)
XXXX o kudasai: whatever OH koo dah sigh
You can ask for just about anything this way, even if you don't know the Japanese word for it. Hand waving and finger pointing and charades are appropriate here. "Toothbrush o kudasai!" while pretending to brush your teeth will generally get the idea across.
In a restaurant, if you can't read the menus, just motion for the waitress to follow you to the front door, where they have most dishes on display as plastic models of the food. Yes, seriously, almost every walk-in restaurant will do this. Then you can point and say, kore o kudasai: KOH ray oh koo dah sigh. I want this, please. Or if you're still not sure, kore wa nan desu ka?: KOH ray wah nahn dess kah? What is this?
ikura desu ka?: ee koo rah dess kah?
How much is it? If you can find anything in Japan that is not clearly labeled with a perfectly visible price tag, or if you want the very cute clerk to total the price of several items for you, here's your chance. Years ago, the answer would be spoken to you, very quickly, so you would have to make out what they meant by gosenhappyakunanajuurokuen. Now, they'll just show you the calculator screen: 5876 Yen.
Where is it?
XXXX wa doko desu ka?: whatever wah DOH koh dess kah? Usually the signs will be clear enough, but here are a few things you might need help finding.
- TOIRE wa doko desu ka? TOY RAY is their way of saying "toilet." Remember it well.
- DENWA wa doko desu ka? The DEHN WAH is the telephone. All of the pay phones are bright green so they're hard to miss.
- TOKYO EKI wa doko desu ka? Of course, Tokyo Eki (Tokyo Station) is in Tokyo. But if you are in Shinjuku Station, this will help you find the right train platform to board the right train that will take you in that direction. By the way, it's not TOH KEY OH with three syllables. To say it right, say TOH KYOH, with two crisp syllables.
hai, iie: HIGH, EE yeh
Everyone should know how to say "yes" and "no". As with any language, there are other ways to say yes and no, but everyone will get your drift with the standard words.
ohayou gozaimasu: oh HAH yo go zah ee moss
Literally "it's early" but traditionally "good morning." Since 11am is not early, you'd probably stop hearing this phrase by the time people have arrived at the office.
konnichiwa: kohn NEE chee wah
Literally "as for this this day" but traditionally "hello."
konbanwa: kohn BAN wah
Literally "as for this this evening." It's time to stop saying "good day" about when the sun is going down.
oishi desu: oh ee shee dess
There are all kinds of phrases to learn around the dinner table. Since you're in a hurry to learn the minimum, you should just start with the simplest of compliments: it's delicious!
doumo arigatou gozaimasu: doh moh ah ring ah toh go za ee moss
If this way of saying "thank you" is too long to remember, then abbreviate it to either doumo or arigatou. Practice it until it doesn't seem like a mouthful to say. You will hear it often, and you should say it often.
While You're At It...
As long as you're practicing your new vocabulary, you should practice your use of chopsticks, too! It is a skill you can easily pick up in just a day or two, but it often makes a big impression on your hosts when a foreigner demonstrates that they can live without a fork.
Once you're holding the chopsticks correctly, a practice game is to transfer shelled peanuts or other small objects from one bowl to another.
I am just an early student in Japanese language, so please send me comments or corrections on my study aids!
Contact Ed Halley by email at
Text, code, layout and artwork are Copyright © 1996-2010 Ed Halley.
Copying in whole or in part, with author attribution, is expressly allowed.
Any references to trademarks are illustrative and are controlled by their respective owners.