Learning any langauge can be tricky, but Japanese has a reputation for being one of the most difficult in the world.
While no one expects you to be fluent when you step off the plane, a few carefully chosen (and practiced) phases can go a long way. Although English is studied in Japan from an early age, a combination of reasons (from an outdated learning system to near-universal shyness) mean it isn’t as widely spoken as you might expect. Luckily, it’s a land with set phrases for every scenario—from sitting down to dinner to leaving work early. This means that with a little studying, you can move through a lot of situations with ease, and displaying good manners, a very important factor in Japanese culture.
If you have the time, learning the two phonetic alphabets, hiragana (for Japanese words) and katakana (for foreign words) can really help. Especially since the former is often found on station signs and menus for children. Check our article on apps for suggestions. When it comes to speaking, however, a few Japanese travel phrases can make a world of difference, as well as showing a good dose of goodwill to your hosts.
1. Sumimasen | Excuse me
One of those phrases that has a dozen different uses, sumimasen is a great word to start with. It is mainly to get someone’s attention or to apologize, much as the English expression in it’s traditional sense (please excuse my behavior). You’ll find you use it a lot. While polite phrases are rarely said at volume, there is one occasion where you’ll have to turn it up.
In an izakaya, the rowdy bar-restaurants of Japan (as well as some normal restaurants and bars), and unless you have a table buzzer, calling “SUMIMASEN!” into the ether is how you call servers. Unlike the US or UK, waiters in busy restaurants won’t come to the table unless asked, so you will have to call out your new-found phrase when you’re ready to order. If you’re uncertain, see if your neighbors are doing it first.
When to use it: To catch someone’s attention, apologize for comething slight, when you’re getting into a busy train, or to call a waiter in an izakaya (and some restaurants or bars).
When not to use it: If you do more than slightly knock someone, sumimasen should be upgraded to a proper apology: Gomennasai.
2. Arigato gozaimasu | Thank you
A simple and well-known phrase, thank you is common courtesy and should be in the vocab of any visitor. A casual “arigato” is ok in an informal situation, while the full arigato gozaimasu is better for shops and if the person you’re thanking is older than you.
When to use it: Always!
When not to use it: Never!
3. Sumimasen, wakarimasen | Sorry, I don’t understand
If you’re struggling with some complex instructions (and there are a lot of those in Japan), this is a good way to be clear that you’re not following. You can specify to “Nihongo ga wakarimasen” which means “I don’t understand Japanese” if needed. The two phrases coming up are handy if you think you might understand, but need a second go.
When to use it: When someone is explaining something to you and you can’t follow.
4. Mou ichido/ikkai onegaishimasu | Could you repeat that please?
Great if you think you understood something but aren’t sure, this is a simple way to get a second go. If the person is speaking too fast (also pretty common), then you can say “Yukkuri onegaishimasu”, which means “More slowly, please”. As well as getting an actual repetition, this usually signals you need a little help, so they may well choose simpler words or add some gestures.
When to use it: When you have partially understood something and need another go to get it for sure.
When not to use it: If you’ve no hope. Just go straight for Wakarimasen (#3 on the list), so it can explained to you (hopefully) a different way.
5. (Toire) wa, doko desu ka? | Where is the (toilet) ?
Often used to ask for the toilets in restaurants, this easily adapted phrase can be used for almost anything. Compared to the next phrase (Do you have…), this is better for things you know exist, but cannot find—like toilets in a restaurant, or sugar in a convenience store. Often, someone will take you to the destination or give easy instructions, often just pointing.
Remember to use “Sumimasen, wakarimasen chotto” if you don’t understand their instructions!
When to use it: When looking for something you are pretty sure exists.
6. (Wifi) ga arimasuka? | Do you have (wifi)?
Great for anything from wifi to towels to chocolate, this is a good question to have stored away. If you’re looking for something in a supermarket, your hostel or in a restaurant, you’ll be able to find out pretty easily as hosts will usually take you over and show you the item (good old omotenashi—the Japanese values of hospitality).
When to use it: If you can’t find something you’re looking for and aren’t completely sure if it’s available (like a toilet, which is a given).
7. Eigo ga, hanasemasu ka? | Do you speak English?
Pretty self-exlanatory. You’ll be hoping for either a yes , or if not, the staff member may go to find a bilingual person instead. If they say no (quite likely), then you have at least signaled that your Japanese level is low, so you can try to figure it out together.
When to use it: If you’re in a situation where you know you need to work in English, and muddling through won’t do. For example, when renting a car, in a medical situation or on the phone (since you’ll not have the help of gestures).
When not to use it: If you’re in a casual setting, try out your Japanese. It can be fun and a good way to get some practice in (assuming the other person involved doesn’t mind).
8. Ikura desu ka? | How much is it?
Great when shopping, this is a simple phrase that’s pretty easy to remember. Unfortunately, questions expect answers, so it will help if you know the numbers too. Alternatively, shopkeepers often show numbers on a calculator, or will know the English. And there’s always pen and paper too! Remember, unless you’re at a flea market, haggling isn’t done in Japan, so once a price has been named, stick with it. Also, tax in Japan is usually added seperately, as in America, so don’t worry if someone names a price and you later find a label with a slightly different price listed—it’s just the tax price.
When to use it: When shopping, in a restaurant or bar without prices.
10. Gochisousama deshita! | Thank you for the delicious meal!
When you’ve finished a delicious meal, this is a great phrase for the chefs, who are often visible to diners. More specific than “thank you”, and more formal than “oishii” (delicious), it’s a respectful way to thank them for the delicious feast they’ve prepared (a soft translation). Usually said as you leave, you’ll probably here other diners say it as they head out of the door, often with a slight bow.
Before you begin eating, you may hear “itadakimasu” which is similar to the French bon appetit. If you’re eating alone, don’t worry about this, but in groups with Japanese people, it’s polite to wait until everyone says this to begin eating.
‘Oishii’ is great during the meal and you can round it off with gochisousama at the end—the perfect polite meal!
When to use it: As you leave a restaurant, directed towards the chef(s) rather than the waiting staff.
When not to use it: During the meal. Instead you can say oishii which means “delicious”.
Need more language help? Read our post on grocery shopping in Japan if you don’t know any Japanese.