You’re coming to Japan! You don’t have time to learn much of the language before you fly out, so you’re looking for a quick fix! Let this be it.
Whilst I thoroughly recommend putting in some effort to learn Japanese if you’re planning on spending a decent amount of time in Japan (using textbooks or completing an intensive course somewhere like Coto Academy is highly recommended!), this guide will get you through until you find more grounding in the language. If you’re only in Japan for a few days or weeks, I’d argue that this list is sufficient in communicating the basics in the most polite, efficient and respectful ways as can be expected of someone who knows next-to-nothing of the language.
Remember, plenty of people get by in Japan without knowing any of the language (bless their hearts) but these phrases are super-duper useful, so learn them and use them. You actually do get points for trying. Click the titles to hear native pronunciations.
You will (should) use this phrase everyday. Onegaishimasu is a way of saying please and thank you all at once. Efficiency. BAM. You rock up to a check-out at a store or konbini or supermarket…whilst you can take the very common route of saying nothing at all (which is totally acceptable and may be best if you’re at a clothing store where they’ll start asking you about membership cards…) I find it easier to have something to say, as it feels way more natural to acknowledge service staff with words. Onegaishimasu is kind of like saying ‘I kindly request you to do this for me, thanks so much in advance.’ If you’re wondering what the word for ‘please’ is, technically, it’s kudasai, but that’s actually a pretty demanding and direct word. Onegaishimasu is way more practical and humble. Learn it, it’s great.
Whilst I totally resented sumimasen at the start of my working holiday (read on), I eventually came to appreciate and entirely embrace this extremely versatile word. Sumimasen can be used as
- ‘Excuse me’, i.e, I’m stepping in front of your line of sight as you peruse the drink section in the konbini, ‘sumimasen’.
- To politely summon waitstaff’s attention. On our third day in Japan, we were schooled by a restaurant employee that you need to summon waitstaff to take your order once you’ve been seated. Staff will rarely intrude on your table to check if you’re ready to order.
- Thank you. Sumimasen is more commonly used as a ‘thank you’ between strangers than the technical translation of thank you, arigatou (see below). Oh, you picked up my headphones that I didn’t realise had fallen from my bag! Sumimasen. This particular use of the word was probably a sore point for me. I didn’t understand why I should be pretty much apologising for something instead of saying thank you. But it IS thank you. And it’s humble. Use it!
- I’m sorry. Sumimasen is a nice way to apologise too. Oh – I stepped on your foot! I didn’t hear you call my number in the queue the first time! I misunderstood and didn’t give the correct amount to settle the bill! Sumimasen.
‘ko’ like the ‘co’ in ‘collect’ and ‘re’ like the ‘re’ in ‘rent’.
I once heard someone say that they once heard that the only three words you really need to know in any language to get by are ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘this’. I’m only going to bother mentioning one of these (feel free to google the other two). When you’re wanting to order food, simply call over your wait staff (‘sumimasen’) then point and say, ‘kore onegaishimasu’. BAM. Desired food has been politely communicated.
Thank you + Thank you very much
When you’re having an ‘expected’ exchange with a stranger (i.e service staff), arigatou is the way to go: when you receive your change at the checkout, when the train station staff tell you which platform you need to use, when your barista serves you your coffee, etc.
Arigatou gozaimashita is the way to go to show thanks for something that has finished (‘mashita’ is the past tense conjugation). When it comes to service staff interactions, there can sometimes be several back and forths of ‘thank yous’ throughout the exchange. Arigatou gozaimashita brings a useful finality to the interaction. You can also use this phrase to show deeper appreciation of something, like a really nice experience of hospitality and kindness.
I don’t understand
Your excellent use of the words above may fool some Nihonjin into thinking that your grasp of Japanese is excellent. Then all of a sudden they’re speaking to you like you actually know the language! Wakarimasen is all you need to say to convey that you don’t understand. Thank the universe that so much can be communicated with gestures in context!
Daijyoubu can be used as a question or a statement, depending on inflection. If you’re asking if its ok to do something… Daijyoubu? If you’re offered something that you don’t need, a little wave of the hand accompanied with the word is a polite way to decline. If you’re offered a plastic bag for your can of coffee from the convenience store, this is the perfect time to use the latter. If you’re wanting to say something is ok, like, ‘go ahead! That’s ok!’ then using English ‘OK’ will do the trick!
Unless you’re not a member of the human species, it’s statistically quite likely that you’ll make a mistake at some point. Just yesterday I went to our local sushi train and accidentally pressed the staff call button when I was trying to select the language on our touchpad order screen. Thankfully this is the only example I can provide for you of when I made a mistake, as my subconscious is kindly blocking the more embarrassing ones. Happiness.
Machigaeta is the most polite and straightforward way of saying ‘I made a mistake’.
As you can see, this list isn’t all that long. It only takes a wee bit of effort to make life way easier for yourself and enrich your experience ten-fold!