If you live in a Western country such as Britain, America or elsewhere in Europe then Japan will seem a very alien country when you first arrive. They language, writing, alphabets, foods and customs are so different to ours that Japan can be a big culture shock to the system.
Japanese survival phrases
If you look on the internet or in a book shop there are lots of guides on Japanese survival phrases. However it is hard to find a guide with just the right words that you need to get you started in Japan – or even worse there are guides that give you direct translations without proper context of when to use or who you can use these phrases with.
Japan is a country of complex etiquette so a simple translation of words without understanding the context may not get you the results you need. For example many guides will tell you ‘Good Morning’ is ‘ohayo gozaimasu’ or that ‘Thank You’ is ‘arigato’. Are these translations good enough? No they’re not – you need more context to know if they are suitable!
I’m only going to explain a small number of phrases – these are ones you are very likely to use – they won’t help you to have a conversation but they may make you visit to Japan easier.
Whatever country you are in you should always know how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’. Very important for getting you out of trouble and so that you don’t seem rude!
If you only learn five Japanese phrases make it these ones.
1. Arigato gozaimasu
Pronounced ‘ari-ga-toe goh-zai-mass’, this means ‘thank you very much’. It is what you would say if you want to be polite to the waiter when they bring you your food, or to the shop assistant when you have completed your purchase transaction. Normally you would do a small bow or nod at the same time as saying this.
You may notice when in the country that many Japanese people do not say thank you to shop or restaurant staff. This is not considered rude. But as a foreigner it is best to be politer than you need.
Many books will list ‘arigato’ as ‘thank you’. While this is correct – ‘arigato’ is a casual ‘thank you’, you would normally use the more formal version when dealing with shop, restaurant or other staff. ‘Arigato’ by itself is suitable for use with close friends.
An ever more polite ‘thank you’ is ‘arigato gozaimashita’. This is something that you may hear shop, restaurant or other staff say to you. You wouldn’t normally say it back to them though – ‘arigato gohzaimasu’ is the more appropriate response.
Normally when you have paid in a shop or restaurant the staff will say ‘arigato gozaimashita’ to you first. Then you can say ‘arigato gohzaimasu’ to them before leaving.
The full pronunciation would be ‘sue-me-ma-sen’, however when you hear Japanese people saying it the word sounds squashed into something more like ‘suei-ma-sen’.
This is quite a versatile word. You can use it to say ‘sorry’, ‘excuse me’ and ‘thanks’.
If you bump into someone then you can say ‘sumimasen’ to apologise.
If you want to get past someone you can say ‘sumimasen’ to say ‘excuse me’.
If you want to say a very small non-final thanks – for instance the waiter hands you a towel to clean your hands you can say ‘sumimasen’. You’d still say ‘arigato gozaimasu’ when he has completed doing whatever he is doing at the table or when you have been given your food.
3 4 & 5. Ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa and konbanwa
After having learnt ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’/ ‘excuse me’ the next essential phrases to learn are good morning, good afternoon, good evening.
Although ‘Ohayo gozaimasu’ is generally translated as ‘Good Morning’ it can’t be used interchangeably with ‘Good Morning’. It is only valid until about 10am in the morning.
After 10am you must use ‘konnichiwa’. Note that in pronouncing this word there are two ‘n’ sounds. Don’t merge them together. It is kon-nichiwa. You can use konnichiwa from 10am, through the afternoon and into the evening until the sun sets.
Konbanwa is good evening and you can use this after the sun has set until the early morning when you start to use ‘Ohayo gozaimasu’ again.
Do I need other words?
Although more words are useful you can certainly survive in Japan for a holiday with just those phrases. I’ll give you some more survival tips below.
English in Japan
English is not very widely spoken in Japan. In Tokyo you will find basic English spoken at hotels, tourist sites, and tourist friendly restaurants. In other cities English is less spoken, and if you get off the usual tourist trail you may find that almost no English is spoken.
If you need ask a question in English then your best place to get an answer may well be the reception of the nearest hotel. Reception staff in hotels often can speak English – or there will be someone around who does. Reception staff are great if you are lost and need directions. If no hotel is available then you may find that young Japanese women in their 20s or 30s have the best spoken English.
Because of the way English is taught in Japanese schools you will find that written English is much better understood that spoken English. If you are not getting anywhere with your spoken English but you realise that the person you are talking too knows some English then try writing the question down. But don’t use joined up letters as joined-up writing is not usually on the syllabus in schools!
Kanji are the Chinese characters used in Japan. There are thousands of them and obviously you can’t learn kanji for your holiday.
However I do recommend that if you are travelling around you learn the kanji for the place you are staying. For example if you are in a hotel in Osaka then learn the kanji for Osaka (大阪). You will find knowing your ‘home’ kanji very useful if you are trying to get a bus or train back. Signs outside of tourist areas may not have any English.
Knowing that the kanji for weekday is 平日 will help you know which section to look at on a bus timetable. If you know the kanji for where you are going then you might even be able to work out which timetable to look at.
There are a few other kanji in this post that you may find useful.
There are many kinds of restaurant in Japan. Some are fairly Western, others are very Japanese!
You have to be a bit careful to judge the kind of restaurant before you go in so you don’t make a bad faux pas!
If there are people in front of you observe what they do on entering the restaurant. In particular you may need to know what the etiquette is regarding shoes. Walking on a shoe free area with your shoes still on is very bad!
Many Japanese restaurants and other establishments require you to remove your shoes. You’ll generally be able to recognise these places as they will have slippers on the floor near the entrance and then you will have to step up onto the raised wooden floor. You can either wear the slippers or walk in your socks
There will generally be a rack to put your shoes, or sometimes there may be a locker.
In a more Western restaurant (if you go to an Italian for example) you’ll probably be keeping your shoes on.
If you take your time entering the restaurant rather than striding in have a quick look around then you should be able to see what kind of system they are operating.
You can indicate how many people are in your group by using your fingers. A small bow and ‘konnichiwa’ can be said before this if you want.
Menus generally have lots of pictures in them so you can order by pointing to what you want and indicating the quantity. In larger cities in Japan the staff may speak basic English. In more remote areas you might just have to get by with hand signals.
When seated you can get the attention of the staff with a nod, or saying ‘sumimasen’, or sometimes they may give you an electronic buzzer to call them. Japanese waiting staff are very attentive so you should find it very easy to get served.
‘Arigato gozaimasu’ is the appropriate way to thank the waiter when your food is brought. A small bow can be used too.
After bringing your food the waiter will probably put the bill on your table. If you order more food, they’ll bring you an updated bill.
When you have finished you take the bill to the counter and hand it to them. You don’t tend to pay at the table as you might do in America or England. They’ll press some buttons on the till and tell you the price again – it will be the same as on your bill.
Usually there will be a tray to put your money in, and they will then give you any change.
You shouldn’t give tips in Japan. It is not expected and may even cause confusion. Good service is included without requiring extra bribes – as it should be!
If you are vegetarian I have a separate guide about being vegetarian in Japan.
Ordering in a café is similar to ordering in a restaurant except that you may be ordering at the counter (unless it is a very posh café where they may take your order from the table).
If you order at the counter you’ll pay them at the counter. If they take your order from the table they’ll give you a bill and then you’ll go to the counter to pay after you have finished.
Japanese vending machines are pretty self explanatory. But you might not have noticed that there are red and blue boxes below the buttons. The blue boxes will get you a cold drink and the red boxes will get you a hot drink.
As in restaurants and cafes you usually pay in a shop by putting the money in a tray.
Receiving your change
Whether in a restaurant, cafe, or shop there is a certain etiquette that the staff follow when giving you your change.
First they will count out the notes in front of you. Then they will hand the notes to you using both hands.
Next they will count out the coins and give these to you.
The notes and coins are always given to your separately so don’t worry if at first you think you aren’t being given enough change!
If you want to book a specific train at the ticket counter then don’t count on the member of staff speaking English. Your best bet is to write your destination, and the date and time of the train on a piece of paper. This should ensure you get the right ticket.
On most regular buses in Tokyo you will enter (入口) from the front door and exit (出口) from the middle door.
But through much of the rest of the country it is the other way around – enter through the middle door and exit through the front door. Make sure you check before getting on.
When you enter through the middle door the system will probably be that you’ll take a ticket from the dispenser by the door. It will have a number on it. On a screen at the front of the bus will be a list of numbers and the prices for your journey. The prices will increase as the bus goes further.
When you have reached your stop put the ticket and the correct money into the container at the front. Watch what other people do. If you don’t have the correct change there will be a change-maker at the front of the bus which will accept 1000 Yen notes.
Not all buses have variable fares though. Some buses have a fixed fare no matter how far the bus goes. A fixed fare bus will have no tickets in the machine, all the prices on the board at the front will be the same, and there may well be a sign in the bus saying it is a fixed fare bus.
People drive on the left in Japan. This will be intuitive for English and Australians. Maybe not so intuitive for Americans!
Pedestrian crossings are clearly marked – usually with black and white stripes – and often have counters telling you how long it is until the lights will change. You shouldn’t cross unless the light is green – it can be an offence to illegally cross the road.
Crossing places without pedestrian green/red lights are marked with black and white stripes. You can cross when it is safe – cars have the right of way.
On roads without pavements you should just be careful.
You will see lots of cyclists in Japan cycling along the pavements. They don’t usually go too fast, and will cycle around you. Don’t make sudden movements when you are walking or they may crash into you!
At railway crossings you should keep your ears open – there may not be a visible sign that the gate is about to close.
Signs for toilets are usually in English, but sometime in katakana. In this case look out for the sign saying トイレ (to-i-re).
The symbols for male and female are usually self explanatory unless they are written in kanji.
男 is the kanji for male.
女 is the kanji for female.
Many larger toilets have a map near the entrance which shows you which types of toilets are located in which cubicle. In Japan you have squat toilets, standard western sit down toilets, and the high tech Japanese toilets.
If you can’t work out where the flush is (if it is a high tech toilet) you can look for the large 大 / small 小 kanji to find which button to press. Can you find the flush on the toilet control panel below?
On long distance coaches the toilets often have two buttons on the wall. The yellow one is the flush (you can see the small toilet picture). I’m guessing the red one is the emergency alarm – but I’ve never tried it!
If you want to save on wear and tear of your own power plug adaptor (especially if you are in the country for a while) then it might be a good idea to buy a cheap multi-socket adaptor from a 100 Yen shop (it will cost more than 100 Yen!). Plug your own adaptor permanently into the multi-socket one and only plug the multi-socket adaptor’s plug in and out of the mains sockets.
More Japan survival information
I have some other posts on various Japan survival topics that you might be interested in. I have written about iPhone apps for learning Japanese, how to get a working holiday visa, setting up a Japanese WiFi router, how to translate Japanese for free with OCR software, sending a letter from a Japanese post office, and the Japanese alien registration process.