If you’re heading to Japan it’s really important to learn at least a little of the language.  Not only will it help you better interact with people, but it’ll be easier to navigate your way around the world.  While Tokyo usually has important signs in both Japanese and English, many smaller towns and cities are less likely to do so, and even in Tokyo, you may find yourself unable to read something or recognize what the characters mean.  So, being an American living in Japan, I’ve put together a very basic guide to Japanese of words and phrases you’re likely to hear and want to use, and also characters that you’ll see a lot so you can get them in your mind to better recognize on signs.

Even if you don’t become fluent (and you definitely won’t from this guide alone) it’s good to have a small grasp on the language so you’re not completely lost when you arrive and you can focus on enjoying the culture and sights instead of spending a ton of time translating basic signs or phrases.

Basic Guide to Japanese

Words and Phrases

**A quick note about the characters. There are three sets of characters in Japanese: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. For the purpose of this basic guide we’re going to focus on kanji and hiragana.

Kanji (漢字) are adopted from Chinese. The word kanji literally means “Han characters.”  In modern Japanese, kanji are used to write parts of the language such as nouns, adjective stems, and verb stems.

While hiragana are used to write inflected verb and adjective endings, and as phonetic complements to kanji.

Below, especially in the sign section, you’ll see the kanji that is actually written on the sign, and then the hiragana to phonetically say it in Japanese, and then the phonetic spelling in Roman letters, and finally the English translation.

こんにちは (Konnichiwa: “Hello” or “Good Afternoon”)

This is a fairly formal greeting and is used for strangers or formal situations. It’s the most standard greeting for hello.

あー、___さん。(Ahh, _-san: “Ah, Mr./Mrs. _”)

Although it may sound strange to speakers in English, greeting someone with just “Ah!” like you’re surprised to see them is common. You greet them with the exclamation and their name, followed by the appropriate suffix (“-san” is standard and good to use for most people). You can follow it with a question, like asking about the weather.

いい天気ですね!(Ii Tenki desu ne: “Good Weather, huh!”)

いい (ii) means “good” and 天気 (tenki) means weather.  P.S. you don’t pronounce the u in “desu.” It’s just “des.”

元気ですか (Genki desu ka: “How are you?”)

You may not use this phrase. It’s awkward when said to strangers (often strangers barely nod and say nothing) because, unlike in English, the Japanese don’t say “How are you?” as a greeting. This phrase is actually only used when it’s been quite some time since you’ve seen the person.

こんばんは (Konbanwa: “Good Evening”)

It’s a formal greeting meant, obviously, for later in the day.

おやすみなさい (Oyasumi Nasai: Goodnight)

じゃまた (Ja Mata: “See You Later” or “Goodbye”)

You probably know さようなら (sayounara) is “goodbye” but it has a very strong sense of finality. So unless you know for sure you’ll never see someone again, it’s better to say じゃまた. Other variations are じゃね (ja ne: “see you”), バイバイ (baibai: “bye-bye”), and お元気で (o-genki de: “take care”).

はい or うん (Hai or Un: “Yes”)

You use はい when speaking formally, and うん when speaking with friends.

いいえ or ううん (Iie or Uun: “No”)

Like with “yes,” いいえ is more formal, and ううん is casual. You don’t actually hear いいえ that often though, because it’s too direct in formal situations. Instead, you say “ちょっと…” (Chotto: “It’s a bit… [inconvenient, not good for me]”).  You’ll soon notice in Japan that people will rarely say no even to a yes or no question.  Instead they’ll say something like “I’m sorry” or “Not possible” and make a cross with their arms (sometimes they’ll just make the cross). 🙅‍♀️

_ です。(* desu*: “I am ”)

A very basic, but useful sentence! You can add anything to describe yourself before です which means “is, to be.” You could say 二十七歳です (Ni juu nana sai desu: “I am 27 years old”), アメリカ人です (Amerikajin desu: “I am American”), or 作家です (Sakka desu: “I am a writer”). You could also use it to say your name “Mackenzie desu: “I am Mackenzie.”

ありがとうございます (Arigatou Gozaimasu: “Thank You”)

There are several ways to say thank you, but this is the most polite way. With friends, you can say ありがとう (arigatou) or ども (domo).

ゆっくりお願いします (Yukkuri Onegai Shimasu: “More Slowly, Please”)

Japanese can seem very fast when you start learning — so this is a very useful phrase. Now, you can ask for the speaker to talk a bit slower.

わかりません (Wakarimasen: “I Don’t Understand”)

If you don’t understand, let the speaker know! You can then follow it with もう一度ゆっくりお願いします (mou ichido yukkuri onegai shimasu: “Please, [say it] again more slowly”).

すみません (Sumimasen: “Excuse Me”)

You can also use this expression as a more formal way to apologize than ごめんなさい (gomen nasai).

どういたしまして (Dou Itashimashite: “You’re Welcome”)

This phrase sometimes seems intimidating when you’re new. A lot of my former Japanese classmates always complained they would forget it. I’ve heard a great way to remember it: In a Super Mario- like voice, say “Don’ta toucha my mustache.” Close enough to “doh-ee-ta-shi-ma-shi-te” that you’ll never forget it again.

少し日本語を話します (Sukoshi Nihongo wo Hanashimasu: “I Speak a Little Japanese”)

Yes, you can start using this phrase right now. You speak a little — just from what you’ve learned here!

いくらですか (Ikura desu ka: “How much Is It?”)

If you’re out shopping and can’t find a price, ask the 店員さん (tenninsan: “shop clerk”) how much.

かわいい (Kawaii: “Cute”)

You probably know this one, as it’s become a staple of otaku in America, but it’s very common in Japan too. Everything is “kawaii.”  If you have a young child or baby with you in Japan you’ll definitely hear this often as people flock around you to admire your kids.

Family Travel Resource Guide

Common Signs

入口 (いりぐち iri-guchi) — entrance

Basic Guide to Japanese

出口 (でぐち de-guchi)= exit
Basic Guide to Japanese

改札口 (かいさつぐち kai-satsu-guchi) = ticket gate

Basic Guide to Japanese

 (えき e-ki) = station

Station Sign

地下鉄 (ちかてつ chi-ka-tetsu) = subway

Subway Sign

準備中 (じゅんびちゅう jun-bi-chuu) = in preparation (means, the shop/restaurant is not open yet)

営業中 (えいぎょうちゅう ei-gyou-chuu) = open (for business)

お手洗い (おてあらい o-te-ara-i)/トイレ (to-i-re)= restroom, toilet

 (おんな onna) = female

Female

 (おとこ otoko) = male

Male Sign

非常口 (ひじょうぐち hi-jou-guchi) = emergency exit

Emergency Exit

禁止 (きんし kin-shi) = forbid, prohibit, ban

注意 (ちゅうい chuu-i) = caution

拉麺 (ラーメン or らーめん are commonly seen)= ramen!

寿司 (すし su-shi) = sushi

止まれ (tomare) = Stop!

More Language Help:

As I’ve said, this is a very basic guide to Japanese as I myself haven’t exactly mastered the language.  So, if you want a more in-depth guide from… probably a native Japanese speaker and not just me, here are some resources to find more help to dive deeper for your next trip.

Lonely Planet Japanese

Japanese Pod

And if you want to know more about Japan or our experience here, head over to our Japan Guide.

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A Very Basic Guide to Japanese
A Very Basic Guide to Japanese