8-basic-japanese phrases survival guide newcomer

8 Basic Japanese Phrases: A Survival Guide for the Newcomer

Traveling Japan without knowing Japanese is not for the faint of heart.

It is challenging to navigate Japan without at least knowing some basic survival phrases.

Street names are written in incomprehensible squiggles.

You don’t know the name of your hotel or how to ask for directions.

You, along with hordes of Japanese businessmen packed like canned sardines, just spent an uncomfortable hour on a subway car only to discover it took you to the wrong end of town.

Whilst regretfully resting your head in someones’ armpit during your very first Tokyo subway misadventure, you found yourself wondering how to adapt to these new circumstances.


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An Introduction to Living or Traveling in Japan

There are many ways to get into trouble when you’re in a new country that you don’t understand. Having bought your plane ticket and officially touched Japanese soil for the first time, it is of the utmost importance that you learn to live life in Japan. A lot of foreigners who come to Japan assume that they can just carry on with their usual lives from home, only transplanted to a new environment. These maladjusted expats naively stumble through their lives abroad, thinking things like: “It’s too hot today, so I guess it’s okay to just leave my suit jacket at home before going to work”; “I bet there are plenty of people who speak English at my new job”; “I’ll just grab a croissant on my way home.” Sorry, but you are not going to grab anything remotely croissant-like, speak any English that day, or arrive at work without sweating out half of your body-weight on the way. You might learn the hard way that this is a very unhelpful way of thinking. You will quickly become frustrated when Japan fails to meet you expectations. Life is probably considerably different there than life in your home country. The words “when in Rome do as the Romans do” certainly come to mind, and they more than live up to their renown. You are never going to have to become Japanese, but the sooner you learn to fit in, the easier it will be for you to enjoy your stay.

8 Basic Japanese Phrases: A Survival Guide for the Newcomer

Having lived in Tokyo for a while now, I find that these few phrases will, sooner or later, come in handy and at least partly solve the problem of trying to fit in. It is not enough to know just these phrases if you plan to build a life in Japan, but they are essential for getting started.

If you don’t learn them now, you might have to learn them the hard way. To start navigating Japan, you absolutely need to absorb as many common Japanese phrases as you possibly can. Later, when you want to get into the real meat of the Japanese language, there are several guides out there which will help accelerate your language learning.

You can find both everyday Japanese phrases and vocab/grammar practice on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. 

The immersive, entertaining content makes grammar and vocabulary much more memorable.

The Case for Learning Simple, Basic Japanese.

It is important to realize that grammar is a necessary part of language learning. However, any advanced language learner will tell you that confidence is the key to learning a new language. The sooner you learn something you can actually use, the sooner you can put yourself out there and start having Japanese language conversations. By interacting with people and conversing in Japanese, even if it’s only a little bit, you will make huge strides in building your self-confidence. Think about this for a minute. Your brain absorbs more aural and visual data on a daily basis than it can usefully store and deal with. Obviously, it has to discard most of that information. It turns out that you tend to just remember whatever you found to be useful during the day. It’s much harder to learn something you can’t use immediately, than it is to just learn whatever you need when you need it. So, before worrying about grammatical correctness, master some basic sentences that you can use. From there, you’ll keep expanding upon what you already know. Later, you will discover ways of using grammar to give those words and phrase new meanings. As you use them, you can see that how they work and convey messages. You will be on the road to making even more Japanese language breakthroughs and speaking to people with unshakable confidence.

1. すみません – Excuse me

This is, by far, one you will be using the most as a foreigner in Japan. This simple word means “I’m sorry” or “excuse me,” and it is able to express your regret, gratitude and confusion all at once! Foreigners in Japan often tend to over-use this word because it is so versatile and probably the main word they know. If you bump into someone on the street, they are likely to apologize to you using this word even when it’s clearly your fault. In other situations, such as when you hold the door for someone, they usually use this phase before graciously passing through. All in all, there seems to be no occasion when this word is totally inappropriate, so use it to your heart’s content. すみません is a favorite survival word which will get you out of any sticky situation!

2. 私の自転車はどこですか? (わたしのじてんしゃはどこですか?) – Where’s my bicycle?

When you, at some point, have your bicycle taken from you by the police—which, believe me you will—this phrase will save your butt. After you have parked it illegally in the crammed streets of the city and are shocked to find it missing, go to the place where you last left it and use this phrase until someone takes pity on you and leads you to where it is being kept. You may want to prefix this with a すみません. Because, why not? It’s nice to be extra polite. There is usually a map showing the way to the local police bicycle storage area (yes, this is a real thing) nearby any metro station, but let’s face it, you’re not going to be able to read it on your own. You will also find that most Japanese people are kind and like to help out. Some will go out of their way to lead you to exactly where you need to be. Enjoying this kindness will be part of your experience in Japan at some point, as will having your bicycle taken away. This phrase will introduce you to both!

3. そうですね – Isn’t it so?

This phrase is essential for having conversations with people in Japanese without understanding Japanese. This is your key to feigning comprehension. Saying “そうですね means “yes, it is so?” or “ah, isn’t it so?” It is especially helpful, for instance, when watching a game of football or baseball with your Japanese acquaintances. Whenever they say something about the game, just reply using this sentence. They will think that you understand them perfectly and even compliment your skill with the language. This trick has saved you twice-over in this scenario if you know as little about football as you do about Japanese.

4. 暑いですね? (あついですね?) – It’s hot, isn’t it?

Striking up conversations with strangers is easy when you know how to say something obvious that everyone will agree with. August in Japan tends to be very hot and humid, and the hands-down most spoken sentence during this month is “暑いですね?” or, “it’s hot isn’t it?” Conveniently, this question is answered perfectly by “そうですね!” Congratulations, you have just learned to hold real conversations with Japanese people.

5. これをください – This one please

Being able to ask for or to order things is easily one of the most important things to learn early on. これをください simply means “this one please” or “this please.” Use it while pointing at pictures of tasty foods you want to eat at restaurants. It is not necessary to use this sentence when shopping for groceries, but you might feel like doing it once in a while just to flaunt your mad language skills. It works really well until they start asking questions in the store that you cannot answer.

6. わかりません – I don’t understand

I know I told you to nod, smile and say “そうですね,” but sometimes you really need to understand something that’s being said to you. For this reason, わかりません is another favorite basic Japanese phrase. Like すみません, it can literally be used in almost any context and its usage is highly recommended. For extra effect, consider combining it with すみません – you’re almost a native speaker already! But use it with care. The person you spoke with may not let you go before they’re 100% sure you have understood whatever they were trying to tell you. If you’re in my target audience and were asking for help with basic phrases, lot of Japanese people will go out of there way to answer your question effectively, help you understand and get your tasks accomplished. If a helpful Japanese friend is being super insistent but you’re just not getting it, you can always revert back to nodding and saying “そうですね until they leave you alone.

7. 医者はどこですか?/病院はどこですか? (いしゃはどこですか?/びょういんはどこですか?) – Where is the doctor?/Where is the hospital?

Let me be absolutely clear. I only encourage the safest conduct in traffic. Do not ride your bicycle quickly along the pavement, and always ride it on the correct side of the road (the right side is the left). But let’s face it, there are just so many people to watch out for! If you do have to narrowly avoid a pedestrian and crash into something on your way to work, at least you can congratulate yourself for avoiding a collision with that person. Depending on how well you feel you fit in to the culture already, you may turn towards the stranger in front of whom you clumsily crashed your bike and say “すみません、医者はどこですか?/すみません、病院はどこですか?

8. 私は日本語がうまくありません (わたしはにほんごがうまくありません) – My Japanese is bad

You should strive to be fluent in Japanese – of course, this has to be your ambition while you’re here. Some day you will be able to speak to whomever you wish about complex topics without breaking a sweat. But since you are reading this, your Japanese could probably use some work. Letting others know that you’re not very good at the language is not exactly a conversation starter, but it may help you excuse yourself in an uncomfortable situation. Interestingly, Japanese people tend to be overly-impressed that you can actually render this phrase in the first place, so it may backfire and be mistaken for modesty. They may think you’re actually good at Japanese and just being humble. Expressing humility and excellence at language in a single sentence – you may not possess either of those qualities, but no one can claim you were lying.

Advancing Beyond Basic Japanese Phrases

Learning a new language – especially Japanese – takes a long time, but it is important to start using your new language as soon as possible. You may not learn much more than survival Japanese for the first few weeks you spend in Japan, but it is a good start because it means you actually have useful phrases in your arsenal. This in turn means that you can start conveying very simple messages and start practicing right away. The more you practice early on, the more natural it will become for you to incorporate new words and expressions into your spoken language every day. You will be able to use Japanese in a creative and smart way from the beginning, ensuring that you start off on the right foot!

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