Japanese Cheat Sheet for Travelers: Essential Vocab and Phrases to Use in Japan
Many of us have luggage checklists when we travel, but what about a language checklist?
Traveling to Japan will be an adventure, but making it a positive language learning experience as you navigate and use your new Japanese skills requires planning, practice and a positive attitude.
The point of travel, after all, is to have a good time and explore the culture.
Why Should I Learn Japanese While Traveling?
Congratulations on making the decision to go to the true testing ground of your Japanese language skills! In case you were wondering about the awesome effects traveling has on learning Japanese, take a look at these babies:
- Learn Authentic Language. The whole point of learning Japanese is of course to be able to use the Japanese and the best place for this is the place of origination. You’ll be in the exact environment where the Japanese language has been (and is currently being) shaped. With heavy historical influences from China and modern Western influences, Japan is culturally and linguistically fascinating.
- Meet Native Speakers. Of course! This one’s basically a freebie. There are more than 120 million people in Japan. Most will have been born and grown up in Japan. Take advantage of all the native speakers in their home territory to practice your Japanese. It’s literally a captive audience. As a 外国人(がいこくじん – foreigner), they’ll be interested in you too!
- Soak Up Culture and Learn New Words. Once you’re in Japan, the language will pop out at you. Your mind will unconsciously pick up on things, and it’s much easier to be in the language when it’s 24/7 and everywhere. The feedback loop is complete because everywhere you turn it’s culturally Japanese and you have no choice but 参加する (さんかする – to participate).
- Pick Up Study Materials. While you’re in the land of Japanese plenty, be sure to stock up on anything you need, want or simply stumble across. For bonus points, buy enough stuff, go to the Post Office and ship your items home. That way you don’t need to worry about dragging it all around (books can get heavy) and you’ll fill out a form and communicate in Japanese to accomplish the task. Get anything that will keep Japanese culture and language alive and interesting to you when you get back home.
Set Some Personal Language Goals
What’s the purpose of your visit? Business or pleasure?
If it’s business, your itinerary for where you’ll go, with whom you’ll go and what you’ll do might already be pretty set. Whereas, if your trip is for pleasure, you’re the master of your trip! But either way, 目的を立てて(もくてきをたてて – set goals) for yourself and what you’ll accomplish on your trip. For example:
- Talk to 3 strangers and have different 会話 (かいわ – conversations) with each at least a minute in length.
- Navigate the train station and successfully buy 切符 (きっぷ – tickets) using the Japanese screen.
- Connect with 1 person, exchange contact information. If this is for business, make sure you accept and provide your 名刺 (めいし – business card) in the correct way, so you can stay in touch with them after the trip.
If you don’t have a language plan you have no guide map. Of course, once you’re in Japan your 目的 (もくてき – goals) may change as you develop a better grasp of your environment, but thinking about your goals ahead of time will increase the likelihood that you’ll actually accomplish them.
Know Your Limitations
This is particularly important if you’re in Japan on business. If you’ve been assigned a translator and you’re in a very important business meeting—even if you’re dying to practice your Japanese—you need to 空気を読む (くうきをよむ – read the air/read between the lines) to know whether you should practice or whether you should leave that for later when the conversation isn’t critical.
If you’re going to speak, make sure you’re using the correct level of deferential language. This will require you to know beforehand what your relationship with the person you’re speaking with is. Know your abilities and limitations so that you can get the most out of every conversation without annoying or offending.
Depending on where you’ll be traveling in Japan you may want to brush up on dialects or at least be aware of them so that you don’t feel as though you can’t understand a word anyone is saying to you just because they’re speaking in a dialect that you’re unfamiliar with. This will also help you manage your expectations. No need to ask yourself “Why am I not getting this after I’ve studied so hard?” when you encounter a man from Kyoto who’s simply adding ―え to everything he says.
Don’t hesitate to bring a phrasebook and travel guide along with you. Handy, portable books like these have condensed the essential information about Japan and the Japanese language for travelers so that you can always keep it with you. Lonely Planet is world famous for good reason—they’ve got excellent options for anyone planning to visit Japanese for business or pleasure. You can even opt to buy individual chapters or complete books that are focused on the regions of Japan where you’ll be traveling.
Study Up on Medical Conditions
The conversational language is fun and it’s definitely more interesting to ask someone what their interests are, but don’t neglect the basic phrases for help and more difficult Japanese in case you have an emergency. As in: You should know the Japanese for items you are allergic to, medical conditions that you have and basics like where you’re staying and who your contact person is.
It’s no fun discussing that you have 糖尿病 (とうにょうびょう – diabetes) or that you need 抗生物質 (こうせいぶっしつ – antibiotics), but if something should happen, you’ll want to be able to communicate that information quickly and efficiently, rather than attempting to mime something. At the very least, type the information and print it out so that, in a pinch, you can simply take the paper out and point at it.
Get That Last-minute Packing (and Learning) Done
Besides the list above that covers information about you and phrases you’ll need, make sure you check off your language to-do list before you travel to Japan. Ask yourself:
- Have you packed a language aid? When you travel, you definitely want to take a pocket phrasebook, or download some language learning apps on your phone.
- Have you brushed up on phrases specific to the purpose of your visit? What will you be asking about? What questions do you have that you’d like to ask in Japanese and be able to understand the answer? Can you readily identify Japanese foods that you’ll be ordering so you don’t have to ask “what’s that?” every time? A little cultural preparation to go along with your language preparation will go a long way.
- Is your itinerary ready? More importantly, is your 予定表 (よていひょう – itinerary) in Japanese so that in a pinch you can ask for directions, indicate a location you’re looking for or assess if you’ve got time to make a side trip before your next scheduled activity? Make sure you have a printout.
- Does your cheat sheet include safety phrases and medical terms in case you get flustered and forget things? Like the itinerary, have a physical piece of paper that doesn’t require a device or wi-fi to work.
- Do you have お土産 (おみやげ – gifts)? Gift-giving is a big part of Japanese culture and a small trinket or food from your home country can help make the connection with someone, especially if one of your goals is to find a person who will exchange contact information with you or if you’re there to conduct business.
Step Off the Plane with Confidence
- Don’t be intimidated. Once you’re in Japan it’s very likely that you’ll experience カルチャーショック (かるちゃーしょっく – culture shock). This is especially true if this is your first time in Japan. You may well find yourself unprepared for what Japan is really like, especially if Japanese culture is very different from your own culture. Some people say they don’t experience it at all, but many people find that the process of adjusting to a new culture can be daunting. It’s usually a circle of initial excitement followed by irritation and hostility at all the things that are different from home, then a gradual adjustment which finally leads to acceptance. Your length of stay in Japan is a factor, as is how flexible you are to new environments and situations. Be prepared for the possibility of culture shock so you know how to react and understand what stage you’re going through. Most of all, don’t be intimidated once you step foot in Japan. Take a 休憩 (きゅうけい – break) if you need it, but come back refreshed and confident in your abilities!
- Stick to your plan. When you’re overwhelmed it’s very easy to begin running in circles as you try to decide what to do since you’re dealing with culture shock, jet lag, nerves and the pressure to “perform” the Japanese you’ve been learning and practicing. It also becomes very tempting to abandon ship when everyone’s talking in Japanese at what seems like an insane speed for you. This is why you made a 計画 (けいかく – plan) ahead of time, so that when you get confused, you already have an itinerary, a checklist for practicing your Japanese skills, and a cheat sheet if you need it. But don’t throw in the towel because you’re overwhelmed. One step at a time and you’ll get there. After all, this is a trip and it should be fun. Plus, you’ve come prepared.
- Enjoy your trip. You’re in Japan on an adventure, so get excited! There’s so much to see, do, eat and learn. Enjoy your time and acclimate as much as you can. And let me counterbalance your possible fears about remembering hierarchies, dialects and offending people: Japanese people are very polite and helpful, and Japan ranks as the 9th most tourist friendly nation according to the World Economic Forum. Make the effort to speak Japanese and be polite yourself, and you’ll find that people respond positively. If you make a mistake or forget a word, move on from it. The Japanese know that 猿も木から落ちる (さるも きから おちる – Even monkeys fall out of trees/Everyone makes mistakes).
- Give gifts. Buried away in your suitcase, remember there are お土産 (おみやげ – gifts). Once you make a friend, give them a gift. Present it thoughtfully. They’ll likely decline the gift at first. Don’t be discouraged, this is to be expected. Offer it again and begin insisting that they must take it. It’ll solidify the relationship and let them know you’re aware of the Japanese gift-giving culture. They may reciprocate. Remark on how they didn’t need to get you anything or how it’s too nice of them, but accept as well. It shows good manners and an appreciation for their thoughtfulness. And before you leave don’t forget to buy お土産 (おみやげ – gifts) for folks back home!
Alright, now that we’ve gotten all those preparations out of the way, and you’re in the right mindset to start learning the language you’ll need in Japan, let’s move on to that checklist of Japanese language for travel!
The Complete Checklist of Essential Japanese for Travelers
Of course, there are many resources on common Japanese phrases, but if you’re in a rush and have a million other things to do before you travel—here’s your quick guide to get you started. Be sure to look up and fill in terms specific to you when creating your own custom cheat sheet!
Thank you very much.
Nice to meet you!
My _____was stolen!
Please send an ambulance.
There has been an accident.
Can you check_____?
Is there anyone who speaks _____?
Is there anyone who can translate between Japanese and ?
日本語と の通訳ができる人はいますか？(にほんごと のつうやくが できるひとは いますか？)
Please contact/inform .
Key Health-related Vocabulary
Shortness of breath
High blood pressure
Low blood pressure
Getting Yourself Where You Need to Be
Where is the ?
Where is the hospital?
Please take me to .
に連れて行ってください。( に つれていってください。)
Do you have a map?
How many minutes will it take from here to ?
ここから まで何分かかりますか？(ここから まで なんぷん かかりますか？)
Is it _____?
Which way to the taxis/buses?
Where does this bus go?
このバスはどこに行きますか？(このばすは どこに いきますか？)
Do you know the address or phone number?
Can you show me the way?
案内してくれませんか (あんないして くれませんか)？
Spending Your Yen
How much yen does this cost?
これは何円ですか？(これは なんえん ですか？)
How much does this cost?
I cannot eat .
私は を食べられません。(わたしは をたべられません。)
I cannot eat dairy products.
I’d like .
Is this a Japanese product?
これは日本製品ですか？ (これは にほんせいひん ですか？)
Is it OK to pay with credit card?
How much is the fee?
Do you have/sell ?
はありますか/売っていますか？( は ありますか/うっていますか？)
I would like to buy this.
Please bring the (restaurant) bill.
This is my first time in Japan.
Where are you from?
What is your hobby?
What movie/TV show have you seen recently?
Do you have any special interests?
Have you been abroad?
海外に行ったことがありますか？(かいがいに いったことが ありますか？)
What would be your special talent?
あなたの得意なことは何ですか？(あなたの とくいなことは なんですか？)
What company do you work at?
どちらの会社で働いていますか？(どちらの かいしゃで はたらいていますか？)
Whew! That is a lot of Japanese. It’s all pretty important to have in your brain or on hand while traveling, so be sure to commit it to memory or print it out before shipping off!