“What Does It Mean” in Japanese: 7 Helpful Phrases for Clarifying the Meanings of Words and Phrases

While engaging in conversation with your Japanese language partner, you’re bound to come across unfamiliar terms.

Even if you’re advanced enough to discuss last week’s episode of your favorite Japanese drama or add some aizuchi in your conversations, there’s always more to learn in your interactions with native speakers.

These seven phrases will show you exactly what to say when you hear new words and phrases, whether you’re in Japanese class or getting directions from kind strangers on the streets of Tokyo.


1. What does … mean?

The most common way to ask the meaning of a Japanese word or phrase is by using:

どういう意味ですか (Dou iu imi desu ka).

What does … mean?
… どういう意味ですか? (…wa do iu imi desu ka?)

It means…
…という意味です。 (…to iu imi desu.)

If you’re listening to someone explain the meaning of a word (or if you are explaining), then a very useful phrase is という意味 (to iu imi).

  • 「と」is a particle that’s used to quote something. Think of it as quotation marks for now.
  • 「いう」(sometimes written as 言う) means “to say.”

Together, という means “called,” as in:

What does … mean?
…って何ですか? (Tte nan desu ka?)
…って何? (Tte nani?)

In more casual situations, you can use:

って何 (tte nan), which has the same meaning as the above.

Are there any similar phrases in Japanese?
日本語で同じような言い回しがありますか? (Nihongo de onajiyou na iimawashi ga arimasu ka?)

2. Come again?

Please say it again.
もう一度言ってください。 (Mou ichido itte kudasai)

Could you please say that again?
もう一度言っていただけますか? (Mou ichido itte itadakemasu ka?)

I’m sorry. I didn’t catch you.
すみません。おっしゃったことが聞き取れませんでした。 (Sumimasen. osshatta koto ga kikitoremasen deshita.)

Could you say it a bit more slowly?
もう少しゆっくり話していただけますか? (Mou sukoshi yukkuri hanashite itadakemasu ka?)

Could you explain that in simple Japanese, please? 
それをより簡単な日本語で説明していただくことは可能ですか? (Sore wo yori kantan na nihongo de setsumei shite itadaku koto wa kanou desu ka?)

A word that you’ll see often in this post is いただけます (itadakemasu). In this situation, it means along the lines of “Could you…?”

For example, “Could you please say that a bit more slowly” would be:

もう少しゆっくり話していただけますか? (Mou sukoshi yukkuri hanashite itadakemasu ka?)

3. Can you write that down?

Please write it down.
書いて下さい。 (Kaite kudasai.)

Could you please write that down?
書いていただけますか? (Kaite itadakemasu ka?)

Could you write down what you just said?
今おっしゃったことを書いていただけますか? (Ima osshatta koto wo kaite itadakemasu ka?)

Could you type what you said in the (Skype) chat box please?
(スカイプの)チャットボックスに入力していただけますか? ([Sukaipu no] chatto bokkusu ni nyuuryoku shite itadakemasu ka?)

4. Does it sound natural?

Does “…” sound more natural?
…はもっと自然に聞こえますか? (…wa motto shizen ni kikoemasu ka?)

Which sounds more natural?
どちらがもっと自然に聞こえますか? (Dochira ga motto shizen ni kikoemasu ka?)

This is more natural.
これはより自然です。 (Kore wa yori shizen desu.)

This is also (more) natural.
これも(より)自然です。 (Kore mo [yori] shizen desu.)

Which of the following would sound natural in conversation?
会話では、次のどちらがより自然ですか? (Kaiwa dewa, tsugi no dochira ga yori shizen desu ka?)

When can I use “…”?
「…」は、いつ言えばいいんですか? (“…” wa, itsu ieba ii n desu ka?)

5. Is it commonly said?

Is it common to use, “…”?
「…」を、よく使いますか? (“…” wo, yoku tsukaimasu ka?)

It’s a commonly used phrase in Japanese.
それは、日本語でよく使われるフレーズです。 (Sore wa, nihongo de yoku tsukawareru fureezu desu.)

Which is more likely to be used in conversation?
会話では、どちらがより使われますか? (Kaiwa dewa, dochira ga yori tsukawaremasu ka?)

What would sound natural in conversation?
会話では、どういう言い方が自然ですか? (Kaiwa dewa, dou iu ii kata ga shizen desu ka?)

In what situation should I use it?
どういう状況で使えますか? (Dou iu joukyou de tsukaemasu ka?)

In what situation do you use “…”?
「…」ってどういう状況で使いますか? (“…” tte dou iu joukyou de tsukaimasu ka?)

…used in conversation.
…は会話で使います。 (…wa kaiwa de tsuka imasu.)

…isn’t used in conversation.
…は会話では使いません。 (…wa kaiwa dewa tsukaimasen.)
…は会話では使われません。 (…wa kaiwa dewa tsukawaremasen.)

6. I don’t know how to say this

How should I phrase it?
それをどう表現したらいいでしょうか? (Sore wo dou hyougen shitara ii deshou ka?)

It’s the only phrase that I can come up with.
それは、私が思い付く唯一のフレーズです。 (Sore wa watashi ga omoitsuku yuiitsu no fureezu desu.)

If you’re struggling to think of something to say, you can buy yourself time with filler words like: “あの…” (ano...) or “えっと…” (etto...), which are used the same way that we use “um” and “err” in English. Many anime and drama buffs will recognize these phrases!

7. Thank you!

Hopefully all these phrases will help you in class, or when you’re having a conversation in Japanese. Using such phrases will ensure that you’re getting the most out of your studies! Lastly, if you’d like to thank your teacher, tutor, or whoever, you can use:

Thank you for everything.
いろいろとありがとうございます。 (Iro iro to arigatou gozaimasu.)

I had so much fun! See you next lesson.
とても楽しかったです!また次のレッスンでお会いしましょう。 (Totemo tanoshi katta desu! mata tsugi no ressun de oai shimashou.)

I had a great time ( talking with you ).
(あなたと話せて)とても楽しかったです。 ([Anata to hanasete] totemo tanoshi katta desu.)

I learned a lot today. Thank you. 
今日は大変勉強になりました。ありがとうございます。 (Kyou wa taihen benkyou ni narimashita. arigatou gozaimasu.)


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All of these phrases are necessary for any Japanese language learner, as they equip you to learn new words with ease. Plus, they’ll keep your conversations flowing without panic when talking about the latest scandal in that Japanese drama that you love to watch!

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