Five Words You Must Know Before Visiting Japan

Ah, Japan! On a regular basis, I get emails from readers wanting to know about where they should go on their trip to Japan. Where should I stay? What should I eat? Questions like that. For a moment, forget that.

I always feel like visitors to Japan are asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking what’s already in numerous guidebooks, it’s probably better to ask: what words do I need to get around?

By my count, there are five basic words that will help make your trip to Japan smoother. Yep, five.

Here goes:


Kore: “This.” Kore (pronounced “ko-ray”) is incredibly useful when ordering food. You can simply point at a picture on the menu and say kore. Ditto for shopping. Just point and say kore. Easy! Kore is used for things close to you. You should know that sore (pronounced “so-ray”) means “that” and is used to refer to things close to the person you are talking with. Are (pronounced “ah-ray”) is used to refer to things that are far from the both of you. It means “that over there”. But if you get mixed up, just point!

Kudasai: “Please.” Kudasai (pronounced “koo-duh-sigh”) is also useful while ordering. So if you find something you want and say, kore kudasai (“this please”), you are well on your way to communicating with locals! You can also put other things in front of “kudasai” and order. For example, miso ramen kudasai (“miso ramen please”) or biiru kudasai (“beer please”).

Doko: “Where.” Doko (pronounced “doh-koh”) can help you find things. You can ask where the station is, where the toilet is, or where a shop is. For example, if you don’t know where Tokyo’s geek district Akihabara is, you could ask, Akihabara doko? (“Where’s Akihabara?”). If you wanted to know where the toilet is, you could say, Toire doko? (“Toy-ray doko?” or “Where’s the toilet?”). Or if you wanted to know where retro game shop Super Potato was, you could ask, Super Potato doko? (“Where’s Super Potato?”).

Yes, in school, students learn the longer Super Potato wa doko desu ka? (“Where is Super Potato?”), but Japanese people do say things like, Super Potato doko? It’s short and sweet. Remember it!

Sumimasen: “Excuse me/Sorry”. If you are taking the subway in Japan or navigating crowds of people, learn sumimasen (pronounced “sue-me-mah-sen”). You will use it a lot, if you bump into someone. It’s just good manners to excuse yourself. Be polite.

Wakarimasen: “I don’t understand”. If someone starts talking to you in Japanese and you don’t understand, you can reply with a Wakarimasen (pronounced “Wah-ka-ri-mah-sen”). You can even add a Sumimasen after uttering it to apologise! Once again, being polite in Japanese is key. And after saying Wakarimasen, if you begin speaking English slowly, whoever you are speaking with, will understand that, yes, there is a language barrier and hopefully find an English speaker to help you. Hopefully.

This list, of course, does not apply to people who already speak the lingo. Those folks will have a much smoother time because if they get into a pickle, they can express themselves in a way locals will understand. What’s more, they can talk to regular folks in the language everyone speaks.

Japanese people do study English in junior high and high school. Since reading is the focus, most people in Japan do not feel comfortable speaking English. Listening is also difficult for many.

If you do not speak Japanese, I would be hesitant to start with remembering things like numbers. Shop clerks will usually show you the amount you owe, whether that’s pointing to the register or even showing you a calculator. Also, since the majority of things have price tags, there might be less of a point asking the price.

The caveat is that in some restaurants, prices are written in kanji characters instead of numeric numerals. If that happens, you can point to the characters and simply say, Wakarimasen. Or if you are feeling adventurous and have a good handle on the numbers, ask, Kore ikura? (“How much is this?”).

The word arigatou (thanks) is very famous in the English speaking world, so it wasn’t included in this list. Use it if people help you along during your travels.

And if you do speak Japanese and see visitors from other countries who seem to be having a tough time communicating, do the nice thing, and see if you can help them out of whatever jam they are in!

Safe travels and enjoy your time in Japan.

A note about the pronunciations: These are not the official pronunciations by any means, but hopefully will help English speakers say these Japanese words. An important thing to keep in mind is that Japanese vowels are similar to Spanish ones. If you speak Spanish, pronounce Japanese words the same, and you’ll have a pretty decent accent!

This article was originally posted on January 30, 2013.


Comments

    You mention arigatou.

    If a Japanese person says to me arigato is it good manners to respond with douitashimashite?

      Depends on the situation but it's better to avoid it all together, it's a bit of a loaded word.
      There's quite a few alternatives for both casual and formal conversations that are considered more appropriate and polite.

        OK, I was just curious over what happened at my local ramen place last year.

        I actually bought my bowl back to the counter so save the staff having to fetch it and the lady there thanked me.

        She said thanks in English and I responded with douitashimashite.

        I can't remember what she said back but I though I'd try my luck because I never spoke Japanese to a person before.

        I actually said to her, "Kimi wa ore ga wakarimasu ka". And she got excited and said "Hai, wakarimasu. You speak good Japanese."

        My guess is she's an exception and she hardly hears an Australian speak the language.

        Though I'm sure I got the wa and ga wrong - I was trying to make me being understood/understandable the subject of the sentence.

          Most people will understand your intentions and giving the language a try will almost always be seen as good manners, the effort is appreciated.

          A good reply for restaurants is "Ie ie kochira koso", which is basically saying, no no thank you, or, I should be thanking you.
          (Might wanna look it up I'm rusty as hell lol)

      Been a long time since I studied any Japanese, but for what it's worth, I was told to avoid "douitashimashite" because it draws attention to the act (ie. whatever the person was saying thank you for) and implies that you've gone out of your way to do them a favour.

      It depends on the context but I was told that "iie" is generally a better response if you feel one is warranted, because it sends the opposite message to "douitashimashite", that whatever you did was no hassle and not worth drawing attention to.

    Most important word ever....

    Bīru

      Sorry in advance if I get this wrong.

      If that is the most important word, the I take it the most important phrase is biru ga arimasu ka?

        Not wrong at all, doing a lot better than I can remember lol.

        That's just asking if they have beer. They'll know you want one, but you can make it easier on yourself. Beer on tap is called nama biru (nama means raw or unprocessed).

        So you can just say "nama kudasai." The numbering system is mind bending, but for beer:
        1 hitotsu
        2 futatsu
        3 mitsu
        4 yotsu
        5 itsutsu

        So two beers is nama futatsu kudasai.

          Sorry, Pokedad. I was trying to be a cheeky as I usually do.

          I know that if I wanted a beer, I would have used one of the counters you listed but I though the joke made more sense if I asked if there was beer.

          But has me wondering though if arimasu is the right word here.

          Should it be biru ga arimasu ka or biru wo motteimasu ka (Do you have/possess beer)?

          I have tried to teach myself the language on and off over a 10 year period before finally giving up as my time management sucks and when I try again it just got more frustrating starting again, knowing I should know the right word and still getting it wrong.

            All good. I just missed the joke.
            I learned when I lived there and I never studied. So although I'm really fine communicating anywhere, my grammar isn't exactly stellar. I learned from teenagers, old ladies and drunk people.

            I think either would be perfectly fine, but if I were asking I'd probably use arimasuka or even just "biru aru?" One of the best things about learning to speak Japanese is that it's pretty forgiving about asking for or about things. You can just give key words and the meaning is inferred from your tone and the situation. If you're looking for something you can just say " wa..." And that hesitation means you're looking for it. In a restaurant you can do it with a food or beer and they'll know you're asking if they serve it.

    ko-reh

      If you've got an American accent I guess the "ray" makes sense. But every time I hear an Australian tourist try Japanese it's pretty rough because they use vowels like that.

      Thank you. The addition of -y to foreign words that end in a short "e" sound drives me up the wall. It's not too terrible for Spanish or French because there are not really that many words ending in the ei/ay phoneme in those languages so it can just be shrugged as an accent thing. Japanese does have quite a few words ending in that phoneme so I imagine it can get pretty confusing.

    I'd also add "Mou ichido" which translates to "One more time". Useful for if you don't quite catch what someone has said.
    "Chotto matte kudasai." ("Please wait a moment") Is also good when you need to ask someone to wait, perhaps if you need to look up a translation.
    "Onaka ga ippai desu." ("I'm full") is also a very useful phrase to politely excuse yourself from eating any more. Japanese people tend to be very generous with serving their food and will fill an empty plate so this helps avoid feeling awkward about not wanting any more.
    On the other hand, if you're still hungry, "Okawari" means "Seconds".

    I used to have Japanese students board at my house (in Australia) and I found that a lot do learn English but mostly theoretical (written) not so much verbal and the Australian accent and phrasing much it fairly difficult to converse but they understand a lot more if you write it down so if you get stuck trying Japanese and they indicate they know some English then write your question down for them and your chances of communicating increase substantially.

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