Now is the best time to learn Japanese, and today I’m going to give you 20 essential Japanese phrases for travelers and beginners that will allow you to communicate with any native that you meet.
Japan’s popularity is exploding. The world just can’t seem to get enough of the great stuff that come out of Japan like the culture, the people, its history, manga, anime, video game, and much more!
But forget about things coming out of Japan, people want to get in Japan! The country itself is becoming one of the most desired places to visit for travelers and people on vacation, with April 2018 hitting an all time high for tourist visits, ever!
With all that in mind, it’s no wonder that more and more people are taking action to learn the language. Just to give you an idea, the well known company Duolingo recently launched a course for Japanese, and it’s already at over seven million students!
But First, A Word on Formality Levels in Japanese
Something that sets the Japanese language apart from others like English is the fact that it uses different levels of formality in order to show the proper level of respect or familiarity towards the listener.
Many people are intimidated by this aspect of the language, and worry that they will use the wrong form with a native and unintentionally offend or upset them.
Let me put your concerns to rest. The Japanese are incredibly nice and respectful (as are most people) and won’t be put off if you speak to them in the casual form of Japanese instead of the polite form.
In fact, they may even prefer it since it’s the form they use most often themselves with friends and family members.
As a non-Japanese person, you are pretty much given a free pass since they don’t expect you to know all the intricacies of the Japanese language. Most of them don’t expect you to know Japnaese at all, unless you live in Japan.
Most people are just flattered and happy that you took the time and effort to learn their language in the first place, and then had the courage to use it to connect with them!
In addition to that, the casual way to say something is usually a shorter and simpler version of the polite form, which is why it is almost always easier to learn and use for both beginners and natives alike.
Having said all of that, I felt it would be a good idea to present you with both forms of the language for these twenty phrases so that you could decide which you would rather use yourself.
And hey, you can always learn them both!
- Polite: お願いします (o-negai shimasu)
- Casual: お願い (o-negai)
You can do more with please and thank you (coming up next) then perhaps any other words for every language on Earth. When you start off as being polite yourself, others naturally want to respond to you in kind. In Japanese there are several words for “please” and this is the one that’s used most often to make requests.
2. “Thank you”
- Polite: ありがとうございます (arigatō gozaimasu)
- Casual: ありがとね (arigato ne)
Everyone likes being acknowledged and appreciated by others for the things that they’ve done. There is perhaps no quicker way to make new friends than to let the other person know how thankful you are to them for helping you out in some way!
3. “You’re welcome”
- Polite: どういたしまして (dō itashimashite)
- Casual: いえいえ (ie ie)
Saying “you’re welcome” after someone has thanked you goes beyond just being polite. It’s acknowledging them and their gratitude, and making them feel valued. When others feel like you care about them, not only does their self esteem go up, but the relationship flourishes!
- Polite: こんにちは (konnichi wa)
- Casual: どうも (dōmo)
There is perhaps no better way to start off talking to a new person than by putting a big, genuine smile on your face, looking straight them in the eye, and then saying “hello” with warmth in your voice. Even if you just say this to someone as they are passing by, it can totally brighten their day!
There are actually as many as 11 different ways to say hello in Japanese!
5. “It’s nice to meet you”
- Polite: 初めまして、よろしくお願いします (hajimemashite, yoroshiku o-negai shimasu)
- Casual: よろしくね (yoroshiku ne)
The phrase 「初めまして」 means “meeting for the first time” and then 「よろしくお願いします」 is a set phrase that can be understood to mean “I hope we get along well with one another.” That is quite a mouthful, and it is totally okay to simply use the casual form.
6. “I am…”
- Polite: …です (… desu)
- Casual: …だ (…da)
This is an incredibly useful way to say things such as “I am Nick” when introducing yourself, or to state things like your occupation or nationality. Japanese is structured differently from English and this 「です」/ 「だ」 comes after your name, job title, etc. If you would like to combine this phrase with the one above it, be sure to put your name after 「初めまして」 but before 「よろしく…」.
7. “What is your name?”
- Polite: お名前は何ですか？ (o-namae wa nan desu ka?)
- Casual: お名前は？ (o-namae wa?)
In Japanese, you can usually omit certain words when they are obvious from the context of the situation. The above (polite) sentence literally says “Name, what is?” and the word for “your” is left out since it’s clear when you’re talking to one person. The casual form just says “name?” with a rising intonation at the end.
8. “How are you?”
- Polite: お元気ですか？ (o-genki desu ka?)
- Casual: 元気か？ (genki ka?)
The word 「元気」 in Japanese gets used to mean a lot of things, such as “well, energetic, healthy” and the like. It is a common way to ask if a person is “doing well,” with the typical response being 「はい、元気です」 for “Yes, I’m doing well.”
9. “The weather’s nice today, isn’t it?”
- Polite: 今日の天気はいいですね？ (kyō no tenki wa ii desu ne?)
- Casual: 天気はいい (tenki wa ii)
Here is a classic way to start a conversation with a stranger and then move on to other things such as introductions or asking for directions. You could also open with either 「暑いですね？」 (atsui desu ne) to say “It’s hot today,” or「 寒いですね？」 (samui desu ne) to say that it’s cold.
- Polite: はい (hai)
- Casual: うん (un)
The word 「はい」 can also mean “that’s correct” when a person asks you a question in a negative form such as “you’re not from Canada?” Also, the casual 「うん」often sounds more like “mm” along with a sharp nod of the head.
- Polite: いいえ (iie)
- Casual: いや (iya)
If someone offers you something such as food or drink and you would like to politely decline the offer, then go ahead and say 「いいえ、結構です｣ (iie, kekkō desu) in order to say “No thank you.”
12. “May I have…?”
- Polite: …をください (o kudasai)
- Casual: …をちょうだい (o chōdai)
You may have noticed in this phrase (and in #6 as well) that the noun comes before the verb in the sentence, which is different from English and might feel a little weird at first. Also, if you don’t know the name of the item you’re asking for, you can simply point to it and say 「それ」 (sore) for “that.”
13. “How much does it cost?”
- Polite: いくらですか？ (ikura desu ka?)
- Casual: いくら？ (ikura?)
It would probably be a good idea to learn the Japanese numbers as well, since the prices of things are often in the hundreds and thousands of yen. One hundred yen (¥100) equates to about one United States Dollar ($1.00) or just under a single Euro (€0.80).
14. “Excuse me”
- Polite: すみません (sumimasen)
- Casual: 悪いね (warui ne)
This polite form also gets used a lot for other things such as “I’m sorry” when you have bothered somebody, or even “thank you” when you feel that they have gone out of their way to do something for you at their own expense or inconvenience. The casual word above is kind of like saying “my bad” in English.
15. “I don’t understand”
- Polite: 分かりません (wakarimasen)
- Casual: わかんない (wakannai)
Like I mentioned before, most Japanese people don’t expect travelers to know Japanese while they are visiting the country. If something just isn’t making sense, this phrase will let the other person know to try conveying the idea in a different manner in order to help you out.
16. “Please say that one more time”
- Polite: もう一度言ってください (mō ichi do itte kudasai)
- Casual: もう一度 (mō ichi do)
This phrase (and the next one) just might become your best friend if natives speak a little too quickly for you and you miss what they say. It’s totally normal to start with 「すみません」 in order to say “sorry’ before asking them to repeat themselves.
17. “Speak more slowly please”
- Polite: もうゆっくり話してください (mō yukkuri hanashite kudasai)
- Casual: もうゆっくりお願い (mō yukkuri o-negai)
Don’t feel bad if you find yourself making this request quite often at first. All natives speak really fast when compared to a beginner’s ability in the language. The important thing is to comprehend what they’re saying so that you can make that connection with them.
18. “Can you speak English?”
- Polite: 英語が話せますか？ (eigo ga hanasemasu ka?)
- Casual: 英語ができる？ (eigo ga dekiru?)
If you absolutely have to fall back onto English, this is the phrase you can use in order to see if they can accommodate you. Most Japanese people know at least some English since it’s a requirement in their educational system. If that also fails, you can also try communicating through body language.
19. “Where is the…?”
- Polite: … はどこですか？ (… wa doko desu ka?)
- Casual: …はどこ？ (… wa doko?)
If you’re looking for a toilet, a temple, a famous bookstore, or even a particular person, this handy phrase should be all you need to know in order to ask someone where it is.
- Polite: … さようなら (sayōnara)
- Casual: …またね (mata ne)
The polite way to say goodbye in Japanese, that almost everyone knows, is actually only really used when you don’t expect to see the other person again for a long time. It’s perfect for when you are leaving the country and saying your farewells, but if you’re going to see someone again the next day, then the casual way is more appropriate.
These Are Your Tools for Making A Human Connection
So there you have it! You know know twenty phrases that are absolutely vital in Japanese. And you know them in both the polite and casual forms too!
Always remember that is it totally okay to make mistakes and fumble through these lines while talking to people.
The point of having a conversation with someone is to connect with them. It’s not a performance that you’re going to be graded on later.
Most of the time people will be patient with you, and it’s always a good idea to be patient with yourself as well. As you continue through the process of learning Japanese it will get easier with time and practice.
Are you learning Japanese? What phrases have you found to be useful in conversations? Let me know with a comment below!