Touring Japan Language Tips

Traveling to Japan would be especially easy if you could fluently speak and read the Japanese language. However, it is definitely not a requirement because (at least in Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, and Osaka) English is written almost everywhere and most everyone speaks a little English. But, you’re visiting another country, so the least you can do is learn a few basic greetings and phrases. For the entirety of our trip, my husband and I spoke a mixture of basic Japanese and broken English to every person we encountered and to each other. Our subjects and verbs were all over the place but we got our point across to strangers and each other with very few words. Here is a small list of the key phrases that you should learn before visiting Japan.

Every single day, multiple times a day I used these words and phrases:

English Japanese
Excuse me sumimasen
Thank you very much arigatō gozaimasu
Good Morning ohayō gozaimasu
Hello konnichiwa
Good Afternoon konnichiwa
Yes hai
I’m sorry gomen nasai

Every once in a while I would use:

English Japanese
Good Evening konbanwa
Good Night oyasumi nasai
Goodbye sayōnara
No iye
See Ya Later! jaa mata
Please kudasai

On one occasion, I had to tell a very kind old lady (who thought I wanted green tea) that I didn’t understand what she was saying and that I was looking for the water. On another occasion, when I went to a train station and realized it did not have a long distance train to Hakone, I ran up to the attendant window and without thinking quickly asked if he understood English. To my delight, he replied sukoshi (a little) so I asked my questions in English.

English Japanese
I don’t understand wakarimasen
Water mizu
Japanese tea ocha
Green tea Ryokucha (sencha, gyokuro, and matcha are types of ryokucha)
Do you understand English? eigo ga wakarimasu ka
a little sokoshi

I not only had my Japanese words and phrases study list (an Excel spreadsheet I compiled four years ago) on my phone, I had the Google Translate app and a pocket sized Japanese phrasebook. Here’s the deal. Unless you are in a non-time sensitive situation, you’re first reaction isn’t going to be to grab your pocket sized Japanese phrasebook or pull out your phone to use the Google Translate app. However, I am glad I had them just in case and you never know, you may actually use them. I ended up using the Google Translate app three times once I got to China, and I used my pocket sized Japanese phrasebook at night before I went to sleep to make sure I was pronouncing words correctly during the day.

When you’re in a country where people are speaking a language that you can’t fully understand, you really rely on your other senses. You will begin to actively pay attention to body language and facial expressions. You will look for context clues and listen for tones and inflections. You will be amazed at how much human beings use non-verbal cues to communicate and how kind and helpful people (at least Japanese people) are. For example, this older man came up to us at the train station and asked where we were going because we were apparently standing on a platform for a train that most white-looking people do not ride. He ran up the steps to confirm the train we needed to be on and we found out that the train we needed to get on was about to leave. One of the train attendants saw us walking toward the other platform and he started motioning for us to run quickly by swishing his arm by his sides (pretending he was running). First, thank goodness that older gentleman was so willing to volunteer his time to help a couple of tourists and second, how nice for the train attendant to notice where we were going and let us know that we needed to hurry.

Here are a couple of things to remember. In Japanese culture, pointing is considered rude so try to go easy on the pointing. It was tough at first because I point all the time. Obviously staring is rude in most countries, but if you make eye contact with a person in Japan, smile because 9 times out of 10 they will smile back and may even greet you. This to me was very refreshing because I where I come from and where I currently live, strangers to do not smile and greet you. If anything, strangers in America give you a dirty look if you smile at them. I did the smiling experiment in China and I only got a smile and/or greeting about sixty percent of the time, which is still better than my percentage in America.

When interacting with people try to speak clearly and slowly. For whatever reason, Americans think that if a person cannot understand them, they need to slowly yell at the person. DO NOT DO THAT. They can hear you just fine, they just do not understand the words that are coming out of your mouth. Find another way to explain what you are asking, maybe use that pocket sized phrasebook or the Google Translator app you downloaded.

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