Now many people in Japan speak English, let alone any other languages...
What do you think is the biggest advantage to helping you discover Japan’s best kept
secrets, including its fantastic car culture? Living there, perhaps? Or maybe having close friends who live there? Sure, these things will help, but learning to speak Japanese is by far the most crucial tool there is when it comes to doing, well… everything in Japan! The language barrier is, after all, the reason why Japan’s car scene is shrouded in mystery, and not to mention so damn hard to find any information on!
We know what you’re thinking; Japanese sounds like gibberish, and isn’t it made up of all those confusing-looking symbols? And which words will you really need to use? The good news is that you don’t even need to understand any written Japanese in order to speak it, (although we’d really strongly recommend learning both spoken Japanese and written Japanese at once!) and it’s incredibly easy to pick up.
With this Basic Japanese Language Guide, you’ll not only learn the very basics of pronunciation and some common pronunciation errors, but also the most important, essential words and phrases that you’ll need to know if you’re going to visit Japan!
First things first, let’s get pronunciation out of the way…
The Japanese ‘alphabet’ consists of 5 vowels and 14 consonants. Unlike in English where pronunciation of the same letter can vary hugely, (for example, the ‘o’ in ‘hot’ and ‘hello’ and the ‘g’ in ‘gate’ and ‘giraffe’), letters are almost always pronounced the same way in Japanese. Vowels play a huge part in the language, and it’s important to get them sounding just right, as follows: a (ah), e (eh), i (ee), o (oh), and u (oo).
One way to think of Japanese is like a secret code; a code made up of different sounds in
different sequences. Because everything is pronounced the same way, all you’re doing is adding sounds together in different pattens to make different words. Apart from vowels by themselves, all the other sounds start with consonants, like ka, ke, ki, ko, ku, and na, ne, ni, no, nu, and sa, se, si/shi, so, su, and so on. The only other single ‘letter’ sound that isn’t a vowel is n. There aren’t any letters that represent the roman letters Q, L, X, C, or V in Japanese, instead the sound for ‘L’ would be replaced with ‘R’ and ‘V’ replaced with ‘B’.
NOTE. If you want to learn more about pronunciation and specific car-related Japanese words and phrases, make sure to check out our Intermediate Guide #1: How To Speak Japanese Car Speak!
Then there are the formalities…
There’s one more thing you should really be aware of before we jump straight into learning some essential Japanese language. In our Beginner Guide #1: Basic Etiquette Guide For Visiting Japan, we talked about the importance of using manners in Japanese culture, and this includes using the correct language in the correct situation. This means knowing when to use the correct level of politeness, and there are – believe it or not – three of them!
Don’t be put off; as a foreigner, people will understand that Japanese isn’t your first language and won’t be offended if you make a mistake, but that’s even more of a reason to learn these things and get them right – just the fact that you’re making an effort will leave a good impression! The easiest and safest way to learn a word or phrase is to learn the most polite version. From there, you can learn how to shorten it for when you want to speak more casually. With all of the entry level language we’re going to learn, it’s really simple…
DID YOU KNOW: Japanese pronunciation is very similar to the native language of New Zealand, Te Reo Maori.
Hello! – Konnichiwa! – (koh-n-neechi-wah)
Use this to say hello any time, but more than often from late morning – afternoon. Note the double ‘n’ sound.
Good Morning – Ohayou Gozaimasu – (oh-hai-youh goh-zai-mah-s)
This is a more polite way of saying good morning. Note the lack of the ‘u’ sound on the end of ‘masu’. If you wanted to sound more casual among friends, you could just say ‘Ohayou!’
Good Evening – Konbanwa – (kon-bahn-wah)
Evening greeting. If you met someone during the evening, you’d say this upon meeting them.
Nice to meet you – Hajime Mashite – (hah-ji-meh-mah-sh-teh)
You could say this upon meeting someone for the first time in order to make a positive impression.
See you later! – jaa ne! or mata ne! – (jyaa ney!) or (mah-tah neh!)
These are casual ways to say goodbye to someone. They’re like saying ‘see ya!’
Goodbye – Sayounara – (sah-youh-nah-rah)
Contrary to popular belief, this isn‘t really a common way to say goodbye in Japanese. It’s the most formal way to say goodbye, but it also suggests that you won’t be seeing that person again for a long period.
Using your manners…
Thank-you! – Arigatou Gozaimasu! – (ah-ree-gah-tou goh-zai-mah-s)
This is a polite way to say thank-you and it might just be the most common thing you say in Japan. A more casual ‘thanks!’ could just be said as ‘Arigatou!’
Thank-you very much – Domo Arigatou Gozaimasu – (dou-mo ah-ree-gah-tou goh-zai-mah-s)
If someone has gone out of their way to help you or done something important for you, this is a formal way to thank them in a way that expresses more gratitude. Say it with a bow!
Excuse me – Sumimasen – (soo-mee-mah-sen)
This is another really important word that you‘ll use a lot! ‘Sumimasen’ can be used to get the attention of someone – whether it’s because you need their help (like with ordering at a restaurant) or if you need them to move out of the way! It can also be used as a quick ‘Sorry!’ – if you accidentally bump into someone, for example.
I’m so sorry! – Gomennasai – (goh-men-nah-sai)
This is an interesting word as it means a bit more than just sorry, it means you’re really, genuinely sorry for something. A shortened version for less formal use would be ‘Gomen’ – ‘oops, sorry!’
Please – Onegaishimasu – (oh-neh-gai-shi-mah-s)
There isn’t a word in the Japanese language that directly translates as please, however ‘onegaishimasu’ would be the closest. You’d use this word when asking for something or for someone to do something for you.
Sample sentence: Water, please! – Mizu, Onegaishimasu!
Things you might need help with…
Help – Tasukete – (tah-s-keh-teh)
If you need help with something, this is your word! If you’re asking someone for help, you’d also use ‘onegaishimasu’, the word for please, as well as ‘sumimasen’ the word for excuse me, to get their attention.
Sample sentence: Excuse me, help please! – Sumimasen, Tasukete Onegaishimasu!
Danger! – Abunai! – (ah-boo-nai)
This is a really useful word to know – if you’re about to get hit by a bus, someone would yell this at you! ‘Abunai’ is often used in a similar way to how we’d say ‘watch out!’
Train – Densha – (den-shya)
The Japanese word for train. You‘ll probably be riding a lot of these in Japan!
Train Station – Densha no Eki – (den-shya noh eh-kee)
If you’re looking for the train station, you’d be looking for the ‘densha no eki’. ‘No’ is a possessive particle, so in this sentence it’s saying that the station ‘belongs to’ the train – it’s like saying ‘the train’s station.’
Bus – Basu – (bah-su)
The Japanese word for bus – an easy one to remember.
Taxi – Takushii – (tah-ku-shee)
You’ll probably be getting a few taxis while you’re in Japan too. Taxi stand is ‘Takushii Sutando’.
Toilet – Toire – (toi-reh)
Useful for obvious reasons…
Hotel – hoteru – (hoh-teh-roo)
The Japanese word for hotel.
Who are you?
I (feminine) – Watashi – (wah-tah-shi)
The Japanese word for referring to yourself is ‘watashi’. Men can also use this word in more formal situations, but it wouldn’t sound natural to use it casually, as it’s considered more of a feminine word.
I (masculine) – Boku – (boh-ku)
Men would use the masculine word ‘boku’, although you’ll find that ‘I’ isn‘t needed as often as it is in English…
My (feminine) – Watashi no – (wah-tah-shi noh)
You’d more commonly need to use the word for ‘my’ in Japanese, when referring to something that belongs to you.
My (masculine) – Boku no – (boh-ku noh)
My car, my bag, my phone – you might need ‘watashi no’ or ‘boku no’ to tell someone that something is yours.
My name is Angela – Watashi no namae wa Angela – (wah-tah-shi noh nah-mai wah)
The Japanese word for name is ‘namae’ – pretty easy to remember, right?
My name is Peter – Boku no namae wa Peter – (boh-ku noh nah-mai wah)
Men can also use ‘Watashi’ in formal situations, although ‘Boku’ is more natural. To be super casual, you can drop the word for my and just say, ‘Namae wa Peter’.
NOTE: One of the biggest mistakes people make when pronouncing Japanese language is not rolling their ‘r’s. To do this, the tip of your tongue should touch just behind the back of your teeth.
Yes – Hai – (hai)
There aren’t any Japanese words that translate directly to yes, but ‘hai’ is the closest. It can also be used to show that you’re listening to someone or as a confirmation. ‘Sou desu’ (souh deh-s) can also be used to confirm something. It’s a formal way of saying, ‘that’s right’ or ‘it is’.
No – Iie – (e-eh)
You won’t find yourself using no in Japanese all that often. You might actually find the word ‘chigaimasu’ (chi-gai-mah-s) more useful – it means, ‘that’s not right’ or ‘that’s incorrect’.
Where? – Doko? – (doh-ko)
Where’s the toilet? Where’s the hotel? Where am I? Where’s the train station? ‘Doko’ will always come in handy!
When? – Itsu? – (ih-t-su)
Being able to ask when something’s going to happen is also useful, for example, when the next train’s coming…
Next – Tsugi – (tsu-gee)
The following sample sentence will also give you an idea of basic Japanese sentence structure. Yep, it’s kinda backwards!
Sample sentence: When is the next train? – Tsugi (next) no densha (train) wa itsu (when) desu ka?
Okay – Daijoubu – (dai-jyou-bu)
‘Daijoubu’ means ‘it’s okay’ or ‘I’m okay!’. Adding ‘desu’ onto the end will also make it sound more polite. ‘Daijoubu desu ka?’ can be used to ask someone ‘are you okay?’.
How are you? Genki desu ka? – (gen-kee deh-s-kah)
There’s no direct translation of the Japanese word ‘Genki’ but it kinda refers to general happiness and wellbeing. Asking if someone is ‘genki’ is like saying ‘how are you?’. If someone asks you this, you can reply with ‘hai, genki desu!’ which means ‘yes, I’m fine!’.
Amazing! – Sugoi! – (su-goy!)
‘Sugoi’ is like the equivalent of ‘Wow!’. You’d only use it if something was really, genuinely impressive.
A little – Chotto – (ch-yoh-t-toh)
Only speak a little bit of Japanese? Or you want a small amount of something? Try using ‘chotto’.
Delicious! – Oishii! – (oy-shee)
In Japanese, when you offer a compliment, you really mean it. Use ‘oishii’ when something is really, really yummy.
Water – Mizu – (mee-zu)
Because we all need water to survive, especially so when we’re sightseeing and doing lots of walking!
Beer – Biiru – (bee-ru)
You’re definitely going to need to use this word in Japan…
Sample sentence: Beer, please. – Biiru, onegaishimasu.
Order – Chuumon – (chyu-moh-n)
This is the word you’ll need to use if you want to order food.
Sample sentence: Excuse me, can I order please? – Sumimasen, chuumon onegaishimasu.
How much? – Ikura desu ka? – (ih-ku-rah deh-s kah?)
‘Ikura’ means ‘how much’, so this one is pretty easy. It’ll really come in handy when you’re shopping.
What is this? – Kore wa nan desu ka? – (koh-reh wah nah-n deh-s kah?)
‘Kore’ is the Japanese word for ‘this, and ‘nan’ means ‘what’. A more simple and slightly less polite way for this (if you can’t remember the whole sentence!) would be to point at something and say ‘nani?’ or ‘what…?’.
I don’t understand – Wakarimasen – (wah-kah-ree-mah-sen)
If you don’t get something or don’t know what’s going on, this is the phrase to use.
I can’t understand Japanese – Nihongo Wakarimasen – (nee-hon-go wah-kah-ree-mah-sen)
The Japanese word for Japanese is ‘Nihongo’ – pair it with ‘wakarimasen’ if someone’s yelling at you in Japanese! Or if you’ve read this guide, you can answer with ‘chotto’ – a little!
Do you speak English? – Eigo o hanashimasu ka? – (ey-go oh hah-nah-shi-mah-s-kah?)
The Japanese word for English is ‘Eigo’ and ‘hanashimasu’ is the verb meaning ‘to speak’.
Is there an English menu? – Eigo no menyu ga arimasu ka? – (ey-go noh meh-n-you gah ah-ree-mah-s-kah?)
Most restaurants don’t have a menu in English, but it’s always worth asking, just in case!
Pronunciation tip: You’ll notice that the –‘su’ at the end of a lot of Japanese words is said quite quickly or, more commonly, without the ‘u’ sound at the end at all. For example, ‘gozaimasu’ ends in – ‘mah-s’, and ‘desu’ as ‘deh-s’. In more formal situations, the ‘u’ sound might be more pronounced. With some other words that feature the ‘u’ or ‘i’ sound in them, this is also said very quickly to the point where it can’t be heard – almost like a quiet whisper.
This really is just a basic introduction, but knowing all these words and phrases is definitely going to be more useful than not knowing them. And who knows, they might be able to get you out of a tricky situation at some point. So, get memorising!