15 Useful Japanese Phrases You Need to Learn Before Travelling to Japan

15 Useful Japanese Phrases You Need to Learn Before Travelling to Japan

Chotto matte kudasai! Don’t leave for Japan until you can say these phrases with confidence.

We like to romanticise the idea of getting lost in a place and finding ourselves amidst the wonderful unknown. Don’t get us wrong, that’s fantastic! But Japan is a country where a strong grasp of the language can open many doors, granting us access to the secret corners and hidden gems we want to discover along the way. 

For all those moments when flailing and pointing at the menu won’t cut it, we’ve gathered the most crucial words that any traveller needs in order to survive in Japan. Whether your command of the language comes from samurai movies or stock anime knowledge from your childhood, these essential Japanese phrases will quickly take you from “huh?” to wakarimashita! 

Also read: 24 Quirky Things You Realise Are Actually True After You Visit Japan 

1. Ohayou gozaimasu 

What it means: Good morning 

Ohayou gozaimasu is the formal expression, but a friendly ohayou is usually enough to greet your friends a good morning. As many Japanese citizens tend to rise early in the day, this phrase is not typically used after 10.30am.

2. Konnichiwa 

What it means: Hello, good afternoon, or good day  

When you are past the hours of the morning, konnichiwa is the standard expression for greeting others “hello.” However, it can also mean “good afternoon” or “good day!” 

3. Konbanwa

What it means: Good evening 

If the sky is already dark outside, you say konbanwa to greet someone a “good evening.” However, this Japanese phrase should not be mistaken with oyasumi nasai, which is used to wish someone a “good night.”

japanese phrases: konbanwa

4. Arigatou gozaimasu 

What it means: Thank you

Of course, you can’t go to Japan without learning this expression! Saying arigatou gozaimasu or arigatou communicates your gratitude towards someone who has served you or gone out of their way to help you. In turn, you might hear them respond with douitashimashite, which means “you’re welcome.” 

5. Watashi wa ~ 

What it means: I am (name or noun) 

Introduce yourself to another person by following “watashi wa” with your name, while adding desu at the end to be polite. 

Consider this example: Watashi wa Tiffany desu. (“I am Tiffany.”) This is the standard way of stating your name, as opposed to the longer and more formal manner: Watashi no namae wa Tiffany desu. (“My name is Tiffany.”) Though the latter is also correct, the phrase is rarely used in its entirety. 

On the other hand, if you wish to clarify your status as a foreigner, you can say, watashi wa gaikokujin desu or gaikokujin desu. (“I am a foreigner.”) 

6. Sumimasen 

What it means: Excuse me or I am sorry 

If you want to get a person’s attention, perhaps to ask for directions, sumimasen is a respectful way to address them before bringing up your request. Often used by travellers who wish to ask for help or assistance, this is probably the most useful word out of all the Japanese phrases here. Additionally, it can be a casual way of saying “I am sorry” when you bump into someone or inconvenience them in some way. 

7. Gomen nasai

What it means: I am sorry 

If you’ve done something a little more serious, like stepping on someone’s foot when the train takes a sudden sway, you want to show that you didn’t mean any harm and that you are sincerely sorry. In these types of scenarios, it is more appropriate to bow your head slightly and say gomen nasai, as opposed to sumimasen. You might also want to ask this follow-up question to check if the other person is okay: Daijoubu desu ka? (“Are you alright?”)

japanese phrases: ask if they speak english

8. Eigo wo hanashimasu ka? 

What it means: Do you speak English? 

It’s worth a shot! You never know if someone might secretly want to practise their English, or rather, eigo. Many will shake their heads, but not to worry! The main goal of the phrase is to convey that you are an English-speaking tourist. If the person you are conversing with knows that your grasp of Japanese phrases is limited, they will be more patient with you when it comes to offering guidance or instructions.

9. Wakarimasen

What it means: I don’t understand or I have no idea

Since you will be surrounded by native speakers, there is always a chance that the person you are talking to will drop more words than you can understand. You can use either of these helpful Japanese phrases to express your confusion: Nihongo ga wakarimasen (“I don’t understand Japanese”) or wakarimasen. “(I don’t understand.) Alternatively, if you do understand, say wakarimashita. 

japanese phrases: densha wa doko desu ka

10. ~ wa doko desu ka? 

What it means: Where is the …? 

Don’t get off the plane to Japan without knowing what this means! When you want to ask where to find a certain place or object, you can apply this useful sentence pattern: object or place + “wa doko desu ka?” 

If you are looking for the comfort station or water closet, you can ask: Toire wa doko desu ka? (“Where is the toilet?”). Here, we used toire or “toilet” as the object, since finding the restroom is a common problem for tourists. 

Other examples include the following: Harajuku wa doko desu ka? (“Where is Harajuku?”) Densha wa doko desu ka? (“Where is the train?”) 

japanese phrases: kore wa ikura desu ka

11. ~ ga arimasu ka? 

What it means: Do you have (object)? 

You could be wandering the Tower Records building in Shibuya while searching for a limited-edition record that you have always wanted, but you are not sure if they have it in their store. How do you find it? 

If you are inquiring about the availability of a certain thing or item, you can use this sentence structure: (object) + ga arimasu ka? For example, if you want to ask if they have books, you would go: Hon ga arimasu ka? (“Do you have books?”) 

12. ~ wo kudasai 

What it means: May I have (object)? Or, please give me (object)?

This phrase is very suitable for conversations at restaurants, cafes, or bars. While conversing with a waiter, for example, you might ask: Koucha wo kudasai (“May I have tea?”) or mizu wo kudasai (“Please give me water.”)

13. Kore wa ikura desu ka? 

What it means: How much does this cost? 

If you want to know how much a particular item costs but you cannot find a price tag with the Japanese yen symbol (¥) anywhere, simply ask this question: Kore wa ikura desu ka? To break down this sentence, ikura means “how much,” while kore refers to “this,” or the nearby object whose price you wish to learn about. 

14. Kanpai

What it means: Bottoms up, cheers, or toast 

Then there’s this classic phrase for boozy nights! Some of you might already know this one by heart. Before downing a shot with your friends, say kanpai! 

15. Ja mata 

What it means: See you later or see you again 

While sayonara might be on the tip of your tongue, this phrase has an almost wistful tone to it. Sayonara rings a lot closer to “farewell,” as though you will never see this person again. 

If you are looking for a more casual way to say “bye,” then you are more likely to use ja mata as parting words. It doesn’t have such a strong sense of an ending, and it means “see you later.” Other informal variations of this phrase are ja ne, which translates to “see you;” and mata ashita, for when you want to say, “see you tomorrow.” 

japanese phrases: restaurant sign

Suffice to say, you don’t need to know too many Japanese phrases to navigate the streets like a pro. Anytime you feel like heading to the Land of the Rising Sun, it helps to bridge the language gap and meet the locals halfway, as much as you can. 

Also read: 15 Japanese Customs & Don’ts You Should Know While Visiting Japan 

Now that this article has ended, you can officially say, beaming with pride: Sukoshi nihongo wo hanashimasu! That is to say, “I speak a little Japanese!” 

Safe travels, and ganbatte ne!

About Author

Tiffany Conde
Tiffany Conde

Tiffany is a writer based in Manila. When she was younger, she knew she wanted to write stories or go on adventures—now, she's learning to do both. She enjoys being swept up in books that spark her curiosity for new places, both real and imaginary. While travelling, she finds herself going off the beaten track quite often, but it's probably because she gets lost easily.

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