One of the first questions I'm asked when people talk to me about Japan is regarding the language barrier. Now although I speak/read a bit of Japanese I can tell you that letting your fears of a language barrier get in the way of an incredible holiday it the absolute last thing you want. After all, it's part of the adventure!
That's not to say that there won't be times where you feel a little bit frustrated or even daunted by the barrier, but there are a few things you can do to help make sure that this happen less frequently throughout your trip. Japan has become very tourist friendly over the years. You can walk up to someone on the street and politely ask basic directions and they will help, at major landmarks and transport hubs the signs are translated in English, in restaurants a majority of the time the menus will come in English as well as having pictures or even plastic display food that looks almost real enough to eat.
One tip I have is to avoid asking 'Do you speak English?' Japanese people are very modest and shy by nature and although they want to help in every way possible I've found that the idea of insulting us with the use of poor English is like something out of a nightmare to them. If you say 'Excuse me, I'm looking for Tokyo Station?' then they will most likely point you in the direction and not worry about their English. In saying this though, due to studying English from a younger age most Japanese people will speak it impeccably considering it's a second language!
Kind of makes me wish I'd started learning Japanese when I was much younger...
After hearing this if you're still concerned or just want to be able to show off a bit of skill in front of your travel buddies then I've got 10 survival words and phrases you'll definitely be able to use at some stage on your trip.
1. Hello - kon•ni•chi•wa - こんにちは
Let's start with the basics. Saying hello as you go about your daily business is good manners. Walking along the street you'll find some people will bow and say hello like you've met previously.
2. Good Morning - oha•yō•go•zai•masu - おはようございます
If you are up early ready to explore like I usually am then you will certainly hear people using this. Usually you swap to Konnichiwa around 10:30am - 11am.
3. Good Evening - kon•ban•wa - こんばんは
This is one to use during the afternoon/evening. I will admit I heard this greeting the least of all, not sure if its because it is a less popular greeting or I just didn't encounter many people during this time of the day. Either way give it a go!
4. Goodbye - sa•yō•na•ra - さようなら
The Japanese have many different ways to say goodbye but this is the most common. This one is used when saying goodbye to someone you wont see again for a period of time like a friend leaving on a holiday, someone leaving the elevator or even your hostess/host at a restaurant.
5. Thank You - a•ri•ga•tō - ありがとう
This will definitely be the word you use most often. When buying something, when receiving meals/drinks, basically 100 times a day you are put in the situation where you have to say thank you. Honestly I think my manners are 100% better in Japan than back home just because this word is so fun to say!
6. Please/Go Ahead - dō•zo - どうぞ
An example of using this is when offering your seat to someone on public transport or even letting someone go first. It's longer version is hai-dozo (はいどうぞ) which is basically saying "Yes, go ahead" which you'll hear on buses frequently as you're paying your fare.
When I visit Japan I like to take small gifts like Caramel Koalas or other individually wrapped sweets to gift to people who assist me with directions, sit next to me on public transport etc. This is also a perfect time to use this as you are offering them something, similar to offering them your seat.
7. Please - One•gai•shi•masu - お願いします
A little more difficult than the previous thank you but just as helpful! Now Onegaishimasu is used when asking for an item eg. food at kombini. So you would ask for the item and then add Onegaishimasu on the end. This will be easier if you know a few food and drink names but if you don't that's fine, you might pick some up by the end of your trip!
8. Excuse Me - su•mi•ma•sen - すみません!
9. I'm Sorry - go•men•na•sai - ごめんなさい!
These two go together, excuse me and sorry are the next most common words you'll use right behind thank you. With over 13 million people in the Tokyo prefecture some places get crowded and if you're a clumsy person like myself you'll be apologizing a lot!
10. Where is the Toilet? - toyre•wa•do•ko•des•ka - トイレはどこですか?
So here I am on the Shinkansen and little 14 year old me is playing charades in a desperate attempt to find where the toilet is. Learn this one, repeat it over and over otherwise you might find yourself in a similar situation where you're imitating siting on a toilet in front of a carriage full of strangers. Also those using the female toilet might be shocked to find a traditional toilet instead. I suggest googling this ahead so you're less surprised and ready to take on this small challenge.
Hopefully after reading these 10 words and phrases you're feeling a little better about tackling your trip to Japan. Do you think these are the main ones that you'll use? Do you have another of your own you'd like to add to the list? Maybe you'd like a food and drink list as well?
Leave a comment below and let me know!