Japan without Japanese

As some of you know, in a few short weeks, I’ll be flying to South Korea for a two-week vacation. I’ve got a couple basic phrases down (mostly “hello” and “my name is”) and a handy-dandy phrasebook+dictionary at my side. I’ll also be getting a SIM card for my phone, so hopefully that’ll help ease the language and travel directions burdens. I watched some vlogs and read a couple articles about traveling to Korea without knowing any Korean. In places like Seoul or other locations that cater to foreign tourists, English shouldn’t be a problem. (A friend who visited last year said she could pretty much get by on English and Japanese, so crossing my fingers there!)

This got me thinking, though. Traveling to Japan wasn’t a huge issue for me because I have an intermediate level of Japanese. Some of you, though, might have little to no Japanese but still want to visit and are wondering how many phrases to learn on the airplane.

Allow me to assist.

Huge cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Sapporo  should have moderate English abilities at the least. To be honest, I can’t speak for them much since I’ve only been to two of them, and not for very long. I can say that the airports and the hotels near the major airports will have people who can speak English. Signs and announcements there are also given in English.

Subways and trains in many places, especially large cities, should rotate between Japanese and English. I can’t speak for rail lines in smaller areas.

For the most part, people are extremely accommodating. The entire country learns English now from elementary school (older generations learned from about middle school, I believe), so if you’re stuck with a language barrier, try tossing out some basic words. Simple gestures work well, too, like pointing on menus and holding up one finger to indicate one order of that dish. And buying things shouldn’t be an issue. They’ll show you the amount, and if you need help with the coins, they’ll show you which ones to hand over.

As I mentioned before, larger cities should have better English abilities, so you probably won’t have to worry much about using broken English plus gestures to make yourself understood.

For those of you who want to visit rural areas, like where I currently live, as a rule you’ll rely far, far more on broken English, gestures, and dictionaries. Of course, there are people in these towns who speak amazing English, but for the most part, the language isn’t used, so whatever they learned in school falls away after graduation.

One point to keep in mind about using English with Japanese speakers, especially in more rural areas: even if you both use English words familiar to the other (ex. “hamburger”), your words may be incomprehensible to the Japanese speaker and vice versa.  Why, you ask? Because the English words have become “Japan-ized”, meaning they have been put into the Japanese alphabet and are now pronounced in a way that Japanese speakers understand. There are dozens upon dozens upon dozens upon five of these words. For example:

hamburger = han-baah-gaah (long “ah”)
train = to-ray-n
hospital = hoh-soo-pee-tah-roo
shoes = shooz

Before you get frustrated with the Japanese for not understanding “hamburger”, remember that we do the same thing to Japanese words in English. Have a fondness for karaoke? Do you know it’s not pronounced “care-ee-oh-kee” but is actually “kah-rah-oh-keh”?  Samurai and ninjas more your speed? Try “sah-moo-rye” and “neen-ja” instead.

OK. Almost done.

I’m going to close this post by giving you some handy phrases to use when traveling, in case you want to try your hand at them or find yourself stuck behind a language barrier. Before that, though, I just want to reiterate that English should get you lots of places in Japan, and even if it can’t, people are often quite willing to help you out. A little patience and plenty of bowing of the head in thanks, and you should be good. Of course, it never hurts to bring along a phrasebook or dictionary just in case, especially you rural-town-going folk.

Whether you want to go by the phrasebook or toss the pages to the wind and live for language adventure, here are some of the most important phrases I can think of for traveling in Japan, and I’d recommend at least allowing your ears a chance to familiarize themselves with the words.

Basic Japanese Phrases

Hello. = Kon’nichi wa  (kohn-nee-chee-wa)
Goodbye. = Sayonara.  (Sai-yoh-nah-rah)


Yes = Hai (high)
No = Iie  (ee-eh)


Please = Onegai shimasu (oh-neh-guy shee-mahs)
No, thank you = Iie, kekko desu (ee-eh, keh-koh dehs)
Thank you = Arigato (ah-ree-gah-toh).
Thank you very much = Arigato gozaimasu (ah-ree-gah-toh goh-za-ee-mahs)


Excuse me = Sumimasen (soo-mee-mah-sehn)
I’m sorry = Gomen nasai (goh-men nah-sa-ee)


Where is _____ ? =  ______ wa doko desu ka? ( ___ wa doh-koh dehs kah?)
station = eki (eh-kee)
subway = chikatetsu (chee-kah-teh-tsoo)
train = densha (dehn-shah), torain (toh-rain)
bus stop = basu-tei (bah-soo-tey)
airport = kuukou (koo-koh)
bathroom = toire (toh-ee-ray)


How much is it? = Ikura desu ka? (ee-koo-rah dehs kah?)


Food = tabemono (tah-beh-moh-noh)
Drink = nomimono (noh-mee-moh-noh)
*(Said before meal) No direct translation = Itadakimasu (ee-tah-dah-kee-mahs)
*(Said after meal) No direct translation = Gochisosama deshita (goh-chee-soh-sah-mah deh-shtah)

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