If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” ~ Nelson Mandela.
Heading to Japan soon? Worried about the language barrier? Don’t be! It’s easy to learn a few handy phrases in Japanese before your trip to get by. For quick reference, I’ve created this list of the most useful phrases in Japanese for tourists below so you don’t have to scour the internet putting together bits and pieces!
These are phrases I used daily on my trip to Japan. I’ll guarantee this will help you get the most out of your trip, as I’ve also created a super easy and FREE downloadable PDF cheat sheet of these phrases so you can use it offline when in Japan.
I’m a HUGE fan of being an invisible tourist when travelling (hence the name of this blog). I’m also a firm believer that it’s possible to blend in when abroad by learning some local lingo. It has to be one of the best ways to not stand out as a stereotypical tourist. Read on for more!
This guide to Japanese for tourists will cover:
Notes on basic Japanese phrases and pronunciation
Of course, there are dozens more Japanese phrases I could add to this list. However, the aim of this article is to help you learn the most effective phrases you’ll use on a daily basis as a tourist. There’s no need to become fluent in Japanese or be daunted by the task of learning THREE alphabets (if you don’t want to!)
I’ve got to admit though, being able to read Hiragana (the swirly one), Katakana (the pointy one) and some basic Kanji (derived from Chinese) is SUPER helpful when you’re navigating your way around Japan. It’s even better when you can read what’s in some of the interesting Japanese foods at the convenience stores! I’m so glad I learnt to read before my trip (even if sometimes I didn’t know what I was reading but I could piece the puzzle together). More on this at the end of the article.
As a general rule with Japanese, pronounce the words by breaking them down into their syllables. In English and other Romance languages we tend to have letters that blend together to make some sounds. Japanese doesn’t really which makes pronunciation a lot easier!
TIP: One thing to be mindful of, though: Much of the time the letter “u” is somewhat silent, or its full sound is cut short. For instance, the sound “su” す is mostly pronounced with just the “s” sound, so my pronunciation guide below reflects this.
Here’s 20+ super useful phrases in Japanese for tourists & FREE cheat sheet
I highly recommend listening to some Japanese audio so you can get the hang of how to pronounce the words and phrases correctly to avoid locals looking at you like you’ve got two heads. Keep on reading as I’ve listed where you can find them at the end of this article!
Japanese is a very syllable-based, vowel-sounding language that’s easy for English speakers to pronounce without many exceptions. I’ll detail each useful phrase and the most appropriate time to use them below.
Little disclaimer for people who have extensively studied Japanese: I studied two Japanese courses that covered the language at a beginner’s level. My advice below is purely so tourists can get their message across and be understood.
So, let’s dive into the most useful Japanese phrases for travellers:
#1 Hello: Konnichiwa こんにちは
The famous word you’re probably already familiar with! “Konnichiwa こんにちは” is best used when meeting and greeting people.
#2 Good morning: Ohayo gozaimasu おはようございます
“Ohayo gozaimasu おはようございます” is a bit self-explanatory. You’ll be greeted with this phrase in the morning by staff at your hotel, or in stores. Be sure to reciprocate the greeting, and slightly bow your head in return! But how much to bow? See my guide for using correct etiquette in Japan.
#3 Good afternoon: Konnichiwa こんにちは
No, this isn’t a typo! To greet someone in the afternoon, “konnichiwa こんにちは” is also used. Well I guess that’s one less phrase you’ll have to remember now, heh.
#4 Good evening: Konbanwa こんばんは
Kinda obvious, “konbanwa こんばんは” is useful if you’ve finished eating dinner at a restaurant and saying goodnight to the chef and staff as you leave, or greeting staff at your hotel when you return for the night.
#5 Good bye: Sayonara さようなら
This is used as a final goodbye, when you know you may not see that person again. Handy to use if you’re following one of my itineraries for Japan! If you know you’ll be seeing them again soon, “ja matane じゃあまたね” meaning “see you later” is more appropriate.
#6 Please: Kudasai ください
You can use “kudasai ください” when you’re asking for something, for instance buying items from a convenience store or purchasing train tickets.
If you’re offering something, like allowing someone to enter a doorway before you, “dozo” どぞ” and an open hand will take your politeness to the next level.
#7 Thank you: Arigato gozaimas ありがとうございます
You’ll hear and use this one A LOT in Japan. If you can only master one of the phrases in my article, let it be this! You can also use “domo どうも arigato” if you want to be super polite.
#8 How are you?: O genki des ka? お元気ですか?
You may be asked this by service people, or any friendly locals you encounter. This is a great one to use if you get talking to some locals at an izakaya (Japanese style pub). It’s a great ice-breaker to help you practice some Japanese.
#9 I’m fine, thanks: Hai, genki des はい, 元気です
A polite way to answer “how are you?” to anyone who asks. They may go on to think that your Japanese vocabulary is larger than it seems!
#10 Excuse me / Sorry: Sumimasen すみません
“Sumimasen すみません” is used for getting someone’s attention. Contrarily, “gomennasai ごめんなさい” is the more literal translation of “I’m sorry” but that’s more used as an apology. However, if you accidentally bump into someone “sumimasen” is more commonly used.
#11 My name is…: Watashi wa … des 私は …です
Simply insert your name where the dots are, for instance mine is “watashi wa Alyse des.” This is a useful to know when introducing yourself to someone you’ve just met, or when checking into your hotel or accommodation.
#12 Yes: Hai はい
#13 No: Iie いいえ
It’s pretty obvious when you would want to use yes (hai はい), so no explanation needed here. However, no (literally “iie” いいえ) is a different story.
Because the Japanese are so polite, they don’t really use the word “no”. They may say something that alludes to the meaning of no, but not say it directly. If you say “iie” for no you may receive a strange look! You’re not really meant to use it when refusing something. “Chotto ちょっと” meaning “it’s a little…” is the more correct way to say no in Japanese.
#14 I’d like…: … O kudasai …をください
Perfect to use in restaurants or when eating out, this is a polite way to ask the food or item you wish to order.
#15 What is this?: Kore wa nan des ka? これは何ですか
Especially useful when shopping for food! Remember to learn some possible responses like chicken (チキン chikin), beef (ビーフ beefu), pork ポーク pork) or fish 魚 (sakana). I’d also advise learning the names for the foods you are adverse to so you don’t order them by mistake.
#16 How much is this?: Ikura des ka? いくらですか
Great little phrase to find out how much something costs. If you don’t know the names of numbers in Japanese when they respond, ask the shopkeeper to write it down. I’ve got a little guide to numbers further down the page to help you out. Thankfully after World War II the Japanese adopted using the same Hindu-Arabic numerals we do in the Western world!
#17 The bill / check, please: Okanjo wo, onegaishimas
Once you’ve finished your meal in a restaurant, say this handy phrase to your waiter for the bill/check to be brought over to you for payment.
#18 Do you accept credit cards?: Kurejittokado wa tsukaemas ka? クレジットカードは使えますか?
Cash is king in Japan and usually the preferred way to pay for things. If you’re spending big on a particular item this is a handy phrase to check you don’t need to withdraw cash to carry out your purchase.
#19 Where is the toilet?: Toire wa dokodes ka?
When nature calls, this is an essential phrase to know! If you’re looking for something else other than a toilet, you can replace the word for toilet “toire” with the thing you’re after. For instance, “eki 駅” (train station) would be “eki wa do ko des ka?” .
#20 Do you speak English?: Eigo ga hanasemas ka?
The word for English “eigo 英語” is pronounced more like “air-go”. Most Japanese people will politely shake their head in response to this question, despite having learnt some English at school. Generally speaking, they tend to be a little shy in practicing their English because they aren’t fluent.
But you’ll soon find their definition of not speaking English is different to yours! In my experience, the people I encountered who said they couldn’t speak much English spoke well enough to get their message across. In major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, English will be more widely understood, but not so much the further south you go towards Hiroshima. Just keep your sentences short, simple, clear and it’s likely you’ll be understood.
#21 Can you translate this for me?: Yakushite, kudasai?
Great for asking a native speaker to translate a paper map, tickets, or anything else you can’t seem to understand in its context.
#22 I don’t understand: Wakarimasen 分かりません
If Japanese is all getting a bit much for you, this is a good phrase to use. You may need to throw in a few hand gestures from here!
#23 Help: Taskete たすけて
If you’re in need of help from locals, this is the word to use. It’s particularly useful if there’s an emergency and you need assistance.
Brief introduction to numbers
Luckily for English-speakers, the Arabic numerals we all know and use in the Western world are widely used in Japan. This makes reading numbers easy for us! Their pronunciation is different, though.
You may see the traditional numbers throughout the country but I personally didn’t see them being used during my 2 weeks in Japan.
If you’re in a store asking for a quantity of something, it’s good to be able to pronounce numbers 1 through 10 so you can get by. If all else fails, at least you can write it down!
⬇️ Grab your FREE Japanese for Tourists CHEAT SHEET here!
Click on the image below to download my FREE PDF of all the phrases I’ve listed above. It’s super handy as you can print it out to take with you, or store it on your phone for offline use when you’re adventuring around Japan!
Additional resources to learn Japanese for tourists
If you’re a book lover like me, you may want to use a phrasebook to study some extra phrases. Sure, these days it’s all too easy to use language apps like Google Translate to do all the hard work (but where’s the fun in that?!).
Knowing some Japanese phrases beforehand will save you having to use pocket wifi or data roaming during your trip and you’ll get a more authentic exchange with locals. Getting your hands and ears on some Japanese audio will help you be well on your way to being an invisible tourist in Japan!
As you can probably guess from the photo above I have loads of books that helped me prepare for my trip to Japan. You definitely don’t need this many but I found each helped me in a different way, which I explain below.
TIP: I personally prefer Book Depository over Amazon because they are almost always cheaper than Amazon, plus they have FREE international shipping!
AJALT Japanese for Busy People (latest prices, order on Book Depository here)
Recommended by the university where I studied a short course in Japanese, Japanese for Busy People was is a really helpful book as it doesn’t go into a crazy amount of detail. Just the situations you would normally use Japanese to survive as a tourist (or there on a business trip).
The book has exercises so you can test your knowledge and also includes some notes about Japanese culture (I’ve also written my own article about do’s and don’ts when visiting Japan). A 70-minute audio CD covers the pronunciation from exercises from the book, which is also great.
Berlitz Japanese Phrasebook and Audio (latest prices, order on Book Depository here)
After using Lonely Planet phrase books exclusively for years I was introduced to Berlitz phrasebooks by a paid language course I took at my community college. Although the content is very similar to Lonely Planet’s (more below) I found some of the Berlitz phrases were more simplified, which made them easier to say and remember. The phrasebooks are also compact and cover most travelling situations.
Chineasy by Shaolan (latest prices, order on Book Depository here)
Overwhelmed by the thought of 2000+ kanji? Chineasy is going to be your best friend! Although this book is to help you learn Chinese, it’s a game changer when learning kanji (as this is derived from Chinese). The pronunciation of the symbols may be different than Japanese, but this this book is awesome because it easily breaks down the kanji into simple pictures to help you remember what they mean. If you forget how to say them at least you’ll be able to read the basics and know what they mean, which is perfect if you’re a visual learner like me.
You can even take it one step further and play the Chineasy Memory Card Game – what a fun way to learn kanji!
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Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook and Audio (latest prices, order on Book Depository here)
With their strong reputation Lonely Planet is the industry leader when it comes to learning language for travel. This Japanese phrasebook covers almost every situation you’d expect when travelling and provides the phonetics of foreign words. As with Berlitz, this book is compact and pocket-sized so it’s perfect for on the go. It makes it easy to brush up on your Japanese phrases on the plane before you get there (without having to rely on pocket wifi)!
TIP: Specifically for Japanese – The Lonely Planet audio is useless for a beginner. The native speaks the Japanese phrases so fast and it’s very difficult for a beginner to determine what’s been said. Berlitz audio is a much better alternative, so I’d highly suggest Berlitz.
Lonely Planet Small Talk Asia (latest prices, order on Book Depository here)
This is a handy little phrasebook if you’re planning on visiting Japan as well as other Asian countries. Small Talk Asia covers the basic survival phrases you’ll need in Japanese, as well as Cantonese, Korean, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese and more. At the beginning of each chapter is a super useful table about how to pronounce vowels and how they can change the meanings of words if not spoken correctly. Very handy to know!
Concluding learning Japanese for tourists
If you’ve made it this far, you must be really keen to learn Japanese so I wish you the best on your learning journey. Now you’re set to go with the basic phrases you’ll need in Japan, as well as how to pronounce them and the best context to use each. I hope you’ll also find my free PDF cheat sheet helpful, too!
Hungry for more? I’ve have written about loads of tips and tricks for Japan, focused around how to be an invisible tourist while you’re there. Even if it’s you’re first visit, my popular Japan archive of articles includes do’s and don’ts for visiting, detailed itineraries, hidden gems, city guides and much more. Why not take a look while you’re here?
If you found this helpful or know someone who is planning a trip to Japan, please share it around as it really helps me in return! You can also come and join me on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Bloglovin’ for more Japan inspiration!
Until next time,
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