Japanese for tourists: how to get by in Japan

Can an English speaker get by on holiday in Japan without knowing the language? We look at useful phrases and ways to get around the language barrier.

By Saga team

Published 5 May 2024

How you get on in Japan with no Japanese will vary depending on where you’re going.

Areas popular with tourists, such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, will be a lot easier than more remote locations.

It’s a good idea to learn a few simple phrases and having ways to get around the language barrier will help you get the most out of your holiday to Japan. You only really need to learn a handful of words and phrases so that you can show politeness and these are fairly simple.

All things considered, Japan is well adapted to speakers of English: besides the need to be polite you’ll rarely need to use Japanese at all and, as with all things, the Japanese people will be entirely happy to help you however they can.

  • Yes - Hai

  • No - Nay

  • Hello/Good afternoon - Konnichiwa

  • Please - Onegaishimasu

  • Thank you - Arigato

  • Sorry/excuse me - Sumimasen

  • Please go ahead - Dozo

  • I’m okay - Daijobu

Yes and no are easy to remember. One thing to bear in mind though is that ‘hai’ also means ‘I understand,’ so you will hear it a lot.

While konnichiwa means ‘good afternoon,’ you’ll find that most tourists use it to say hello whatever the time of day. ‘Konbanwa’ means good evening, and is similar enough to konnichiwa to remember easily.

Good morning, on the other hand, is ohayou gozaimasu which might take some getting used to.

'Please’ is one of the more difficult words if you’re learning Japanese for the first time. Try to break it down into oni-gash-e-mass. A less formal way of saying please is ‘kudasai’, but this is usually used among friends.

Most people have heard ‘Arigato’, the word for thank you, before and it’s fairly simple. If you’re feeling particularly polite or thankful use ‘domo arigato.’ Using domo by itself is a short, informal version of thank you.

Sumimasen is one of the most useful words to learn, meaning both sorry and excuse me.

As it’s quite usual in the UK to say ‘sorry’ when pushing through a crowd the dual nature of the word is very natural and knowing it means that you can gain a waiter’s attention or push through to a train door like a native.

If pushing through a crowd it’s common to hold a hand up in front of your face in line with your nose to show your intent to move between people, but this isn’t strictly necessary.

Dozo means please in terms of ‘go ahead.’ If you’re giving way at a door, Dozo lets the person know you’re letting them go first. It’s surprisingly useful, especially in crowded areas.

Besides the polite basics, daijobu is very useful. Daijobu desu means ‘I’m okay,’ which is handy and can be used in almost any circumstances depending on the question.

However, as the Japanese expectations aren’t particularly high they’ll probably assume you simply mean that everything is fine.

‘Daijobu desu ka?’ is the question form, so you may be asked this if someone is concerned about you or simply checking that your meal is good.

One thing that might help put your mind at rest is that the Japanese will assume that you don’t speak their language unless you are living in Japan, and even then their expectations would not be high.

The small numbers of foreigners who can pass as fluent in the native language counts in your favour as the tourist industry has evolved to tackle our shortcomings.

Travel has a huge number of potential pitfalls if you can’t speak the language well and the Japanese recognised this many years ago.

As such, the majority of railway station ticket machines can be switched to English at the touch of a button in the corner of the screen.

As long as you can work with the ticket machines in the UK you can rest assured that their counterparts in Japan operate on much the same principle.

If travelling by road, taxis are a good choice as all the driver needs is an address.

In addition to this, the main cities now boast ‘tourist friendly’ taxis with English speaking drivers and an awareness of holiday makers’ needs.

The bus and tram systems of Japanese cities are both cost-effective and convenient. For longer journeys a ticket can be bought at a desk or through a machine but for shorter journeys you simply need a pocketful of change.

Take a numbered ticket when you board, and when you alight simply pay the fare displayed above the driver corresponding to your number. As in the UK, it is polite to thank the driver as you exit.

While you could live on the contents of the multitude of vending machines, presumably you’re going to go to a restaurant at some point.

In major cities English menus are often available, but even if not, they are often illustrated. Many restaurants also have extremely lifelike plastic models of the food on display, so pointing to what you want is quite simple.

The plastic models are so ubiquitous that an entire industry is now involved with creating them and it is worth spending a few moments simply appreciating the artistry involved in their manufacture.

If you have specific dietary needs it is worth making sure that the staff are entirely aware of what they are.

Almost all students have studied English at school and it has become a compulsory subject so generally speaking you will always be able to find someone who speaks a little English.

It will, however, likely be ‘a little’ English. It should also be noted that those of the older generation may have had very limited tuition, so given a choice it would make sense to approach younger people first.

As difficult as it is for an English speaker to learn Japanese, a Japanese speaker faces a long struggle to come to terms with the grammar and syntax of English.

In many ways English is harder to learn, especially when you take all of the grammatical exceptions and idioms into account. Imagine trying to understand what ‘buttering someone up’ means with nothing but a literal understanding of the words.

While a Japanese speaker’s understanding of English may be fairly sound, it is best to keep to simple sentences and common vocabulary.

If there is still a lack of understanding, it would be worth writing what you want down, as much of their learning will be based around written texts rather than conversations with foreigners.

As childish as it may sound, sometimes the best option is to abandon language altogether and attempt to communicate through a more basic approach.

Some say that the origin of human language lies with the pictograms scrawled on cave walls thousands of years ago and there may be something to this theory.

The people of most cultures, including those of Japan, understand sketches of stickmen.

If you want to find a post office, a drawing of a simple building and an envelope will communicate your needs far more quickly than searching fruitlessly through a phrasebook.

A step up from the sketchbook is making use of your smartphone: a library of pictures of things you’ll likely need could fulfil the same need more quickly. That said, a smartphone is capable of so much more these days.

If you have a smartphone with access to the internet while you're in Japan, thousands of images are instantly accessible at any time.

If your drawing skills aren’t up to scratch whatever you need is a web search away and potentially quite specific.

Translation websites are another option which may help when you need to communicate something more specific.

Communicating the concept of vegetarianism for example is rather difficult to do via doodling, but translation software can get your idea across near instantly.

Try to focus on communicating single key words though: translation software, despite recent advances, doesn’t deal with complicated sentences very well.

There is a steadily increasing market of translation apps which are also available even when offline. These tend to be more capable than their web-based counterparts.

Many of these apps, such as Google Translate (which is also available on iPhones) can also use your camera to translate written text such as restaurant menus and display it on your phone screen.

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