If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you might be wondering about the Japanese language barrier.
In our guide to the most essential Japanese words and phrases for travelers to Japan we’ll show you:
- Why you have less reason to worry than you may think
- And prepare you with some essential Japanese for your trip!
Do you need to speak any Japanese to travel around Japan
Absolutely not. You can travel to Japan without learning any of these words and have a great time. The language barrier is a common myth that shouldn’t get in your way.
Almost all of our clients – not to mention other travelers we speak with — are pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to travel around Japan without any Japanese language abilities.
Most of our travelers don’t speak a single word of Japanese, yet come back with stories of how much they love Japan.
The Truth About the Japanese Language Barrier
A lot of people aren’t sure what to expect when it comes to the language barrier in Japan.
Do Japanese people speak English? How much, or how little? These are questions we hear all the time.
The truth is that most Japanese people speak at least a little bit of English.
These days, all Japanese students study English for a minimum of six years in secondary school, and many students – as well as adults – also take English-language classes after school or on weekends.
English-language fluency is not widespread, so most people you meet probably won’t be fluent in English, but almost everyone you meet will know at least a few English words – and many will know anywhere from hundreds to thousands.
Sometimes you may find that the people you meet are hesitant to try their English on you, but you’ll likely find that you can communicate in basic English in a huge variety of situations while traveling around Japan.
The Japanese Written Language
You may also be worried about the written language. The good news is that you don’t need to be able to read or write Japanese to enjoy traveling around Japan.
Japanese people don’t expect you to be able to read the Japanese language, and you’ll find English-language signage throughout the country. This is especially true in places frequented by travelers, such as sightseeing spots, shopping areas, train stations, airports, and often even on the street.
As for at restaurants, though it’s not always the case, you will often find English-language menus. When English-language menus are not available, photos are quite often included to make pointing-and-ordering possible.
Despite Japan’s travel-friendliness, every visitor to Japan at some point finds him or herself in a situation in which linguistic communication is simply not possible, and sign language and gesturing are required.
Getting lost in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is a fear of many would-be travelers, but if you had to pick a country in which to get lost, you couldn’t do much better than Japan.
Japan is by far one of the safest countries in the world, with crime rates that are astonishingly low compared to places like the US and most of Europe. And Japanese people will often go to surprising lengths to help tourists.
Back when I first moved to Japan I spoke very little Japanese, and on my first visit to Kyoto I accidentally took the wrong train and ended up wandering around a neighborhood with no idea how to get where I wanted to go.
Luckily, an older gentleman with his wife spotted me looking confused and came up to me with perhaps one of the only English phrases he knew: “Are you lost?” I said yes and showed him the name of the place I wanted to go.
If he had simply pointed me in the right direction it would have been helpful, but instead he started walking me in the right direction.
After a few minutes of walking his wife split off, presumably to go home, and we continued. After 15 minutes of walking he had dropped me off at exactly the spot I needed to be, and – as is typical in Japanese culture – expected nothing in return. I thanked him profusely and we had a good laugh despite our inability to communicate linguistically.
Almost everyone who has visited Japan has a similar story of a random act of kindness and generosity from a Japanese stranger (or a tale of a camera or passport left on a train being miraculously returned).
So you can rest assured that even if you forget all of the words and phrases we show you below, you’ll be in good hands with the wonderful people of Japan.
Then why learn any Japanese if you won’t even need it?
Aside from the fact that it’s a rich and fascinating language, learning even just one or two Japanese words or phrases will help endear you to the Japanese people you meet during your trip, and enhance your overall travel experience.
Japanese people tend to be extremely appreciative of visitors who take the time to learn even just a word or phrase or two, and if you try then chances are you’ll be greeted with oohs and aahs of encouragement!
The Most Essential Japanese Words & Phrases for Your Trip to Japan
So to help you learn some basic Japanese for your trip, we’ve compiled the most essential Japanese words and phrases for travelers to Japan.
Don’t worry too much about messing up the pronunciation. Unlike several other languages throughout Asia, Japanese is not a tonal language, and the pronunciation is probably easier than you think.
To help you with pronunciation, we’ve also included a bonus video below!
You’ll be saying thank you a lot, so it’s the perfect place to begin.
The word for thank you in Japanese is arigatou gozaimasu (in Japanese, the “u” at the end of some words is barely pronounced to the point of being nearly silent).
You can usually simply say arigatou, which is a little more casual but usually perfectly fine.
In Japan, where politeness is such a key part of the culture, you’ll be saying arigatou gozaimasu a lot!
Next you’ll want to learn the word for hello, which is konnichiwa. You’ve probably heard this word before!
Konnichiwa is typically used during the day, and there are other phrases for good morning and good evening (ohayou gozaimasu, and konbanwa, respectively).
But when you’re starting out it’s best to keep things simple, and if you simply learn konnichiwa you can use it throughout the day to say hello!
Excuse me is an important expression in any language, and Japanese is no exception.
The word for excuse me in Japanese is sumimasen. Chances are you’ll be using this one quite a bit, so if you can try and memorize it!
It’s a doubly useful word, as it can be used both to get a person’s attention, and also to apologize.
For example, use sumimasen at an izakaya (a Japanese-style gastropub) to get a waiter’s attention. At izakaya, it’s often called out as sumimaseeeeee~n!
On the other hand, if you accidentally walk onto a tatami floor with your shoes on (something you’re likely to do at some point) you can use sumimasen to say I’m sorry.
I would like __, please.
Now that we’ve covered three basic essentials, we can move onto two key sentences that will hopefully help you a lot.
First is I would like __, please. This is useful in a variety of situations: at restaurants, in stores, and on many other occasions you’ll encounter while traveling.
In Japanese, it’s __ o kudasai (simply fill in the __ [blank] with the item of your choice).
To get the most out of this phrase, you may want to learn a few vocabulary words, such as water (mizu), beer (biiru), sake, and others you think you may need.
Where is the __?
Last but not least, we think it’s quite useful to be able to ask Where is the __?
This is useful even if you can’t understand the answer, because once you ask, people will be able to point you in the right direction, or even help you get to where you’re going!
In Japanese, it’s __ wa doko desu ka? (simply fill in the __ [blank] with the place you’re trying to reach).
One key vocabulary word that often goes along with this phrase for travelers is eki, which means station (for example, Shinjuku eki is Shinjuku station).
Bonus Video: Practice your Pronunciation
In the video below, I go over some of the most useful Japanese words and phrases for your trip to Japan. Practice along to improve your pronunciation before your trip!
You’ll learn how to say:
- Thank you
- Excuse me
- I would like __, please
- Where is the __?
- Tasty (this tastes good)
Want to Learn Even More?
For those of you who want to learn even more Japanese words and phrases, we’ve created the Boutique Japan Tiny Phrasebook.
Our Tiny Phrasebook features carefully-selected Japanese words and phrases designed to help you get the most out of your trip to Japan.
You’ll find key words and phrases to help you in getting around, eating and drinking, shopping and more!
Hopefully you’ve found our guide to Japanese words and phrases for travel helpful!
If you want to keep learning more words and phrases make sure to check out our Tiny Phrasebook!