On a need to know basis! Japanese 101: Essential Phrases

The most daunting thing for most westerners who are about to visit Japan is learning Japanese. When you look at the Japanese language, it is quite scary with the difference in pronunciation, sentence structures and the fact that they use three different writing systems: kanji, hiragana and katakana.

On a need to know basis! Japanese 101: Essential Phrases

The most daunting thing for most westerners who are about to visit Japan is learning Japanese. When you look at the Japanese language, it is quite scary with the difference in pronunciation, sentence structures and the fact that they use three different writing systems: kanji, hiragana and katakana. Even though it is daunting, you can get by with a few phrases coupled with hand gestures and your body language. The key thing to remember is just learning to say something like "Arigatou gozaimasu" (thank you) or "sumimasen" (excuse me) can go a long way as people will appreciate you trying.

The Basics:

These are phrases that will become the life and soul of your trip. You will hear these phrases everywhere you go!

Arigatou Gozaimasu/Arigatou (Thank you/Thanks [Formal/Informal])

Most time of the time, you should be using Arigatou Gozaimasu as it is best to keep formal with anyone you don't know. But in the cases of you are speaking to a friend or find yourself in a casual setting, you could use the word Arigatou to say thanks. It's just like how you say Ohayōgozaimasu in a formal setting and Ohayō in a casual setting. If saying Arigatou is still too hard, you can say Doumo as well.

Onegaishimasu (Please)

There actually are two words for please: Onegaishimasu and Kudasai. Onegaishimasu is usually used when are you making a request that you cannot fulfil yourself like asking someone where the taxis are? It should also be used over the phone. Kudasai is used typically when someone is asking someone else to do something like stand in a specific spot. But you can use kudasai in some situation when you could also use onegaishimasu like asking for some water. So why is there a difference? Well, onegaishimasu is said to be the "spoken bow" as it's the more respectful out of the two words. So, it is common to hear it at the start of some martial arts fights.

Sumimasen (Excuse me)

Sumimasen is probably my most used Japanese word as I need it all the time. I highly recommend learning it as it has two main meanings: excuse me and sorry. I also recommend it if you get stressed often. Why? Because it's one of the few words that is okay to shout out. I am not saying shout sumimasen at every Japanese individual. But it is a common practice to say it very loudly to catch the attention of a waiter. You will also use it when you need to say sorry for something like bumping into someone.

Hai (Yes)

There isn't much I can say about this because it is simple.

iie (No)

A little warning with iie, it can seem a bit rude as it's like saying a sudden NO! So, use it carefully. This is where Daijoubu comes in.

Daijoubu (That’s okay/no)

Daijoubu is a soft/kind way of saying no. It's commonly used after someone said sumimasen for bumping into you or something like that.

Gomen nasai (I’m sorry)

Sadly, sumimasen doesn't cover every situation where you need to say sorry especially when you have done something serious. You must bow repeatedly while you say Gomen nasai.

Useful travel phrases:

These are phrases that will help you along with your adventures through the neon wonderland so have a go at some of them.

Eigo o hanasemasu ka? (Do you speak English?)

You can be a bit cheeky with this and say Eigo, which normally will get the message across to the person you are asking.

___ Doko desu ka? (Where is ___?)

A good trick with this phrase is to have a map and pointing at where you want to go. So, you don't need to worry about knowing the Japanese for where you want to go like a train station (eki)

ikura desu ka? (How much is it?)

This is another one where you can use the trick of pointing as most of the time, they understand what you mean and will type the price into a calculator.

___ arimasu ka? (Do you have ___?)

The trick with this phrase is to use the English word of what you are looking for. You will be surprised by how much they will understand.

Sorehanandesuka? (What is that?)

This is another one where you can use the trick of pointing. The only issue you might run into is they might tell you what it is in Japanese so remember Eigo for those situations.

Chizu o kudasai. (Could I have a map?)

I mentioned how the metro can be a maze but with this phrase, you can get a metro map. The last time I went, they had maps that show key lines with their key attractions so they can be very useful if you need a map of Tokyo and its attractions.

Shashin totte moratte mo ii desu ka? (Could you take a picture for me (or us)?)

It wouldn't be a complete trip if you didn't have a picture of you posing somewhere in Japan so this is a key phrase!

Toire wa doko desu ka? (Where is the bathroom?)

Learn this! Or at least learn Toire! Because I think everyone would agree that toilets are a key place for everyone!

Wai fai wa arimasu ka? (Do you have Wifi?)

If you don't have a pocket Wifi box then this is useful. I don't use it though because I always do have my own. Having your own wifi is also key from a security and privacy viewpoint! So, keep that in mind.

Dono purattofōmu (Which platform?)

Some people describe Japanese train stations as mazes inside of mazes, so knowing how to ask which platform can be a lifesaver. Although you might also want to know some Japanese numbers as there is a good chance that the answer will be a number!


A key component of human life is eating so knowing key phrases around eating are a good shout to learn!

Arerugī (Allergy)

The Japanese have got much better with taking care of allergies due to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. So even if you can't say your exact allergies, they might have an allergy fact sheet. But I still highly recommend having the Japanese of any allergies you have, written down on a piece of paper or card.

Mizu, onegaishimasu. (Water, please.)

After saying so many Japanese phrases, you might need a glass of water. If you struggle with onegaishimasu then you can just say Mizu which is water.

Menyuu, onegaishimasu. (Menu Please.)

After you regain your voice, you probably will want the menu although some fast-food restaurant uses a ticket vending machine for orders so be wary of that!

Osusume wa nan desu ka? (What do you recommend?)

If you are adventurous, this can be a fun phrase and can end up with some great results!

Itadakimasu (Thank you for the food (before the meal))

It's often translated into "I humbly receive," as it is the Japanese version of "Bon appétit". Most of the time, you will see people put their hands together, say Itadakimasu, bow slightly and then will start to eat. This is because the origin of Itadakimasu comes from a book called Koukou Michibiki Gusa which was a guide on daily life etiquette. In the book, there was the sentence "箸はし 取らと ば、 天地あめつち 御代みよの 御恵みおんめぐ 、 主君しゅくんや 親おやの 御恩ごおんあぢわゑ" which translates to "When you grab chopsticks, you should thank all nature and living things, the Emperor, and your parents." So basically, it means you should be thankful for the food you receive which is reflected in the Japanese saying, "Seven Gods live in one grain of rice."

gochisousama deshita (Thank you for the meal (after the meal))

I usually say this, just before I leave and it is common to hear people say it loudly to the chef and staff.

Kaado uketsuke masuka? (Can I use card payment?)

If you have read any of my blogs that talks about tips and tricks of Japan, you will know why I have included this one. Japan is still a cash-based society so if you want to pay by card, you are going to need to ask.

Okaikei onegaishimasu (Could I have the bill?)

This phrase is useful as you will need to ask for the bill when you are at a restaurant. It is also important for the waiters to know that you want the bill as they sometimes need to do a lot of calculations to work out the bill.

Kin-en seki o onegaishimasu (I’d like to have a non-smoking seat, please)

Smoking in Japan is not looked down on as much as it is in the west so it is common to find some restaurants that allow smoking. So, you might want to state if you want smoking or non-smoking seating.


If I am honest, you don't need to learn all of these. I would say that for every phrase you remember, the benefits will be tenfold. If you coupled my first two Japanese 101 blogs with this one, you basically are ready to travel around Japan. There are more words that would be useful to learn but as much as Japanese might be daunting, travelling around Japan isn't that daunting. The Japanese can be very friendly and helpful especially if you are polite and respectful. So, don't be scared to have a go and don't panic if you don't get the phrases right at first. I still struggle with some of them and sometimes forget key phrases but when I am using my Japanese actively (e.g. in Japan), I remember them better and I pick up new words along the way. If I had to give a tip on how to learn these phrases, watch YouTube videos. There are some great short videos of "essential" phrases that you should know.

So, it is time to say a big thank you to everyone reading this week's blog. In terms of next week, I haven't decided yet so we will have to wait and see. Also here is a link to a google form: https://forms.gle/oXEeLHD1XzfY5gkc6 Now I know it's an odd thing to add but it's for anyone with any questions as I am thinking about doing a Q&A blog in the future for a change of pace every once in a while. So, until next week, arigatou gozaimasu and sayōnara!