LANGUAGE GUIDE: Learning Japanese

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By Claire D'hooghe | February 17, 2016

 Japanese Language Guide. Understanding Japanese can be a very confusing and frustrating experience.

Check out our Japanese Language Guide: Understanding Japanese can be a very confusing and frustrating experience.

Learning Your Kawaii’s From Your Kowaii’s:

How to Order Food, Get Drunk, Pick Up & Get Home in Japan

Any traveller worthy of their passport knows it’s important to learn the language of where they’re traveling, at very least the three main phrases for the foreign country they visit; hello, please and thank you. When you’re traveling to Japan it’s essential to have these down pat as well as a few other phrases to make your time in Japan as astounding, eye opening and as humbling as possible – and much easier, of course. So we here have gone ahead and compiled you a useful Japanese language guide.

I’m gonna go right ahead and presume you’ve done some “Basic Japanese Phrases” or “Japanese for Travellers” research and already have the hang of hai (yes), iie (no), konnichiwa (hello), kudasai (please) and arigato gozaimasu (thank you very much). If you haven’t, get on that, man ‘cause no one wants to be that ignorant westerner on the other side of the world who thinks the rest of the world should accommodate to them.

But for now sit tight and listen up: I’m about to blow your brain with helpful and practical words and phrases we learnt from locals in this Japanese language guide, and are useful for daily errands, buying food, getting drunk, picking up and finding your way back home. Pretty much everything you need, right? It’ll make your trip more fun and Japanese people will love you for it, so take some notes.

First Course: Eating

You enter a Ramen store and the chefs shout:

Irashiamameeee |      e-ra-shi-ah-mus-sayyyyy (often dragged out)

This is them saying welcome to our store very excitedly (or sullenly, depending on the time and place). You will hear this every time you enter a store and sometimes only decipher the lengthened mus/sayyy part. So just smile, do a small bow of the head and greet them in return. Easy.

Let’s pretend this Ramen house has the cool futuristic vending machine menus at the front. Look at the pictures on the machine, put your money in and choose what you want (we highly recommend getting the Ramen with an egg (tamago) and gyoza). Little tickets will print out. Find a seat and hand these tickets over to the chefs. Then chill.

Get your meal (oh my god it smells so damn good!) and say:

Itedakaimasu |      ie-tey-da-key-mas

Thank you for providing this meal is the rough translation. Say it to the chefs, or if they aren’t listening, then say it to yourself while staring into your bowl of delicious soupy noodles. It’s very traditional and polite to say every time you receive a meal, think of it like saying grace but better.

Eat. Slurp. Finish.

Group of people eating Ramen.  Japanese Language Guide

The prospect of ordering food in Japan is made a lot easier by using pictures and machines.

When your empty bowl is collected, or you get up to leave (whichever comes first), say:

Arigato gozaimasu, sugoi oishii! |      ah-ri-ga-toe / go-zigh-mas / sue-goy / oh-ee-she!

Thank you very much, very delicious!! You will use this phrase a lot because Japanese food is insanely delicious, so say it aloud a few times and get used to it. Now, let’s break it down a little:

Sago   |      sue-goy (goy sounds like boy but with a ‘g’ instead of ‘b’)

Used on it’s own it means great; Japanese people say this often when they see something cool like someone juggling. When it’s put with other words though it roughly translates to the equivalent to very, depending on context. So, for example, you could say sugoi atsui meaning very hot while exaggerating how hot you are (or not exaggerating because Tokyo boils up in the summer).

Oishii   |      oh-ee-she (pronounce the ‘e’ like your saying the alphabet)

Means delicious. Technically, it should be used in a sentence by putting desu (pronouced without the ‘u’) at the end. Everyone gets where you’re going with this without using desu though, so don’t worry about it. You’re talkin’ slang now kid ‘cause you’re so integrated with Japanese culture, amiright?

When you leave the restaurant, give the chefs a shout out and use the flipside of itedakaimasu by saying:

Gochiso somma deshita |      go-chi-so / sum-ma / desh-ta

Which roughly translates to thank you for the meal. For ages we would leave a restaurant wondering what more we could say other than thanks – This is it. Use it often and you’ll look awesome to unsuspecting locals.

NB: deshita is the past tense form of desu; it signifies that what you’re saying has already happened.

Second Round: Drinking

After your bowl of Ramen you decide to hit up a roadside Izakaya bar next. You walk into a random joint and park yourself on a stool at the bar. The bartender comes around and greets you. You have know idea what he is saying but assuming he’s asking what you want to drink, just smile and say:

Konbanwa. Futatsu biru o onegaishimasu | kon-bun-wah / foo-tut-sue / bee-roo / oh / on-a-guy-she-mus

Boom! You just ordered two beers my friend. Here’s how it works:

Konbanwa |      kon-bun-wah

How you say good evening in Japan.

Futatsu |      foo-tat-sue

Meaning two things: Because Japanese isn’t complicated enough, they have different ways of counting for inanimate and animate objects, which are both way different than their basic numeral scale. So, when buying beer, hamburgers or packets of cigarettes, Futatsu means you want two things. Other counting goes:

Hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, fotsue |      he-tot-sue / foo-tut-sue / mitt-sue / fott-sue

One thing, two things, three things, four things; remember to say the thing you want after you tell them how many you want otherwise they’ll just stare at you blankly.

Biru |      bee-roo

This one’s important; it means beer (duh). If you’re specifically after a fresh and frothy cold draft beer straight from the tap ask for:

Namma biru |      nah-mah / bee-roo

Which means draft beer. Though if you prefer your beer bottled and chilled ask for:

Bin biru |      bin / bee-roo

Which means bottled beer.

O onegaishimasu |      oh / on-a-guy-she-mus

This is a variation of please (which is kudasai) but is more suited to action, so more like please get me this. Use this when you order things. Add ‘o’ to be grammatically correct to join it the thing you’re asking for; i.e. biru and onegaishimasu. Though in reality it’s a bit of a mouthful to put two ‘o’ noises together so being a foreigner, you can say it wrong and everyone will still understand what you mean. As long as you tried, man.

Group in Japan drinking beer.  Japanese Language Guide

Grab your beer, raise your glass, give out a loud Kanpai and skull, baby! Photo via japantimes.co.jp

The bartender brings your beers; you turn to your drinking companion, raise your glasses and shout:

KANPAI |      kun-pie

Which we interpret as a translation to Cheers! But actually it literally translates to empty cup so maybe it’s more appropriate to SKULL!

Third Right: Directions

You leave the bar and decide to head to a different part of the city, but after skulling all those beers you’ve forgotten where the train station is. Stumbling along the sidewalk and full of Dutch courage you spot a couple of Japanese dudes looking cool and aloof. You approach them and ask:

Sumimasen, eki wa doko desu ka |      sue-me-mah-sen / eh-key / wah / dock-ko / des-ka

What you just asked these guys is: excuse me, where is the train station? Let me explain just how you did it.

Sumimasen |      sue-me-mah-sen

Means excuse me. Use this if you bump into people, need them to get out of your way, or you want to politely get their attention before you start throwing questions their way.

Eli |      eh-key

Train station. This is a place you will want to find often. Other handy places to know are:

Toire |      toy-reh        

Toilet

Supermaketto |      su-pa-mah-ket-toe

Supermarket

Gomebacku |      go-me-back-ku

Rubbish bin

Wa doko desu ka |      wah / dock-ko / des / ka

Where is…? This is an extremely useful phrase to have in your artillery; I shouldn’t have to explain why. So remember it, if it’s the only thing you remember from this whole guide.

NB: By adding ka to the end of desu you make your sentence a question.

The Japanese guy starts to reply but because you’ve so flawlessly pulled off this Japanese phrase he assumes you’re a natural and answers at a million-miles-an-hour entirely in Japanese. Trying to comprehend everything he says is gonna fry your brain, so just smile, nod and pretend you understand while listening out for these words:

Migi |      mig-gi

Left

Hidari |      he-da-ri

Right

Hiyaku |      he-yah-ku

One hundred (giving you number of metres to somewhere); may add a number before it.

Kanji  Japanese Language Guide

He finishes his Japanese mumble-jumble and looks at you, waiting for the conformation that you understood everything he just said and you can be on your merry way. But you’re reeling because you have no idea what just happened. If you can’t get the general gist of which way to go based on the above information, doubled with his elaborate hand gestures, let him know you have no idea just what is going on by saying:

 

Gomenasai, wakarimasen |      go-men-nah-sigh / wah-curry-ma-sen

Eigo ga hanashimasu ka |      eyy-go / ga / hah-nah-shi-mus / ka

Which translates to: sorry, I don’t understand. Do you speak English? This is a gem to any traveller to Japan and will help you manoeuvre awkward and troublesome situations.

Gomenasai |     go-men-nah-sigh

Sorry

Wakarimasen |      wah-curry-mah-sen

I don’t understand can help in many situations; especially if you accidently find yourself on a woman’s only train carriage.

NB: adding sen to masu (similar to desu) makes what you’re saying negative. If you wanted to say I understand you would say wakarimasu (wa-curry-mus). And if you say something and you’re not sure they understand, ask wakarimasuka (wa-curry-mus-ka) which means, do you understand?

Eigo |      eyy-go

Meaning English, as in the language.

Ga hanasimasu ka |       ga / hah-nah-she-mus-ka

Do you speak…? Like you asked the dude when you first approached him, adding ka to masu makes this a question. If you’re really desperate, completely lost and have no confidence with any of these Japanese phrases you’re learning, you could always just run around from person to person shouting, “Eigo? Eigo?” But be warned, you’re probably going to look like an asshole.

(We met a dude in a hostel on a previous visit to Japan who just stopped on the street with his hands in the air every time he was lost until someone came and helped him. Although Japanese people are notoriously nice and probably will help you, don’t be like that guy. Ask nicely in their native tongue and you’ll be surprised how much further you get and how much more of an authentic interaction you experience.)

Ginza Street Sign, Tokyo Japan.  Japanese Language Guide

Which way to Ginza, man? Do I turn right or go straight ahead? Wait, am I already in Ginza?

The Japanese guys laugh, exclaiming his English isn’t very good, and then proceeds to give you directions in perfect English. Then finishes it up with:

Daijobu |      die-joe-bu

Meaning: okay. Daijobu is one of the most versatile words in Japanese and you will hear it all the time in Japan. Depending on the context it can mean okay?, Are you okay?, Is this okay? and okay. Express it in the same way you would change your tone for each of these questions in English and Japanese people will think you’re native. Alternatively, chuck a desu ka on the end and you’ve made it a question. Easy as pie, huh?

You reply: hai daijobu and head on your way.

Hai daijobu |      hi / die-joe-boo

Yes it’s okay

As you leave the Japanese people shout:

Gumbatee |      gum-bah-tay

The meaning of this is like a combination of good luck, try hard and do your best, which is a perfect example of when foreign words are better at expressing something in one word than anything in English.

Fourth Attempt: A Cute and Scary Interaction

The next day you’re sitting in Yoyogi Park, slightly hungover and blissfully enjoying the sun, when two cute Japanese girls with a puppy stroll past. You shout:

Kowaii!

The Japanese girls stop dead and look at you confused. They giggle in unison:

Honto |      Hon-toe

Really?

You should laugh too, ‘cause you just made one of the easiest and funniest mistakes in Japanese.

Kowaii |      ko-why

Means scary, while:

Kawaii |      kah-why

Means cute

To avoid this confusion, use your emotions. If you’re scared, look scared, if you’re trying to be a charming foreigner, then smile (duh)…

You laugh it off and apologise:

Gomenasai, chotto nihongo o hanashimasu |      go-men-nah-sigh / cho-toe / knee-hon-go / oh / hah-nah-shi-mus

Sorry, I speak little Japanese. This is a great phrase for when you don’t want them to answer a question in complicated Japanese or you need them to know that, although you might sound like you were born there, you’re not actually proficient in Japanese and you need them to walk you through things. If you were paying attention you already know what gomenasai means (sorry) and hanashimasu (the verb for speaking) but I’ll break the rest down for you to make sure you follow.

Chotto |      cho-toe

Translates to little in this context

Nihongo |      knee-hon-go

Means Japanese, as in the language.

dog park  Japanese Language Guide

Hanging out at the dog park in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo, taking in all of the “kawaii” scenery.

The Japanese girls chuckle again; you’re a silly – but charming – gaijin.

Gaijin |      guy-gin

Foreigner

You coo kawaii, kawaii at the cute pup and the girls are curiously impressed by your limited Japanese vocabulary, plus they are total babes so you decide to go for it.

Watashi no tokoro de nanika nomimasen ka? |      Wah-ta-shi / no / toe-ko-row / de na-knee-kah / no-me-mah-sen / ka

Won’t you have a drink at my place? Watashi is I, me or my (depending on context) and Nomimasu is the verb form of drink.

They giggle and shake their heads. Sorry, you haven’t got the vocab for the few hours of flirting and foreplay they crave before heading to a strangers apartment or hostel bunk bed (and you wont find it here, buddy), so they politely decline your glamorous offer.

Iie dekinai |      ie-eh / de-key-nigh

No I can’t (do that).

This example is more to show that as well as adding sen to the end of a verb to make it negative, it’s also common as slang to use nai. E.g. dekimasen means the same as dekinai. When you’re trying to understand a fluent Japanese speaker it’s often good to listen out for these kind of verbal cues and use the context of the conversation to understand what’s going on.

There is nothing more you can do anymore except awkwardly keep patting the dog. The Japanese honeys walk away and all you can do is watch them and the dog leave, sigh, lay in the sun and mumble to yourselg:

Nihon ga daiski desu |      knee-hon / gah / die-ski / des

Which means: I love Japan. Nihon means the country Japan and Daiski means love (NB. In this context ski means to like something, daiski means to love it.)

Extra Notes

By now you should be pretty attuned to enough basic Japanese words and phrases that will make your trip more enjoyable and a hell of a lot easier. Although, Japanese is a complex and complicated language and there might be certain situations where you need more. Well don’t worry; we got your back, man.

Ikurai desu ka |      ie-ku-rye / des / ka

How much?

Imma nanji desu ka |      ee-ma / nan-gee / des / ka

What time is it?

Denwa bango wa nanban desu ka |      den-wah / bang-go / wah / nun-bun / des / ka

What is your phone number?

Kyou |      key-or

Today

Ashta |      arsh-tah

Tomorrow

Kino |      key-no

Yesterday

Asatte |      ah-sut-tey

The day after tomorrow

Ototoi |      oh-toe-toe-e

The day before yesterday

It’s also going to be really handy if you know and understand some more Japanese verbs, especially in in their different tense and contexts.

And of course, if you get familiar with Japanese characters (Katakana and Hiragana) it’s not only going to make riding the subway a breeze, but it will really help with pronouncing words, learning new words and recognising place names when you’re lost.

Hiragana Guide Table.  Japanese Language Guide

Hiragana Chart/Guide. Photo via wakarimasen.fr

Katakana is the symbol-alphabet for foreign words using Japanese phonetics and Hiragana is the native symbol-alphabet.

katakana chart, table, guide.  Japanese Language Guide

Katakana Chart/Guide. Photo via wakarimasen.fr

Don’t worry about Kanji just yet; you only just learnt how to order a beer. Baby steps, man.  Now get out there and put your newfound skills to the test! This Japanese language guide should shove you in the right direction.

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