On Getting by in Japan (Without Speaking Japanese)

Weird things happen when you half-ass a language in its native culture.

I’m a bit embarrassed at my Japanese ability after living here for three years. I took a year of Japanese in college and two years of lessons here in Japan, which got me up to a very basic functional Japanese while being quite poor at any kind of intellectual conversation.

My office insists on speaking to me in English. When I try to speak Japanese, it’s a hassle – they can speak English far better than I can speak Japanese, and they’ve hired me to practice communicative English. Speaking Japanese takes longer for everyone and results in far less clarity for everyone involved.

As a result, my speaking ability is bordering on infantile. But being exposed to radio, TV, office meetings and overheard office gossip (and looking up words I don’t know when I hear them) I’m usually able to pick up on about 40-50% of what’s being said. This leaves me in the awkward position of understanding things while stumbling to say that I understand them. My brain has learned to listen through constant exposure, but hasn’t learned how to make my tongue move. This only comes with practice, and I regret not doing more of it.

Reading was a different matter. I learned Hiragana and Katakana in about 2 hours (I still can’t tell “tsu” and “shi” apart on a menu but I’ll live with that as my kryptonite) and have worked my way up to understand about 100 kanji on sight and about 250 more with some thought. That took about a week, which would be impressive, except that I stopped caring.

In kanji and in life, I am lazy about things I seem to be good at. I never rushed to learn the remaining 1650 kanji because I anticipated picking it up easily once I actually tried. Now I’m leaving Japan and have never actually tried. That was totally stupid.

Stupid not only because it makes me a lazy foreigner, but because Kanji is actually a lot of fun. The symbols are interconnected, so once you understand what the component symbols mean, you can start to see how they reflect each other. For example, the symbol for rice field is one square divided into four:

The symbol for “business” is a rice field divided into four with three little roads coming out of it, the roads beside the rice field where the shops might be: 

You can put various combinations of these characters together and make meanings. You could imagine what this means just by looking at the pictures: 凹田 On the left is the kanji for “concave” (notice it is, literally, concave) and to the right is a rice field. This means the rice field is in a concave area: Literally, a low-laying rice field, such as in the center of a mountain.

I think this stuff is crazy good fun.

One nice thing about learning Japanese kanji is that once you learn all 2000 characters, you are 1/5th of the way to reading Chinese fluently! Another reason I regret not studying Japanese kanji: I’m tasked with learning Chinese by 2015.

The Handy Bit
If you do end up moving to Japan it does behoove you to study Japanese intensely when you first arrive. Then, you can blog and make self-deprecating remarks without the Foreign Defenders of Japan on the Internet (the FDJI, most of whom serve on foreign shores) shouting that your language learning abilities are not good enough for them, even though you are a reasonable person who gets by fine in daily life and enjoys casual social situations in a second language.

One hangup I had was being so concerned about levels of formality that I wouldn’t speak, lest I offend people. This also contributed to my speech paralysis. However, unless you work in an office full of dicks, remember that you have been hired as a person who doesn’t speak Japanese and people are gonna let a lot of formal-language stuff slide.

With that as a backdrop, I’ve made a list of what amounts to be the most useful words and phrases I’ve learned in Japan. The more vitriolic FDJI troops will be shocked and appalled by this list because they are offended by “beginners,” but it will go a long way toward getting by initially if you aren’t expected to know anything else. I don’t encourage anyone to actually stop at this list!

So, I present to you a quick-start guide to being understood in Japan when you need to do so quickly. These are not the only words I know, but they are the only ones I ever seem to use.

Learn this one and then forget it. It’s “Nice to meet you,” and you may end up sliding into the habit of using it more than once with the same people. Try to avoid that. When in doubt, go with “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu,” more of a “Thanks in advance for being really nice to me” but you can say it more than once to the same person.

Ohayo Gozaimasu
This is “good morning.” It starts your day. If you work in Japan, the strength and power of your ohayo as you walk briskly into the office will affect your reputation the same way a handshake would in the States. You bellow out an “OHAYO GOZAIMASU!” with genuine passion and enthusiasm, or you have dead fish for hands. That said, in my office at least, you say it to everyone you pass. So for a long time I did the full bellow, but then I started shortening it. “Zaimasu!” is fine. Soon, you learn that even “Mas!” is fine. But this week I came in literally hissing at my coworkers: “Ssss!” Everyone was fine with that, too.

Konnichiwa / Konbanwa
“Good afternoon” and “Goodnight.” You say these as a greeting. If you say them at the end of a conversation – say, after you start walking away from the convenience store clerks – they will laugh at you. These translate more or less to “It’s noon, isn’t it?” and “It’s night, isn’t it?” Also Konnichiwa is OK to say in the morning if you’ve been up and about for a while. It seems relative to where you are in your day.

When in doubt, say “sumimasen.” It is the Swiss army knife of Japanese. It means “forgive me,” and implies that you don’t really deserve to exist (really) but you can use it to get past people on a train, to get someone’s attention, to reply to a compliment, to thank someone, to call the waiter over, to stall for time, to end a conversation, to start a conversation, to respond to a gift, to offer a gift, or to apologize for not speaking Japanese well. The more often you acknowledge that your unworthiness for existence, the more people will like you.

“It’s OK.” This is useful if you are being asked a bunch of questions by a store clerk or waiter. When you say this it basically means “hey, whatever you do is fine.” It also means “I’m OK” so you can use it if, say, someone is trying to help you do something that you can actually do on your own, or if you trip and fall on an escalator or whatever.

“After you” or “Go ahead.” Useful in a wide variety of office-doorway scenarios. Let the person go ahead of you by saying “Douzo.” Let the person have the first edamame or the last onigiri by saying “Douzo.” Same with giving someone a seat on the train, or if you both start talking at the same time.

A lot of people are confused by “kudasai” and “onegaishimasu,” which both basically translate to “please.” My rule of thumb, which is probably wrong, is that you say “kudasai” when you want a thing or action done as a part of someone’s formal responsibilities, but you say “onegaishimasu” when you want someone to acknowledge that someone is doing you a bit of a favor (even if they aren’t). Thanks to American egalitarianism, I see the waitstaff as doing me a favor when they go to the kitchen to get my food, so “onegaishimasu” is comfortable for me to say when I order. I don’t know the last time I used “kudasai” outside of a classroom – where you ask kids to listen by saying “kitte kudasai,” not “kitte onegaishimasu,” because kids are expected to do what you say in a classroom. That said, kudasai isn’t a respect thing, you can say “kudasai” to anyone or “onegaishimasu” to anyone, nobody really cares except the Foreign Defenders of Japan on the Internet.

Shows understanding and implies agreement. This is actually just the word “so” three times, which means, roughly, “so,” as in the English “It is so.” You’re basically saying “Yes, that’s very true.” “So” as a pause to link subjects happens as well, as in “That’s end of chapter three, so… let’s start chapter 4.” I said that once shortly after I arrived and the teacher turned to the class and complimented me on “learning some Japanese.”

Issho aka Ijou / Betsu Betsu
Issho means “all together” but you can also think of it as the phrase “that’s all wrapped up.” This is useful because you can say “Issho” to signal that you have finished your order at a restaurant or have finished a speech (or at least “ijou” which sounds exactly the same), but you can also use it to say that you want all your stuff in a single bag (Japanese clerks tend to separate hot and cold things into different bags). It is also useful because it’s how you keep the bill from being divided (“all together”). “Betsu Betsu” is the opposite, it means “separate,” and it’s how you divide something, such as the bill at a restaurant if you want to pay separately.

Otsukare sama deshita
“You must be exhausted!” This is the ultimate compliment. People will say it to you starting around 11 a.m. The implication is that you have been working so hard, you need a rest. The thing is, this is also said when the Shinkansen arrives at your destination, or the taxi driver pulls onto your street. People say it at the end of events, too, including drinking parties. If you work in an office, this might be the only thing you say to some coworkers for years at a time. It also takes on something of a jubilant air when you’re informal, which is hilarious: “OTSUKARE!” as in “Good work!” is just shouting “Fatigue!” as a exclamation.

Ii desu
“It’s alright,” as in “Don’t worry about it.” Useful when people are making more of a fuss over you than they need to, which is always. Also a polite way to refuse something, even small things like an extra shopping bag. Saying “No” (Ee-yay!) is a bit curt. “S’alright!” is the way to go. Basically the same as “Daijoubu.”

Kore desu / Kore wa
“It’s this.” / “What’s this?” My French teacher once told me that this is really the only word you need to know in any language, and I suppose that’s true. Knowing how to say “This” guarantees you can eat, knowing how to say “what’s this” guarantees you will know what you are eating.

“Whatever you suggest.” You will have no idea what is happening to you, ever, but everyone will insist on asking what you want to happen to you, even in situations where your options are obscured by a wall of incomprehensibility. The best reaction is to throw your hands up and say “whatever you suggest.” This is basically the Japanese version of “I don’t care, it’s all good.” Useful in restaurants, unless you have an aversion to having a living creature served to you with a fork, which is just one potential consequence of spinning the “o-susume” roulette wheel too many times.

So desu ne!
“That’s true, isn’t it?” There is a woman in my town who is sort of older and maybe a little crazy. Sometimes on my lunch break I pass her on the way to the grocery store. She instantly starts speaking to me in rapid-fire Hakata-ben, a local variant of Japanese that is all kinds of weird. She’ll always ask me about something that happened recently at the school, like a fire drill or sports event, or say how the weather is, or something. The answer is to just smile and nod, and if there is a gap in the machine-gunned “kaTA-ta-katakaTAka-tata-TO’s” of Hakata-ben I just say “So desu ne!” as slowly as possible. It seems to work.

See Also!
I promise nobody asked me to do this, and I’m not getting kickbacks, but if you are beginning to learn Japanese I think you might find Tofugu’s online Japanese textbook a pretty awesome resource, and the first “chapter” is free: Textfugu.

Douzo! Like This Japanese Life on Facebook, onegaishimasu!

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25 Responses to On Getting by in Japan (Without Speaking Japanese)

  1. Jen says:

    I normally wouldn’t do this, but seeing as some people might really use this list as a guide:

    I think you’re getting Issho mixed up with Ijou (以上). Issho means together, Ijou is the thing that people say at the end of speeches/at the end of orders. They sound similar so I can see why they might be confused.

    And Ie desu should be ii desu (maybe with a pronunciation guide of ee). Maybe it’s reflecting how you would actually pronounce ie, rather than being a mistake, but I wouldn’t pronounce it right based on how you wrote it (um, if I didn’t know what it was supposed to be!)

    (Um, also please listen would be kiitekudasai, not kittekudasai (which means please cut))

    And as I don’t just want this to be a load of corrections, I only recently found your blog, but I’ve been enjoying reading it! As someone who has high level Japanese (I basically hardly ever have problems anymore communicating/understanding written and spoken Japanese), I can’t help but feel that you really missed out by not learning more! It is weird how difficult it is to do when you’re in Japan though, hehe.

  2. Indre says:

    Just a small typo – it should be “hajimEmashite”.

    Great post! The bit about “FDJI” cracked me up :D

  3. Amitra says:

    This is absolutely fantastic. The detailed descriptions are especially nice, such as when and when not to use the phrases. I’m taking notes already! Thank you very very much for this.

  4. renmi86 says:

    I know what you mean when you say that after a while you hit a wall when learning languages, especially when everyone pushes you to speak your native tongue. The same happened to me. My Japanese isn’t so good when I try to explain complicated things, so my family always said to just say it in English, so long as I understood what they said. Now years later, I can read/write/understand but still talk like a moron.

    I especially love it when someone asks me why I don’t speak (Japanese) if I can understand, but when I do, I get “the look” and then have to switch back into English. I can’t help but look at my aunt and want to say “Hmm, I wonder why….?”

    But the words/phrases you listed, are the absolute must knows.

  5. mkmkmk says:


  6. Dennis says:

    TextFugu (actually, the parent site Tofugu) is how I found this blog. They seem to really appreciate your work, so don’t feel bad about showing them some love.

  7. zoomingjapan says:

    Right after I came to Japan I sat down and studied, studied, studied.
    There were no classes nearby and I also didn’t have the money, so I studied on my own every single day before and after work.
    I came to Japan with only basic knowledge of Japanese (maybe current N4 or N3 level).
    I spent the wirst 1.5 years in Japan studying like crazy because I wanted to be able to understand the world aroun dme better instead of communicating in English – which also isn’t my native language.

    Nowadays, I communicate in Japanese only unless there’s somebody who cannot understand Japanese, of course.
    My Japanese is not perfect and never will be, but as I live alone and have so for the past 6 years that I’ve been in Japan I wanted to be able to do everything by myself without always having to depend on others.

    It’s true that by being immersed you’ll improve, but it’s a lot of work to truly improve your Japanese skills.

    I wish more people would work on it, especially those who intend to stay in Japan forever – or at least for a long time.
    I’ve worked with so many foreign guys who couldn’t even communicate with their own kids properly as they never bothered to study Japanese and their kids were just much better in Japanese than in their father’s native language.

    Thanks for this great blog post! ^_^

  8. Marianna says:

    this was a very insightful and useful titbit of your personal experience and if anything, it made me giggle like a clown on helium!! Thanks for a great read!

  9. Sophelia says:

    I know that “Ken Tanaka” can be a divisive figure to bring up (especially when the FDJI are around), but this video seems very appropriate to this post:

  10. Anika says:

    Thanks for your post, it’s so true!
    I know exactly how you feel >.< Although I have to talk Japanese in my company, I always use my native language when I meet my friends (Japanese people). In a normal conversation it's too complicated with my still very bad spoken Japanese.. So I often talk in my tounge while my friends speak Japanese… I came to Japan with N5, now I'm between N4 an N3. I learn a lot and hope to improve my Japanese skills bit by bit, till then, using お疲れさま、大丈夫 and すみません works fine ^_-

  11. Reblogged this on Dumb and Genius and commented:
    Nice guide, totally enjoyed reading this one.

  12. fauxthoreau says:

    Great list! I’m studying for the N1 now, but it still amazes me how, after years of speaking Japanese, so many conversations still revolve around the basics you listed. Especially so desu ne haha.

    At the risk of sounding like an FDJI, one little nitpick: Sumimasen doesn’t imply that you don’t deserve to exist or live. Sumimasen is a negative form of the verb sumu. Sumu has several meanings, depending on which kanji is used for the “su” part of the word. One meaning is to live (in a place), written as 住む. The negative, sumimasen (住みません) means “I don’t live (in a certain place).

    However, the sumimasen you listed above, the catchall phrase that means “I’m sorry/excuse me/etc” is written with a different kanji: 済, meaning “to end/finish.” Thus, a literal translation of sumimasen (済みません) might be “I’m/it’s not finished.” Though it’s doubtful most people are thinking about this phrase literally.

  13. Sumo Joe says:

    I really identify with the part about understanding far more of what we hear than what we’re able to turn around and formulate into a response. Hearing and comprehending always seem to outpace [mental] composition and speaking in language acquisition. Another enjoyable post!

  14. Rachel says:

    Nice post and a good set of must haves for Japanese!

    “Otsukare sama deshita” is a constant source of fascination to me because actually, as I understand it, there is no translation for it. You have chosen “you must be tired” but I like to translate it as “(whatever you have done) its finished” – because tiredness come into it, but its not entirely it. It is also neither positive nor negative (even if you did a mediocre job you still get Otsukare sama deshita) and I don’t feel it carries praise.

    Nonetheless, its one of the most useful phrases to use when you walk past co-workers on the way to and from the teachers bathroom. ;-)

  15. Kathryn says:

    Great guide. One phrase I wish I’d thought of using earlier is ‘hiragana wa nan desuka”. Really hand when you are in a place where you know the staff don’t speak English and you are handed a menu in kanji with little you understand. Get them to write or tell you the hiragana and look it up on your smart phone, before you order the fish guts.

    I totally relied on the the osusume method before I thought of doing that (or maybe it was before I had a phone with dictionary capability). Btw that and “kore” you can eat pretty much anywhere!

  16. Mutzke says:

    It took me a bit over a month to properly learn my hiragana. :< Am i that stupid?

  17. jxbirdd says:

    Thank you so much! I will be studying abroad in Tokyo next April, and your guide has been so enlightening!!

  18. Wow!Nice post…it’s a great read for me. I love the japanese language and been trying to learn my hiragana and katakana and reading your article gives me more motivation.Thanks!

  19. jon rahoi says:

    Hey Eryk – nice primer for the uninitiated – thanks for sharing.

    FWIW, It’s not your primary point, but your aside about Chinese is way wrong. Here’s what you said:

    “One nice thing about learning Japanese kanji is that once you learn all 2000 characters, you are 1/5th of the way to reading Chinese fluently! Another reason I regret not studying Japanese kanji: I’m tasked with learning Chinese by 2015.”

    It’s just wrong in so many ways. Kanji does not equal Chinese. Yes, they were borrowed from Chinese, along with the OnYomi, but most meanings have drifted considerably in the interim. And that’s beside the fact that Chinese and Japanese are from completely different language groups – the grammar is totally alien. And then you have the simplified characters (mainland) vs the traditional (everywhere else). There’s a ludicrous chasm between the two.

    What can mislead is the fact that Chinese people have an easy time picking up kanji – but it’s maybe like a Greek or Roman understanding our medical words. Just because I know the words “telescope”, “chronometer” and “cryptography” doesn’t mean I can understand Greek. It’s really that different.

    I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, just preparing you for the battle ahead. if you’ve only learned a few hundred Kanji in 3 years, you’re going to have to step up your game.

    You should study for and take the jplt as well. http://www.jlpt.jp/e/

    best of luck

    • owwls says:

      Well I was speaking strictly of reading vocabulary fluently, assuming you use the system I described of understanding them as pictograms. Obviously grammar can’t be learned by understanding individual words and nothing else. Anyway, yes, it was a cheeky aside and not meant to be taken too seriously.

  20. The O-susume bit had be cracking up xD

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