100 Useful Phrases For Your First Visit to Japan (Part 1: #1-20)

When living in Japan, or any other country for that matter, communication is often the primary barrier separates natives from foreigners.  Communication can also make the difference between a great vacation and “hell no, I’m not going there again.”   My first time in a Family Mart (a popular convenience store in Japan) was kind of sad to put it nicely.  I think I was trying to buy a pen…a simple, ordinary, ballpoint pen…and just couldn’t understand a freakin’ word that clerk was saying.  I wasn’t  able to get the pen, but I did succeed at creating a small line of irate customers behind me.   When I came to Japan, I knew nothing…and the only way to figure things out was to study, try it, make the mistakes, and just do better next time.
My Japanese is far from perfect, but I really do enjoy learning it.  It’s an ongoing process, and I want to learn as much as I can.  I have often heard that one of the best ways to learn something is by teaching it to someone else. So today want to just provide you with some important basics.
If you’re new to Japan, there are some useful, “bread and butter phrases” that can help you to greet people, find your way around, eat, sleep, and keep from being decapitated by ninjas (just making sure you’re awake)…you know the essentials.  Becoming fluent in Japanese is beyond the scope of this article and (at the time of this writing) beyond the scope of my Japanese skills.  Although, these phrases don’t necessarily mean that you’ll understand what people are saying to you, they can go a long way in helping you to be more functional during your initial days/weeks in Japan.  This article will be broken into five parts to make it a bit easier to digest.  Each list of phrases and expressions will be linked to a certain theme to  help you to get a better understanding of where, how, and when to use them.  I hope your find them useful:


1. Good morning- Ohayo, Ohayo Gozaimasu- The first of these, ohayo, is used between friends and close family members.  If you’re ever unsure of which category you fall into, it’s probably better to use ohayo gozaimasu…I always do (polite’s always better).
2. Good evening- Konban wa
3. Good afternoon- Konnichiwa
4. Good night- Oyasuminasai- The other version you may hear is the shorter, oyasumi.  From what I understand, oyasuminasai is a bit more polite.
5. Pleased to meet you- Dozo yoroshiku- Often a great starter when making someone’s acquaintance for the very first time.
6. How do you do?- Hajimemashite- This is another good greeting for new acquaintances.
7. Excuse me- Sumimasen- Probably one of the first words I was able to hear and recognize easily here in Japan.  If you inconvenience someone, even in minor ways, it’s a good idea to use this.
8. I’m sorry- Gomennasai.
9. If you please- Onegaishimasu- This one is PURE GOLD!!  I hear this expression at least three times a day.  It’s almost like a formal type of please.  I could have used “kudasai” as well, but I honestly hear the former way more often.
10. Thank you- Arigatou Gozaimasu.  Please and thank you were words that my mother always told me were good to say, so I figured that same rules apply in Japanese.


11. What’s your name?  Onamae wa nan desu ka? Learning names effectively is a useful skill in any field.  You might as well start learning names & using Japanese names as soon as you possibly can.
12. My name is….- Watashi wa …. desu.  Example: Watashi wa Donald desu.
13. What do you do?  Shigoto wa nan desu ka?
14. Ii tenki desu ne?  It’s nice weather isn’t it?
15. It’s hot isn’t it? Atsui desu ne? This is a common weather expression you may here during the  summer.  A good response for this question is “Hai, atsui desu,” or “Hai, so desu.”
16. It’s cold isn’t it? Samui desu ne? This is a common weather expression during the winter.  if you can recognize it.  A good response is “Hai, samui desu,” or “Hai, so desu.”
17. How old are you? Nansai desu ka? Not always a big conversation starter, or sometimes even all that polite, but I still think it’s useful to know how to say.
18. Where are you from?  Doko ni kara kimashita ka? This is a pretty standard question that you may hear from those Japanese people who start a conversation with you.
19. I’m from…-America ni kara kimashita? Being able to answer number 18 is a good conversation starter.
20. How was your weekend? Shumatsu wa, dou deshita ka?

I have included a short video to give you an idea of how to pronounce each of these phrases.  I say them once slowly, and them try to say them at the speed you will hear them.  Please keep in mind that I’m not a Japanese expert.  I am still learning, too, but I truly think these are good phrases to know.

Donald Ash

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Donald Ash is an ATLien expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last six years. While in aforesaid time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator, writer, designer, editor, programmer, and occasional bad artist of thejapanguy.com blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
  • Sarah

    Really helpful!

  • Dana

    Just curious but how were you not able to buy the pen? I thought heading towards the cashier with your money ready was a pretty universal thing..
    I had been studying Japanese for a while before going to Japan for the first time. It wasn’t sufficient for every day conversation but I did learn a lot… After the 3rd time at a convenience store I did realize they were only asking me if I wanted a receipt.

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