Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
You're traveling to Japan and worried about how you'll communicate? You don't need to be fluent in Japanese to have a smooth, enjoyable and stress-free visit to Japan. There are a handful of phrases that even native Japanese speakers use time and again every day. Learn these before you go, and you'll be able to sightsee, shop, and eat out with increased confidence.
Japan is famous for how few of its citizens are proficient in English conversation. While Japanese schools emphasize English reading and writing, speaking is much less taught. Many Japanese have little confidence in their ability to speak English and may go out of their way to avoid talking to a foreigner.
On the other hand, despite the language gap, the Japanese are among the world's kindest and most generous hosts. They are genuinely eager to help foreign tourists enjoy Japan. Knowing just a few words of Japanese will help the Japanese people around you feel at ease and more confident in lending a helping hand.
The three phrases are: "sumimasen," "onegai shimasu," and "domo."
1) "Sumimasen" (pronounced "sue-mee-mah-sen") means "excuse me," but in Japanese, it means much more than that! It also means "I'm sorry," and "would you help me please?" and "thank you--I'm indebted to you." Call out "sumimasen!" in a shop to get the clerk's attention. Mutter "sumimasen" quietly if you bump into someone on the train. Bow slightly and say "sumimasen" gratefully several times when someone has helped you find your way to your destination. "Sumimasen" is NOT the standard "thank you" of Japan ("arigatou" or "arigatou gozaimasu"), that may be listed in your guidebooks or pocket dictionary. But in colloquial spoken Japanese, it is "sumimasen" which is used by courteous, well-spoken adults to thank one another for the kind of help and assistance that, as a foreign tourist, you'll be needing.
2) "Onegai shimasu" (pronounced "Oh-neh-guy shee-mahs") means "please be so kind to assist/do that for me" It is a phrase that Japanese say 100 times a day. When shopping, if you decide to make a purchase, you hand it to the clerk with the phrase, "[kore wo] onegai shimasu" ("please ring me up for this"). At the hotel front desk, when you ask for your room key or an extra towel or a map, you say, "key/towel/map o onegai shimasu" (if you can find the Japanese words for key, towel, and map---all the better!!). At a restaurant, point to the menu, and say "kore o onegai shimasu" ("this please"). When some kind-hearted soul offers to show you to the temple or restaurant you're seeking, as you head off, you say to them, "onegai shimasu," which translates as "I recognize that you are taking your valuable time to do this thing for me." This one phrase is a key sign of being a well-bred, thoughtful individual in Japan.
3) "Domo" (pronounced "dough-mow") is an ideal all purpose word in Japanese. First off, it is the best way to "thank you" in Japanese. Again, this is instead of the "arigatou" that is usually listed in dictionaries, etc. It's not that "arigatou" is wrong. It's just that in regular speech, the vast majority of Japanese bow slightly and say "ah, domo" instead. At a shop, when the clerk hands you back your change and your package, you should just say "domo." When the waitress brings your food, nod slightly and say "domo." It is also good for expressing reservations. If your kind host asks you how you like the stinky, rotten, fermented bean paste known as natto, you can suck in your breath and quietly mutter, "domo." And last, "domo" intensifies the other two phrases above. Add "domo" to "sumimasen," and you have a real apology for any real faux pas you might have committed. Add "domo" to "onegai shimasu," and you add a bit of emphasis to your request for help.
While these three phrases won't satisfy every conversational need that arises during your stay in Japan, they will do wonders to ease your social interactions, get your needs met, and set your anxious hosts at ease. Use these three phrases and your Japanese friends will be delighted with your efforts to speak their native tongue. They'll deeply appreciate that you not only learned a few words of Japanese, but also made the effort to learn the proper forms of courtesy that are so very, very important in the country of Japan.
Karen Kelsky is a scholar of Japan who has studied and worked in Japanese for 30 years. She is an instructor at the University of Oregon. She is also a jewelry artist who creates modern jewelry from Japanese paper and fabric. She writes about Japanese art and culture on her blog, http://paperdemonjewelry.wordpress.com, and sells her Japan-inspired jewelry at her Etsy shop, Paper Demon Jewelry, http://paperdemonjewelry.etsy.com.