Sunday, January 23, 2011

12 Japanese Words To Get Around With

Study hard!  Treats if you pass!

For readers learning Japanese, or who want to learn, below is a list of 12 words to get you started right!  These are words that I use constantly, and which I felt the lack of before I learned them.
A list this short, however, is bound to be controversial, so to my readers who already speak Japanese--do you agree?  Disagree?  What's on your list of essential words for the beginner?  Please comment--I'd love to know!

Ja--sore dewa, benkyou shimashou!! (Then let's study!)

Domo arigatou (gozaimasu)
 "thank you (very much)"....this is the number one word to learn no matter *which* language you're learning.  

Yoroshiku (onegaishimasu)
 "please treat me kindly" the best way I know how to translate this difficult-to-translate-but-you-need-it-every-five-minutes phrase.  Learn this one!   You can say this when you meet someone.  It's what they'll probably say to you.  There's another phrase that means "nice to meet you", but this one is more multi-purpose.  "YOH ROH SHE KU"
    Onegaishimasu!  possibly cheating and making the list really 13 words here, but by itself  this word means  "please (do me a favor)".  Cream with your coffee?  Onegaishimasu!  May I take that away for you?  Onegaishimasu!  Would you like fresh towels?  Onegaishimasu!  Pay by credit card?  "OH NAY GAH EE SHEE MAHSS"
"Bon appetit!"  Note the lack of appropriate English phrase here...  Put your hands together, bow forward a little, and say in a cheerful voice "EEt TAH DAH KEE MAHHHS(u)!!"  The literal meaning is "I humbly partake/receive", which I think is a fine thing to say before eating a meal, whether you're being fed by someone else or not.

 "It was a feast!"...again, no good English equivalent, but you get the idea.  As with "Itadakimasu!", put your hands together, bow forward a little, and in a cheerful, grateful voice say "GO CHEE SOOH SAH MAH!",  bonus points if you remember to stick on the verb "DESH TAH!" (deshita).

 "Delicious!"  I needed this word almost as soon as I got here--you get along so much better in a foreign country if you're willing to try all the food people give you, and even better if you can praise it as  delicious.  If you still have food in your mouth and you need to say this, put your hand in front of your mouth and speak from behind your hand.  "OH EE SHEE!"  Lengthen the last "eeee" to indicate just how delicious you think something is:-))

 "Cute!!"...this is probably the most controversial word to include in a short list like this, but I stand by it. This is the Land of Cute--if you come to Japan you will be surrounded by Cute, and will need to express that. You will seem like far less of a scary foreigner if you can, when looking at someone's cute baby or toddler on the train, smile benignly, bow forward a little, and say "KAH WAH EEEE!".  Trust me on this.
"Excuse me!"/ "I'm sorry!"/"Thank you!"....this is very nearly an all purpose word that you need a hundred times a day.  Somebody picks up and returns something you dropped? "Domo! Sumimasen!"  Bumped into someone?  "Sumimasen!  Gomen nasai!"  Need to call the waiter/shopkeeper?  "Sumimasen!"  Making your way through a crowd?  "SOO ME MAH SEN!"

Gomen nasai!
"I'm sorry!" ...Like "thank you", a word you need no matter what language you're learning.  As above, it can be used with "Sumimasen!" if you've bumped into someone, or you can just say "Gomen nasai!" while bowing forward a little"GO MEN NAH SAH EE!"

Hai, dozo!
 "Here you are!"...offer things with both hands and bow forward a little, even to children.  When my oldest son was a year old, an elderly gentleman on the train played an adorable game with Koshi's shoe that Koshi had taken off and (for some unfathomable reason)decided to give to the old man.  The kindly grandfather received it, bowing and saying "Ah!  Arigatou!...."  waiting a beat, then handing the shoe back to Koshi, bowing and saying "Hai!  Dozo!"  They played like this, over and over, for a good ten minutes--Koshi was overjoyed.  *So* cute:-))  Use this when allowing someone to go ahead of you, too.

 "Please!"...any food word plus "KOO DAH SAH EE", will get you what you want in a restaurant or shop.  Note:  this is not the same as "please do me a favor"--use "Onegaishimasu!" for asking someone to do something for you.
Mada (mada) dame desu!
 "I don't know anything!"...when somebody tells you how "Jouzu!" (good!) your Japanese is, shake your hand and say "MAH DAH DAH MAY DESS!".  Literally this means "it's still awful!".  It's good to be humble:-))  Repeat the "mada" twice to emphasize how far you still have to go.
Oshiete (kudasai)!
"Please teach me!"  Everybody likes to be an expert now and again.  If you don't know what to do, "Oshiete kudasai!".  Need help with the o-hashi (chopsticks)?  "Oshiete kudasai!"  Can't figure out the toilet in the hotel room?  Point and say "OH SHE AY TAY KOO DAH SAH EE!"

Dewa,  i-----ppai benkyou shite, kudasai!  Gambatte, ne!  (So, please study a----lot!  Do your best!)


  1. How many words do I have to learn to get the ko-neko "Canael corn" (LOL)?

  2. I have three thoughts. The first isn't about specific words, but about pronunciation. Japanese isn't a terribly hard language for English speakers to pronounce (there are very few sounds in Japanese that don't exist in English, and the sound combinations (phonology) also exist in English). The trick to making your Japanese sound native is exercise. English speakers often become lazy when speaking Japanese, they get sloppy (they'll relax muscles that need to be engaged for native-sounding Japanese). A great example is one of the words above: "kawaii." If that first "a" vowel becomes too relaxed, it starts to sound like "kowai" (scary—talk about lost in translation, you’re trying to agree that something is so cute, and then out of nowhere you’re calling it scary!).

    The real secret to good pronunciation is good listening, learning to listen to native speakers and then learning to listen to yourself, so that you can match the sounds of native speakers. (And this includes listening to Japanese intonation, which isn't always intuitive for English speakers.) Also, just a further note about vowels to other readers who might be learning Japanese—there are basically five vowels in Japanese: a (ahh), i (ee), u (u), e (eh), o (oh). These are essentially the same sounds as Spanish. You should be pronouncing Japanese words with these vowels only. Also, when reading Japanese written in English, you (almost always) pronounce every written vowel. For instance, in the word for blue (aoi), there are three syllables.

    My second thought consists of a few more words:

    Daijobu-okay, alright. One way that non-Japanese people in Japan encounter this word is when Japanese people ask you about certain Japanese things, like if eating a certain food is "okay" or if you are "okay" using chopsticks. Even if you're not using it yourself all the time, it's a helpful word to recognize.

    Ja-well then, in that case. You'll hear this when having a conversation about figuring out what to do. "Should we meet him at his home? Well, he'll still going to be at work. Ja, shigoto ni (well then, in that case, we'll meet him at work)."

    Chotto-a little. This is often used to mean something like "just a moment."

    So (desu)-so. Like many very useful Japanese words, this is hard to simply translate. It does often mean the same thing as the word in English. "Is this that restaurant you were talking about? Soo desu. (Yes, it is. Yes, it is so.)"

    Ano/Eto/etc.-umm. These are hesitation noises, pretty much equivalent to the English "umm." There are quite a few of these. And now that I'm trying to think of more words for "umm," I'm thinking you could do an entire post just about Japanese onomatopoeia!

  3. [continued (I couldn't fit all my thoughts into one post!)]

    My third thought has to do with saying "good-bye." Reading David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames a while ago, I think I solved a little language puzzle. Sedaris is known for traveling the world, and for his attempts to learn languages (he's written a lot about learning French). At some point, he was trying out Japan and Japanese. One day, he was in a konbini (convenience store) and as he was getting ready to leave the store, he said good-bye. For some reason the store clerks just paused, or laughed, or responded in some odd way, from Sedaris' perspective. He was confused because he had said what he was taught to say for "good-bye" and yet this didn't work. I realized his problem was that he probably didn't use the right word for "good-bye." Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five contextually different good-byes. The first is the word that Americans "know", "sayonara." This is what you say before a real departure, before a journey or a long separation. Another good-bye is "itte kimasu." This is what you say when leaving the home for work or the office for lunch. It implies that you'll be returning at some point in the near future. There is also "o-saki ni shitsure shimasu." This is something you say when leaving work, literally apologizing for leaving before your coworkers. There’s also saying good-bye at the end of a (more formal) phone conversation “shitsuree shimasu.” And then there are a few sort of conversational catch-all good-byes: "dewa mata" "ja mata."

    Not being a fluent native speaker, I'm not actually sure that any of these possible good-byes would have made sense in the situation he was in (customer saying good-bye to the konbini clerk), though maybe the one that Sedaris was looking for was something like "ja mata." My guess is that's not the one he used. The real message here is that in order to use Japanese effectively, to successfully communicate, we need to pay attention to context. It makes learning Japanese (or any language) a lot harder, but it really is necessary. Understanding Japanese culture and society (especially social interactions) will really help Japanese language skills. And it’s also just really interesting!

    Sorry this was such a long comment; I guess you were right, this was a provocative post!

  4. That is an excellent beginner's list. I like Chris's additions, too. But, I've never been to Japan and have lapsed in my studies so my opinion probably shouldn't count.

    Another phrase that I used alot in many different contexts while learning was, "Nan desu ka?" or "What is it?" >> NAHN DESS KAH
    (Or you can use its more irritable form, "Nani?" "What?" >> NAH KNEE)

    The distinction between being cold yourself, saying that something or someone else is cold, and the weather being cold are still lost on me. I'm always wrong when I try to say, "Cold." XD

    Knowing the words for left (hidari >> HE DAH REE), right (migi >> ME GHEE), and forward/ahead (masugu >> MAH SUE GOO) are also very useful in interacting with others, particularly when driving.

  5. I feel so proud! I knew all of them except for 1. I think it was only mada-dame-desu that I didn't know. Thanks for the helpful info :)

  6. Ez--awesome!! You get an A+! You should feel proud--I know you study hard:-))

    Aratina--I debated about putting "nan desu ka" or "kore wa nani" on the list!! *sigh* maybe I should just make the list slightly longer... if it's *too* long, though, it becomes to onerous to remember. Do shio! Make a Level 2 list? ;-)) And--I finally got the samui/tsumetai cold thing down via standing outside in December at Koshi's soccer practice with the other moms going "sss..samu--iiiii!" (I'm cold/atmosphere is cold)...

  7. Chris--yokoso!! Thanks for commenting! I debated about giving more pronunciation hints, too, because you're right--Japanese isn't that hard to pronounce (just like Spanish--5 symbols, 5 vowel sounds...unlike SOME languages we could mention *cough*English!*cough* that have WAY more sounds than symbols). I'll just refer everybody down to your cleary stated exposition:-))

    And you're right--context is *everything*. Especially in Japanese. I haven't read the Sedaris book--I'll be looking for it! Thanks for the tip:-)) There *are* a zillion ways to say goodbye--so many, as you note!, that I just left them off. Most people, if they rack their brains, realize that they already know "sayonara", which *is* what you'd need to say goodbye to someone in a more formal/have just recently met situation. And in stores (like a conbini)--I don't say goodbye! I just say "arigatou" and walk out--it doesn't seem right somehow to say "goodbye" in that context. I person traveling could get by with those two, I think (at least initially--things change the longer you stay, and as you get to know people better! Then you need more informal language like "ja ne!", "dewa mata" or "mata ne!")...

  8. ...AND (I, too, am forced to continue in a second comment...) I waffled for *so* long about "chotto" !! Maybe I should take off "mada dame desu" and put on "chotto", because you can use it to get across that you only know a little, *and* you hear people say that word all the time. Plus, if you've got "chotto" under your belt, it's not much of a stretch to "chotto matte"...

    And "daijoubu"--agree. I waffled about this, and one or two others, which I felt would be *extremely* useful to be able to understand--because people will say it to you constantly! And "wakarimasen"...hmmm. Possibly the start of Level 2 List right here... ;-))

    And I *totally* agree about fact, that could be a whole *series* of posts (how about "poi!" for throwing something away! Once you learn it, you can't stop saying it--even when you're speaking English! Grrr...)

    And gestures--I think whole books have been written about non-verbal communicaiton in Japanese!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Fun for me to read, too!

  9. Hi, hajimemashite!
    I found this blog searched by "word to get around". I just would like to know the meaning of this phrase. I've understood it now!
    And I very agree with your selection of 12 japanese words. I speak these words everyday even with my 2-year-old son.
    Coincidentally, I live in Yokohama, too!
    I'll visit this blog again^^!