English teacher leads a class of Japanese kindergarten students

So, you made it to Japan. Possibly as a student, family member, or our favorite at ILH, an English teacher! Either way, the culture shocks and language barrier are a lot to deal with while settling into your new life here. 

Although it will get easier with time and your ears will quickly pick up on commonly spoken phrases, it’s nice to know how to get the ball rolling so as not to be too overwhelmed at the start.

Before anything else, memorize your greetings. Greetings are taken very seriously in Japan in the way that if you are able to properly bow, say the right greeting and make eye contact in Japanese, it makes a huge impact on your relationship with others.

おはようございます。 (oh-ha-yo  go-zai-masGood morning. 

This greeting can be used for quite a large block of the day, usually until lunchtime.

こんにちは。(kohn-nee-chee-wa)Hello / good afternoon. 

This is the most commonly known greeting among beginners, rightfully so. This greeting can also be used without any huge time restraints.

こんばんは。(kohn-ban-wa)Good evening. 

This phrase can be used around dinnertime or sunset.

おやすみなさい。(oh-yah-soo-mi  nah-sai)Good night.

This greeting is almost exclusively used for bedtime, unless you are out with friends or coworkers until later in the evening (for example 10:00 pm) and part ways to go home.

またあした / またこんど。(mah-tah  ash-ta;
mah-tah  kohn-doh)
See you again tomorrow / See you again next time.

This can be used with people you spend a lot of time with.

Now that you know how to properly greet one another, it’s time to get to the main point of your conversation. What do you need?

すみません。(soo-MEE-MAH-SEN)Excuse me/ sorry.

You can use this to approach someone on the street, if you need to pass by a person in a narrow space, or if you are just apologizing. It’s a very good phrase to know from your first day!


You can say this phrase on its own or in conjunction with something else if you are making a request.

ありがとう / ありがとうございます(AH-REE-ga-toh goh-zai-MAHS)Thank you/ thank you very much

Just ありがとう by itself is fine for people the same age as you or for people you are familiar with, but on most occasions ありがとうございます will be more appropriate as it is more formal.

まいごになりました(MAI-go nee NAH-REE-MAH-shita)I’m lost

This can be perfectly prefaced with すみません to grab someone’s attention on the street. If it’s a businessman, they may be too focused on where they’re going to help you. And older people may be harder to understand. So check to see who may be approachable before asking!

___にいきたいです。(__nee  ee-kee-TAI-dess)I want to go to____

A lot of sentences are ordered in the opposite way an English sentence may be made. Say the place first and follow it with に行きたいです。

___はどこですか?(__wah  DOH-KOH-dess-kah)Where is____?

The opposite sentence order also applies here. Say the location before you ask the question of where.

もういちどいってください(MOH ICHI-DOH yoo-tte koo-dah-sai)Can you say one more time?

This will be great to remember, especially if the directions you may have received from the previous phrase are hard to understand. You can even head it up with a little すみません to be extra polite.

もうすこしゆっくりはなしてください(MOH-toh YOO-KOO-ree ha-NAH-shite koo-dah-sai)Can you say more slowly?

If someone has repeated themselves and it was still too fast, you can follow-up with this question for extra clarification. This can also be headed up with すみません out of respect for the person you are speaking to.

______いいですか?(__EE-dess-ka)Can I / May I?

You may have to look up the verb needed to plug in, but asking for permission always comes at the end of the sentence.

___がほしいです。(__gah hoh-SHEE dess)I want / I need

The same principle goes here, say this phrase after whatever it is that you are requesting.

Once you have gotten these phrases down, getting around in Japan will be less intimidating for you. And the locals will think you’re a natural! Tune in next month for more phrases to learn in Japanese.