Before you travel to Japan, you should know that most Japanese people do not use English often. It may not because they aren’t any good at speaking English, but because they aren’t confident enough to communicate with tourists in English.
Therefore, you might struggle to communicate with restaurant waiters or shop assistants who only speak Japanese. However, there is a way to help you. Here is what I consider 5 essential Japanese words for tourists.
It is useful when you want to order food, as you may struggle with using Japanese menus. But if you point at a picture and say “kore” (“this”), the waiter will automatically understand. You could also use “kore” when out shopping too.
“Kudasai” is used for asking for assistance politely. For example, “kore kudasai” means “may I have this, please?”. You can use “kudasai” in other situations too, such as “ticket kudasai”, which means “may I have a ticket, please?”. You will notice that it is more convenient to use kudasai to ask for help or make a demand while remaining polite.
It is a very important word for surviving in Japan and is often used in two main situations. First, it is when you are looking for a toilet. You can say “toilet wa doko?” to any Japanese person, and they will understand you and guide you to the nearest toilet. However, saying, “Toilet Doko?” will also be understood.
Second, it is when you get lost. Name a place of where you would like to go to, and then ask a nearby Japanese person, “[place] wa doko?” and they will realize you are lost. For example, “Shinjuku station wa doko?” means “where is Shinjuku station?” or “Hilton Hotel wa doko?” means “Where is Hilton hotel?”. By using this simple Japanese sentence, you will be able to communicate where you would like to go and are more likely to receive help.
“Sumimasen” could mean both “excuse me”, and “I’m sorry.” It is always a good to show your manners. For example, when you collide with somebody and would like to apologize, say “sumimasen”. It can also be used when you need assistance. “Sumimasen, kore kudasai” means “Excuse me. May I have this, please?” Therefore, “Sumimasen” can be used in general situations, when you want to apologize, or need assistance.
“Wakarimasen” means “I do not understand”. When you ask for help, despite not knowing any Japanese, you might experience difficulty understanding instructions or advice given from a helpful Japanese. That is when you would use “wakarimasen” to let them know that you don’t understand and they may try body language or actions to try and assist you instead.