Although it is perfectly possible to visit and survive in Japan without learning the language, it definitely makes life a lot easier when you know some basic vocabulary. It can build bridges between you and the people you meet, and make requests and actions, which you may take for granted back home where there is no language barrier, significantly easier. Before you go to Japan, it is not a bad idea to pick up some simple words or at least write them down so you can explain yourself when you are lost or need help.
There is no doubt that you are highly likely to use the train while you are in Japan. Many large cities have a subway and local train service, and the most common way to travel between towns and cities is by rail. Most of Japan’s trains and train stations have basic English translations for key areas and important information, and virtually all station and railway line names are romanized. You can even see Korean and Chinese at most of the stations now, especially in the greater Tokyo area. But the moment you step into a train station, you may realize that a majority of what you will see and hear is still in Japanese, and to a foreigner that speaks little or none of the language, this may seem a little daunting.
It is pretty likely that at least one Japanese civilian will be willing to help you out in dealing with any confusing situation, but wouldn’t it be great to understand the basics? It could potentially save you a lot of trouble and give you more time to enjoy the experience of riding a train in Japan.
Here is some important vocabulary you will see and hear on trains and at train stations, as well as sentences in which the vocabulary is used. The below table provides the “romaji” (romanized) reading of the word, the Japanese text, and the meaning in English. Write them down, bookmark this page or, if you are feeling like studying, try to memorize them.
|Romanized Japanese||Japanese text||English meaning|
|Kakuekiteisha||各駅停車||Train that stops at all stations (local)|
|Kaisoku||快速||Train that stops on selected stations only (rapid)|
|Kakekomi||かけこみ||Rush or last-minute|
|Gochuui||ご注意||“Please note…” or “Please pay attention to…”|
|Goannai||ご案内||Information or guide|
If you do not speak Japanese at all, then do not worry too much about learning all of the letters. However, writing down the symbols you see in the above table might help in recognizing key vocabulary while you are there. It might also be easier to show someone the written down word if you feel shy about trying to pronounce it.
Now that you know some basic vocabulary, let’s see how it is used in real life.
- When a train is approaching, stations usually display ｢電車がまいります」(“Densha ga mairimasu”) or ｢電車がきます」 (“Densha ga kimasu”). This means “the train is coming”. The only difference is the use of “mairimasu”, which the more formal word for “coming” or “approaching”.
- When a train is about to arrive, voice announcements are usually stated in this manner: 「まもなく、一番線に東京方面行きがまいります。 危ないですから黄色い線までお下がりください」 (“Mamonaku ichiban sen ni, Tokyo yuki ga mairimasu. Abunai desu kara kiiroi sen made osagari kudasai”). The first sentence means that in a short while, a Tokyo-bound train will arrive at platform (line) one. The second sentence tells passengers to wait behind the yellow line as it is dangerous to stand near the edge. Note that the 線(sen) in the first and second sentences are different – the first one refers to a platform while the second refers to a certain yellow line on the platform.
- An announcement similar to the previous may be stated in this manner: ｢白線の内側にさがってお待ちください」 (“Hakusen no uchigawa ni sagatte omachi kudasai”). This one tells passengers to wait behind the white line.
- The moment you enter the train (or sometimes, while the train is running), a voice announcement would say ｢ご乗車ありがとうございます」 (“Gojosha arigatō gozaimasu”). This means “thank you for riding” and is a way for the train operators to say welcome and thank you for using their services.
- Train drivers will sometimes announce ｢発車します」 (“Hassha shimasu”) to signal that the train is about to depart. They may also say “hassha itashimasu” which means the same thing but it is slightly more formal.
- Information about the next station is given with a ｢次は、＿＿＿ 」 (“Tsugi wa, ______”) or 「まもなく、＿＿ 」 (“Mamonaku, ____”) followed by the next station’s name. 「まもなく」 (“Mamonaku”) is usually announced when the train is seconds away from the ｢ホーム」 (“Hōmu”).
- Announcements for last stops usually include ｢終点です｣ (“shuuten desu”). This is important because many operators designate a terminus that is not the absolute end of the line.
- When the train is about to stop, an announcement will tell which side of the train will open: ｢出口は、左/右 側です」 (“Deguchi wa, hidari/migi gawa desu”). Alternatively, some trains have digital displays on doors to indicate the opening side.
- Closing doors are signaled by ｢ドアが閉まります」 (“Doa ga shimarimasu.”) while opening doors by ｢ドアが開きます」（”Doa ga hirakimasu”). Safety prompts like ｢閉まるドアにご注意ください」 (“Shimaru doa ni gochuui kudasai”) ask passengers to pay attention to closing doors.
- Stickers at train doors usually have a 「かけこみ乗車はキケンです」 (“kakekomi jōsha wa KIKEN desu”) to tell passengers not to rush as it is dangerous. Notice that 危険 (kiken) is written in katakana (キケン) for emphasis.
- When stopping at a station where more than one line operates, announcements would include transfer information: ｢＿＿＿線はお乗換えです」 (“____-sen wa o-norikae desu”). This means that a passenger may transfer to the indicated line. Transfer information may likewise be announced after a ｢乗り換えのご案内です｣ (“Norikae no goannai desu”).
- Train types are both announced and digitally displayed. Local trains (trains stopping at all stations of a line) are designated as 普通 (futsuu) or 各駅停車 (kakuekiteisha) while rapid trains as 快速(kaisoku).
- 切符 (kippu) are sold at a きっぷうりば (kippu uriba). Markers for these machines are usually written with just hiragana. When purchasing tickets, do not forget your おつり (otsuri)!
English is available in ticket purchasing machines and on most maps, so it is likely that you can survive on Japan’s trains without having to use Japanese. However, it can put your mind at ease if you can understand at least a little of the announcements to help you navigate where you are going. Traveling by train and bullet train in Japan is a great experience as you might see some unusual behavior including sleeping on the train, piling into a crowded carriage, and the polite rules you may see around the platform and on board. Try to use this new vocabulary if you can, and most importantly, enjoy your trip!