Useful Lingo to Know When Visiting Japan

Quick!  What do you know about Japan?  It’s the country responsible for sushi, Godzilla, and anime, but this knowledge isn’t going to help you catch the bullet train to Tokyo.

The Japanese language is steeped in ancient traditions of respect and gratitude.  No matter how much you’ve prepared for a visit to The Land of the Rising Sun, you’ll still need to know some Japanese lingo if you don’t want to be the only person who can’t thank the staff properly at the sushi bar.

SumimasenIf you could only learn one word for your trip to Japan, it would be “sumimasen.”  Like “aloha” or “shalom,” this word has multiple meanings.  It can be used to say thank you, or “excuse me,” and to apologize.  For example, if you wanted to politely ask for directions, or thank someone for taking the time to give you directions, “sumimasen” would apply in both cases.  It’s the perfect word to thank someone for their time and helpfulness.  As a visitor to Japan, you’ll likely use this word repeatedly, and you’ll impress any locals who assist you when you know how to properly express gratitude.

Itadakimasu harkens to the ancient Japanese tradition of acknowledging the effort involved in a meal.  It conveys an understanding of how the larger world connects to your plate through the contributions of plants, animals, farmers, producers, and chefs.  The word, which roughly translates to “let’s eat”, is often said immediately before the first bite, evoking similarities to the Christian tradition of saying grace.  “Itadakimasu” does originate from the Buddhist philosophy of respecting all forms of life, however insignificant or consequential.  In Japan, saying this word before you dig into a meal should enhance your dining experience, as you’ll be more appreciative of the time and work that makes your ramen or sushi so delicious.  You can express your thanks afterward by saying “gochisousama” to the restaurant staff on your way out.

Konnichiwa a commonly known Japanese greeting.  If you really want to score travel points in Japan, you’ll say “konnichiwa” during the day, and “konbanwa” in the evening.  The “nichi” in “konnichiwa” means day; the “ban” in “konbanwa” means night.  Therefore, it’s appropriate to use these greetings during their respective times, lest you appear temporally confused.  “Ohayou gozaimasou” is said until 10:30 in the morning.  Being able to interchange your greetings with respect to the hour of the day will certainly facilitate interactions with the people of Japan during your trip.  You can use this knowledge to school the friends that think “konnichiwa” is the only Japanese way to say hello upon your return.

Visiting the following websites to research pronunciation of the above phrases and additional Japanese social customs is strongly recommended before embarking on your trip:

  • Tofugu: A super helpful online resource for all things Japanese. Here’s their list of the 100 most important Japanese words and their Japanese cheat sheet for travelers.
  • Youtube: These videos will assist with the pronunciation of basic Japanese words.
  • Gaijinpot: A great website featuring blog entries from travelers who are living in Japan! Check out these articles on Japanese body language and the 5 weirdest names for Japanese food.

About the author:

Dana Silverman credits her passion for travel to Girl Scouts, which provided her with amazing opportunities to attend summer camps throughout the United States during her childhood. She’s lived in Australia and New Zealand, and she’s planning a trip to Japan around her appreciation for the country’s cuisine and temples.