The truth is you can get by in Japan knowing virtually none of the Japanese language, but there are a few words that will make things a little easier. With the technology available, all you have to do is type what you want to say into your phone and a free translation app will translate it into Japanese. Then, when you are trying to communicate simply show your phone to whomever you need to communicate with and you’re good to go. We used Google Translate. On most android devices it’s already pre-built into your phone.
There are really only 5 words that will be used regularly for conversing generally and behaving politely. In addition, a huge part of the Japanese language is unspoken, but communicated through gestures or even sounds. These are words that you and your kids can easily remember and the Japanese will appreciate your pathetic efforts.
Pleasure to meet you! It’s a formal greeting and typically accompanied by clasping the hands in prayer form, and bowing. You’ll encounter this a lot grocery shopping in Japan.
Hello! This is used informally, in passing.
Funny story. I laugh every time I tell this story. We had just arrived off the ferry boat in Miyajima and we were only a few days into our trip. I was trying really hard to be respectful and speak in the Japanese language whenever I had the chance. As we were walking up the main road, a woman seated outside a store front nodded at us smiling and said, “Kon’nichiwa.” In response, I bowed my head slightly and replied, “Hiroshima” by mistake.
Thank you! This is socially acceptable, however the formal version of this is Arigatōgozaimashita, meaning thank you very much. You’ll also hear some awkward foreigners simply saying ‘domo’, like the only exposure they’ve ever had to Japanese culture and Japanese language is from an 80’s music video. Don’t say that. Stick with Arigatō.
It is polite in Japan to bow slightly when saying thank you, or asking for something. Typically you will want to clasp your hands palms together, fingers upwards, as if praying as well.
Toilet! This will come in handy in a variety of situations, and possibly urgent ones in which there may not be time to pull out your phone to translate your jibber jabber into the Japanese language. Everyone understands, and will typically respond with something indecipherable that probably means they only have a Japanese squatty potty. Just go with it.
Okay! This is an easy one, though it doesn’t mean hello! You’ll hear this all the time, and you’ll find yourself saying it a lot as well. We found it also was subbed for the word yes in many instances.
The language barrier was more prevalent in smaller cities. In Hiroshima and Kyoto we used our translation apps far more than we did in Tokyo. I don’t think we actually used them once in Tokyo. The same translation app will also have an option for translating images. This works well for signs, price tags, and menus. Though, typically restaurants will offer a picture menu for foreigners with at least the name of the meal in English. The translation app didn’t work as well for pictures as a lot of Japanese is written top down and across, and the app seemed to get confused on what specifically to translate.
In Hiroshima, we were approached several times by groups of school children wanting to practice their English. In turn, we would practice the new words we had learned in the Japanese language. They would ask us a series of questions, and ask us to point to laminated pictures. It was really cute, although my kids were confused about how they should behave here. They knew something terrible happened here a long time ago, and it wasn’t a play place, but they saw other children laughing and telling jokes. We’ve since had lots of conversations about it.