When coming to Japan, people usually learn basic phrases to be polite and generally get by. Pretty much everyone in the world knows konnichiwa (こんにちは – Good day) and dōmo arigatō (どうもありがとう – Thank you), and almost as many are familiar with the absolutely crucial sumimasen (すみません), which can mean “excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, or even “thank you”, depending on the precise context. The overachieving otaku have probably mastered sugoi (すごい – amazing, cool) and daijōbu (大丈夫 – OK, alright) from their hours of anime research. But if you plan on being in Japan for longer than a few weeks, you going to want more tools in your verbal arsenal than the barebones basics.
That’s where I come in. Here are some useful expressions for you to use when you really want to sound like you know some Japanese. This is the good stuff that I wish I would have had down on day one. Let’s start with a general tip to assist you in your linguistic journey.
Ano~/Eto~ (あの, ええと、えっと) – The Verbal Pause
If you’re just starting out learning Japanese, or having trouble actually using the stuff you’ve learned in class, I recommend training yourself to use the Japanese verbal pause. Saying ano~ or eto~ is the Japanese equivalent of saying “Um…”, “Ah…” or “Let me see…”, and buys you time to search your brain for that missing vocabulary word when you’re trying to hold a conversation. This was recommended to me way back in the day and I made a half-assed attempt at using it, but never really took it seriously until I was speaking Japanese every day. Basically, when you start conversing in a second language, it’s like your brain changes gears. Stammering with your native ums and ahs will pull you back into English mode and break your rhythm. So remember to falter the way the native speakers do it, it honestly makes carrying on that much easier.
Similarly, when something catches you off guard, you’ll probably want to say, “Huh?” or “What’s that?” But resist this slide back into English. Train your Japanese speaking instincts to respond with are (あれ), the Japanese equivalent. It’s the perfect way to express that you didn’t quite hear the question or didn’t quite understand it.
Iranai de (いらないで) – “I don’t want/need it.”
If there is only one certainty in life, it’s that when you buy something in Japan, they will put it in a bag. Even when you buy a bottle of water at the conbini (コンビに – convenience store), they will bag it. You probably won’t even be asked if you want a fukuro (袋– bag), they’ll just assume you know how this process works. So when you see the salesperson reaching for the bag – and they move with speed and precision – you’ll need to quickly express that you don’t need it. In proper Japanese, you’d say iranai desu, but since you’re a badass, just shorten it to iranai de.
Another important phrase to use at the register is the convenient compound word mochi-kaeri (持ち帰り), meaning “to go”, takeout, takeaway. When buying a coffee at Mr. Donut, you will surely be asked if you want to drink it in the store – they do have free refills on coffee, by the way – or if you’ll take it “to go”. In case of the latter, just drop mochi-kaeri with a cocky smirk.
Chidoriashi (千鳥足) – The Thousand Bird Step
Drinking is pretty popular in Japan in general, and getting sloppy drunk at social outings is not uncommon. Therefore knowing the vocabulary of the yopparai (酔っ払う – drunken person) can be quite handy. For example, how can you express that you – or your friend, yeah sure, we’ll say your friend – is too drunk to walk properly? Use chidoriashi, the Japanese term for a drunken stagger. The term quite literally translates to “thousand bird step”, which I assume must be what a drunkard’s footprints are supposed to look like. It’s really all you need to say to express that you’re not currently able to ride your bike home, operate heavy machinery, or send an ill-advised text message to your ex.
A related term that’s also worth knowing is futsukayoi (二日酔い), Japanese for hangover. It literally means “two days drunk” and is the perfect term to explain why you were late for work this morning.
Otsukaresama deshita (お疲れ様でした) – “Thanks for the hard work”
Speaking of work, if you are employed in Japan, you are certain to hear the phrase otsukaresama deshita, meaning “Thank you for your hard work”. Translated too literally, otsukaresama means “the honorable tired one”, but your colleague is not insinuating that you look tired. This is an old-fashioned expression of appreciation for your efforts. You’ll also hear this said among sports teams, yōsakoi dance groups, when helping a friend move, and from people at the gym. It’s usually said at the completion of something, or when people are parting ways, like a special exercise goodbye.
Also, if you’re asked to do something and you’d like to express that you’re happy to do it, I recommend saying yorokonde (喜んで). Literally meaning “with pleasure”, this phrase is perfect for when your Yakuza boss has just ordered you to rough up that guy, who conveniently, you already had a beef with.
Omatase shimashita (お待たせしました) – “Thank you for waiting”
Another one that you’re sure to hear at a restaurant or at the airport, omatase shimashita is a convenient phrase that you’ll probably want to use yourself. Literally meaning “I made you wait” in polite Japanese, this one is pretty straight forward. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous that you probably didn’t need to have me introduce it to you. When speaking among your peers, feel free to abbreviate it to simply omatase; because you’re too badass to be bothered with the long version anyway.
Speaking of restaurants and being in a hurry, kuinige (食い逃げ) is the Japanese phrase for “dine and dash”, to run away without paying for your food. It’s a combination of the words for eat and escape, but you didn’t hear that from me…
Osewa ni narimashita (お世話になりました) – “Thank you for helping me”
People in Japan are extremely generous, and you’re certain to feel like you owe a debt of gratitude to someone along the way. While you can say dōmo arigatō gozaimasu – and you will, a lot – you might find yourself wishing that you had another way to express your appreciation, something special to convey to this person in particular that they really saved your ass. In that situation, say osewa ni narimashita. This is like saying “Thank you for helping me”, but with gratitude to the point of being indebted. In that sense, it’s a bit more like saying “I am obliged to you” or “Thank you for taking care of me.”
Ojama shimasu (おじゃまします) –Entering someone’s home
Since we want to be refined, classy badasses, and not chavy thugs, it’s best to say ojama shimasu when entering someone’s home. You’d usually say this when you’re talking off your shoes at the genkan (玄関 – entryway), so it’s kind of like saying “excuse me for intruding.” Remember this pleasantry so that you don’t look uncouth. And remember to say it again when leaving, except use the past tense version, ojama shimashita.
Kotowaza (諺) – Japanese Proverbs
You might find that’s helpful to know a few classic Japanese idioms, just in case someone uses one in conversation with you, or you find yourself in the perfect opportunity to reference one and sound like a badass. There are tons of these to potentially learn, but I’ll just give you a couple examples.
The first is my absolute favorite, Saru mo ki kara ochiru (猿も木から落ちる). Literally meaning “even monkeys fall out of trees”, it’s the Japanese way of saying that everyone makes mistakes. While I don’t know of an equivalently poetic phrase in English, the closest one by meaning would probably be “that’s why pencils have erasers.”
Next is a phrase that’s rather famously Japanese, Derukui wa utareru (出る杭は打たれる). It literally means, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” A profound commentary on conformity in Japan, this old adage is saying that the best policy is to keep you head down and never stand out, lest society has to put you in your place.
And lastly, another cool saying is Uso wa nusubito no hajimari (うそは盗人 の始まり). This translates as “lies are the beginnings of thieves”, which is fairly self-explanatory.
Okagesama de (お蔭様で) – Under the Gods’ Shadow
Anyone who’s spent any time in Japan has experienced the Genki Conversation, the common pleasantry of inquiring about someone’s wellbeing. This is the How are you? Conversation in English, the Ça va Conversation in French, and it usually goes something like this:
A) Konnichiwa. Genki desu ka? (こんにちは。元気ですか？)
B) Hai, genki desu. Anata wa? (はい、元気です。あなたは？)
A) Hai, genki desu. (はい、元気です。)
Not that there’s anything wrong with always repeating this basic conversation, but a badass doesn’t stick to generic pleasantries. To shock native speakers with your comprehension of Japanese language and culture, when they ask if you’re genki, reply with this: Okagesama de genki desu (お蔭様で元気です). I guarantee that they’ll be impressed.
What you just said was very humble. You see, Okagesama de generally means “by assistance”, and potentially “by your backing”, indicating that while you are well, you’re not taking any credit for it. In fact, depending on the context, you might be crediting the person you’re talking to for your position, like saying, “Thanks to you, I’m fine.” By itself, kage (蔭) means shade, shadow, or “the other side”, while the ‘o’ prefix and ‘sama’ suffix are both honorific. Since westerners sometimes have a hard time not taking absolute credit for the circumstances in which they’ve found themselves, and an even harder time giving this credit to other people, this humble phrase is sometimes translated as “by the grace of God” or “under the Gods’ shadow”.
In a related tip, if you get tired of asking people if they are genki, I recommend using the phrase Choushi wa dou desu ka? (調子はどうですか？) This is like saying, “How’s it going?”
Kyoushuku desu (恐縮です) – The Ultimate Japanese Phrase
No matter where you go in Japan, you are sure to encounter compliments. Japan is a famously polite nation and the people generally like to make you feel comfortable. They will compliment your Japanese language skills, even if you can only say one word…badly. They will compliment your looks, prepare to be told that you have a tall nose and a small face – they’re apparently good things. They will compliment your physique; you’d never guess that you were so tall and muscular until several Japanese grandmothers tell you so.
But Japan is also a famously humble nation. Try and return a compliment to a Japanese person and you will be brushed off. To give is better than to receive, and Japanese people do not accept praise. Seriously, you can’t even compliment someone’s family without them waving it off, lest a part of the praise reflect positively on them. (“Your wife is very attractive.” – “Oh, her? No! She’s actually quite ugly without all the makeup.”) Well now, I bet you feel a little embarrassed for agreeing with all the nice things they said about you. Clearly, no one here ever accepts a compliment.
So what’s a foreigner to do when you’re complimented on your ability to use chopsticks for the millionth time? Use this phrase to surprise and delight any unsuspecting Japanese person: Kyoushuku desu (恐縮です).
While it literally means to shrink (縮) with fear (恐), kyoushuku desu would best be translated as “that is too kind of you” or “stop, you’re embarrassing me”. This, my friends, is the ultimate tool in your Japanese arsenal. With so many compliments to brush off, you’ll never run out of opportunities to bust it out. And the best part is that no other foreigners ever seem to use it. You’ll look like a Japan Studies scholar and the reactions you’ll get will be priceless. Just be careful not to switch the vowels and say, Kyūshoku desu (給食です) – that means “school lunch”.
You can even use the same words at the beginning of sentence to politely ask a favor, just add the particle ‘ga’: Kyoushuku desu ga… This is like starting off your request with “I’m sorry to trouble you” or “I’m embarrassed to say this”.
And if you end up using kyoushuku desu to death – remember, with great power comes great responsibility – you can always shake things up with osore irimasu (恐れいります). Using the same “fear” kanji as kyoushuku, this phrase has almost the exact same meaning in conversation. Now go turn down those compliments like a true badass.