The Japanese are incredibly kind and hospitable people who will always try to communicate with foreigners in English if possible – or impossible, depending on their level of English. But don’t be fooled by their cool exterior: on the inside they are completely stressed out about speaking English and if you pay close attention you will see beads – or sometimes streams – of sweat forming on their foreheads. See, most Japanese people think their English conversation abilities are below par even if they will be able to communicate with it.
Seeing as Japanese people in general try so hard to communicate in English it is astounding how surprised and grateful they are when foreigners speak any amount of Japanese. My Japanese abilities are nothing to rave about, but here are a few useful phrases that can create an illusion that you actually know some Japanese – trust me, people will be impressed.
As a general rule of thumb it is good to know that bowing goes a long way in the Japanese culture. When thanking, apologizing, excusing yourself, introducing oneself or even departing company a bow is appropriate – in addition to many other occasions. Obviously from foreigners these kind of gestures are not expected – but when you take the time to get to know a few essential social rules, you will certainly impress locals and be regarded as a very courteous guest in their country.
Arigatou gozaimasu. “Thank you very much.” Pronunciation for English speakers would go something in the lines of ah-ree-gah-toh-oo goh-zah-ee-mas.
Instead of just throwing arigato out there, take the next step and nod – or better yet, bow, and let arigatou gozaimasu be released. Rest assured your gesture will have been noted and appreciated. As politeness is such an essential part of the Japanese culture I try to give thanks more rather than less in any given situation.
Do itashimashite. “You are welcome.” Pronounced as doh ee-tah-shee mah-she-teh.
Useful when replying to someone’s arigatou gozaimasu.
Sumimasen. “I’m sorry.” or “Excuse me.” Pronunciation guide in English: sue-me-mah-sen.
Japanese people are polite beyond compare and knowing how to apologize will surely get you in local’s good books. But when to apologize? Better safe than sorry, think the Japanese, and you won’t go wrong throwing this phrase around with your arigatou gozaimasu.
Personally I use this phrase to get a sales clerk’s attention or to indicate I would like to pay in a restaurant.
Many Japanese people apologize for the most mundane seeming things: for example asking someone a question, having used a company’s service, when paying a bill, etc.
When I first came to Japan I thought it ridiculous how much apologizing goes on here, but one has to simply obtain a Japanese mindset to realize that apologizing even for the tiniest possible inconveniences is considered polite and good form.
Onegai shimasu. “Please.” Pronounced somewhat like: oh-ne-gah-ee she-mah-sue.
When you are asked a question, ie. “a table for two?”, “would you like another glass?” or whatever the question may be where your answer would be to concur, give a nod or a small bow and reply with a “onegai shimasu“. Certainly this will earn you brownie points in any situation as a well-mannered foreigner.
Also very useful for example in a restaurant or a café when you have finished telling the waiter what you would like and polish it off with an onegai shimasu.
Ohayo gozaimasu. “Good morning.” Pronunciation guide: oh-hah-yoh goh-za-ee-muss.
Virtually every tourist knows how to say konnichiwa (pronounced kohn-nee-chee-wah) so why not bring smiles to those Japanese faces by greeting people in the morning with an ohayo gozaimasu?
Konbanwa. “Good evening.” Pronounced as: kohn-bahn-wah.
Up your game, greet locals with a konbanwa after dark and you might be surprised of their reactions. My neighbors in Kyoto would always greet me with a konnichiwa no matter what time of the day it was as they figured a white girl would not know any other Japanese greetings. This was indeed true at the time, but now I greet people appropriately and I know it is all worth while when I see their respective faces light up.
Oyasumi nasai. “Good night.” Pronunciation: oh-yah-soo-mee nah-sigh.
Used only when departing company at night, not as a greeting when you meet people no matter how late at night, so use konbanwa instead for a late night greeting.
Japan is a wonderful country with many incredibly confusing social rules and an etiquette that is baffling to say the least. I have only started to get to know parts of it but am painfully aware of how little I know. Foreigners living in Japan have to come into terms with the fact that no matter how much we try and do our best to be polite we most certainly brake the rules frequently without even realizing it.
The beauty of it? The locals are too gracious to let us on to it.