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A Brief and Inadequate Guide to Survival Japanese


Before coming to Japan, I had studied Japanese for 2.5 years. In my home university, I am officially “advanced.” I will tell you, straight and clear, that I was nowhere near “advanced” when I arrived in Japan. I could and can communicate—so let’s just go with “survivable.” With enough gestures and a Japanese-English dictionary app however, one might even say that I was “actually more than just survivable!” However, one thing that has and still does hit me in the face is my total inaptitude at actually using practical Japanese.

Teachers will tell you that you will learn these skills on your own. You will be forced to use it, so there’s no need to waste study and/or class time on learning how to order food at a restaurant, or the most polite way to avert attention from restaurant solicitors on the street (TIP: if are a visible foreigner, they will follow and badger you). If you like me, you might just accidentally end up responding to the waitress’s irrashaimase (welcome!) with another irrashaimase.

For those who haven’t studied Japanese before, this barrier is (obviously) even higher. I knew, and still know the feeling. Not knowing kanji is hard enough, but having to get used to the two other writing systems can be hellish. Japanese words can seem long and ghoulishly impossible to memorize. I remember sounding out ever syllable in the beginning: “i-ta-da-ki-ma-su?” “shi-na-ke-re-ba-na-ra-nai”?

Simply ghoulish.

Thus, I have chosen to make my own extremely brief, and incomprehensive guide to surviving in Japan as someone who is far from fluent in Japanese. And someone might tell you that this excuse for a guide is inadequate and makes one sound like a total foreigner. They are absolutely right. Nevertheless, they are things that helped me navigate Tokyo.

  1. When you’re entering a normal restaurant, one of the first questions
    you will be asked is 何名様ですか (nan men sama desu ka—how many people?). If you’re eager to practice your numbers, you can say 一人 (hitori—one person), 二人 (futari—two people), 三人 (san nin—three people), and so on.
  2. When leaving the restaurant, I’ve been told that the proper thing to say is ごちそうさまでした (gochisousama deshita—thank you for the meal). ありがとうございます (arigatou gozaimasu—thank you) is of course also okay.
  3. When you’re in a fast food restaurant, and want to get carry-out, say 持ち帰り(mochikaeri). Alternatively, you can just gesture towards the door. If you want to eat in, ここで (koko de—here) is enough. If you want to get “only the burger,” for example, you can say たんぴん (tanpin—single item). If you want the set, just sayセット (setto).
  4. The most useful word you can know in Japanese is すみません (sumimasen). Use it to say sorry, excuse me, or to get someone’s attention. It’s honestly priceless.
  5. If the menu has pictures, and you want to try using Japanese, just point and say これをお願いします (kore o onegaimashimasu). Pointing is obviously also enough, but it’s always fun to try. When you’re done ordering all the desired items, you can just say 以上 (ijyou—that is all).
  6. If you mess up in the subway (for example, you enter through the wrong entrance, or use the wrong exit), I’ve found that walking up to the nice man watching the subway gates and hesitantly saying すみません、間違いました (sumimasen, machigaimashita—sorry, I made a mistake) is generally enough to have your mistake corrected. Of course, this should be done immediately after realizing that you have made this mistake. Similarly, there are moments when you can’t get through a gate even though you have enough money on your subway card. So far, hesitantly sayingすみません (sumimasen) to the same nice man has solved this problem for me immediately without requiring any extra explanation or context.
  7. If someone you don’t know is talking to you, or is trying to give you something on the street and you don’t understand/don’t want what is given, just looking down and slightly bowing/nodding your head is enough. In some ways, it’s the polite thing to do. If desired, you can also throw in the forever-handy すみません(sumimasen), if your heart desires.

But honestly, you’ll get a hang of it. People in Japan are extremely kind, generally speaking, and everyone is eager to help (or at least find someone to help). So let loose, listen closely, and speak badly! 

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