This is intended as a very simple primer for those without the time to gain a fuller vocabulary. I won’t be scaring you with the intricacies of Japanese writing: that’s beyond the scope of this article. Similarly the purpose is not to teach you beginner’s Japanese in any way; purely to give you a handful of phrases to help you survive your visit to Japan.
First, notes on pronunciation. Japanese is a largely regular language with regular rules on how to pronounce written words. Obviously there are exceptions, but you don’t need to worry about them for now.
N.B. My pronunciation guide is assuming the reader is English. If you are not, please try to find a guide geared to your accent (or imagine an English one).
a – as in cat.
i – as in bic (the biro manufacturer).
u – as in boot – the u vowel in Japanese is quite like our oo.
e – as in bet.
o – as in cot.
Each vowel lasts a single beat. For longer, beat-and-a-half vowels, there will be a macron over it: ā, ī, ū, ē, ō.
g – always hard, as in get. Never soft, as in George.
r – actually a sound somewhere between r and l to us Westerners. Try making an r-sound with your tongue where you’d usually place it for an l, but without closing the gap between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.
Japanese is made up of syllable-based building blocks, not individual letters. You will almost always see consonants paired with vowels (n is the notable exception). Often, for the sake of ease of use, vowels are dropped or altered in the pronunciation of a word, but the spelling includes them. I will point these out as we go along.
hai : Yes. This is the most direct form of “Yes”, but is suitable for your needs.
iie : No. Again, the most direct form of “No”. It is unlikely that you will hear a Japanese person say this to you, but if you want to decline something this is acceptable.
onegai shimasu : Please. As in “Please may I have this”. This is one of the occasions on which a vowel isn’t really pronounced – shimasu sounds more like “shimass” when spoken. You can get away with pointing at pictures in a restaurant and saying onegai shimasu. Your lovely waiter won’t mind at all.
arigatō : Thank you. There are many forms of “Thank you”, but for basic survival this will serve you faithfully.
sumimasen : One of the most useful words you can learn. You can use it for “excuse me”, “oops, sorry”, “pardon me, may I get past,” or “sorry, may I have your attention please?” By saying sumimasen and gesturing across someone, you indicate that you would like to get past them. With some eye-contact and a wave to a waiter, sumimasen indicates that you’d like them to come over.
gomen nasai : “I’m very sorry”. On the off-chance that you do something a little worse than bump into someone in the street and sumimasen isn’t enough. I have, for example, accidentally woken a gentleman sleeping on the train. gomen nasai was my friend there!
wakarimasen : Literally “I do not understand”. This saves you having to learn the far longer “I’m sorry, my Japanese isn’t very good” while conveying the same meaning.
otearai wa doko desu ka : “Where is the washroom?” The ka itself is a spoken question mark, so lift intonation as you would when asking a question in English. desu is another of those words where the u isn’t really heard, so sounds more like “dess”. If it helps you remember the phrase, you can substitute toire for otearai, but it’s the difference between “where is the washroom?” and “where is the toilet?” – the latter is less polite.
dōzo : “Please,” when making an offer. As in “Please, you have this”. Waiters and waitresses will say this to you when gesturing you to a seat or table, but you can also use it to offer your seat to others on public transport – if, for instance, you would like to offer your seat to an elderly passenger, you simply rise and gesture to your seat with a dōzo.
eigo no menyū ga arimasu ka : “Do you have an English menu?” arimasu is pronounced “arimass”. It’s safe to assume that if your waiter or waitress doesn’t rush off and fetch one, the answer is no.
okanjō o onegai shimasu : “Please may I have the bill?” As above, shimasu is pronounced “shimass”.
ichi / ni / san / yon mai onegai shimasu : “One / two / three / four tickets please”. mai is not actually the word for ticket, it is a counter for flat objects, but if you say “two flat objects please” at a ticket counter, the nice assistant will know what you want. If asking for four tickets, the words almost blend together into “yommai”.
And there you have it. Don’t be afraid of the Japanese language: it’s no more complex than English, it just looks intimidating when written down. You may read elsewhere that Japanese is so very complicated and that your fragile Western mind cannot possibly hope to comprehend, but that’s nonsense: you already speak a language with over 600,000 words in common, everyday vocabulary (compared to, say, the 200,000 in common French vocabulary) with multiple levels of politeness and several ways of saying the same thing. You just don’t notice how complex English is because you grew up with it.