How to: Learn Basic Japanese for Travel

Do you really need to learn basic Japanese for travel even on a short trip? In a world where simple English is understood in most places around the globe and where you can get instant translation services on your smartphone (assuming you have access to wifi or data), it may seem unnecessary to learn some of the local language before visiting a new place. While it does seem somewhat old fashioned to memorize common terms and phrases, I’ve found that knowing just 10 or 15 key phrases without having to refer to a book or my phone enriches my travel experience.

With my camera always in my hand it’s pretty hard to hide the fact that I’m a tourist, but the locals always seem to get friendlier once they see that I’ve made an effort to speak their language. It worked so well for me in Italy that I suspect you could even get away with wearing a fanny pack if you study hard enough.

Learn to Speak Japanese for Travel

This picture was taken in the Tokyo subway system when I was last in Japan. It looked like an interesting ad but the only word I understood was “apartments”.

While not really useful for reading signs and apartment ads, I really enjoyed working out of my Japanese phrase book on that trip because Japanese is actually a very easy language to pronounce for English speakers. Japanese is made up of a few common syllables and their sounds can be easily described using the English alphabet. A guy I found on the Tofugu blog called Koichi came up with this great cheat sheet (click to download the .pdf from the blog):

Japanese Language Cheatsheet for Travelers

But just because it’s easy to pronounce, doesn’t mean that it’s easy to remember. As a Canadian I speak both French and English which made Italian fairly easy to learn [] because I could recognize the root or base of many words but even with my basic knowledge of Cantonese Chinese I don’t have that luxury with Japanese.

I think the only words I memorized last time were hello, good-bye, please, thank-you, and excuse me – more of my Canadian side showing I guess. Good old cramming will be needed to bulk up my vocab for the upcoming trip but luckily there are some great resources online:

And just as I did to learn Italian, I’m also using the videos offered by the Travel Linguist to study on my phone when I have 5 minutes to spare.  They offer up Level 1 -3 videos for Dining, Greetings, Directions, and Common Phrases on YouTube for free. Here are three of the Level 1 videos.





This post was shared with

  • Travel Tip Tuesday hosted by Walkingon Travel and Suitcases & Sippy Cups.
  • Travel Photo Thursday hosted by Budget Traveller’s Sandbox





17 thoughts on “How to: Learn Basic Japanese for Travel

  1. I think it is polite to learn a few words and phrases in the language of the country you are visiting – please, thank you, hellow. We learnt a few basic phrases when we went to France – I think it was pretty obvious we were English speaking!

  2. I’ve just come back from Colombia where I understand Spanish far more than what I can get out of my mouth. But I agree – knowing a few basics goes a long way and increases your comfort level in the country. Great post.

    • I also find that it’s a good ice breaker. People seem more willing to use their limited English when they’ve seen me use my limited Italian, Spanish, or whatever.

  3. I find Asian and Slavic languages harder to hold on to because unlike the Germanic languages, I don’t have a base.
    I learned more than a few words of Japanese — I worked at a Japanese bank for several years but I’ve forgotten all but a few. Lack of practice, I guess.
    I agree, though, that knowing a few words of the language always makes me not feel like a fish out of water. Will have to look into Travel Linguist.

  4. Always try to learn “please” and “thank you”. Not the best language student beyond that (shame on me!). I was actually pleasantly surprised the last time I was in Japan. Their English skills have improved immensely, and they love to practice. Enjoy Japan!

  5. Japan is probably one of the few places that I was VERY glad we knew some common phrases before we landed. We always try to learn as much as we can, but as many other travelers notice, the locals will take one look at us and speak english first. In Japan that was rarely the case. Even though the students are taught English in school, most people in Kyoto knew very little English. It was both surprising and refreshing. It has also renewed our interest in diving into the language even more since we now know we can’t relay on English to get us through every situation, even ordering at a restaurant atop a department store.

  6. Love that cheat sheet! We always try to learn some key phrases in the local language when we are traveling as well. Also Canadian and also speak English and French so I find that I can usually understand enough Spanish and Italian to get along without too much difficulty. The thought of having to learn Chinese or Japanese intimidates me though and both China and Japan are high on my younger daughter’s list of countries that she wants to visit so I’m going to have to figure it out at some point! Thank you for the helpful resources!

  7. You’re so right that it helps to learn a few phrases when traveling. The Spaniards and French were so much more receptive after we asked first if they spoke English in their language. They know you’re trying to make an effort so they appreciate it. The Japanese were so friendly and remembering some from my high school Japanese helped. Great cheat sheet! We’re going to Germany and the Czech Republic this summer and they have got to be two of the hardest languages to pronounce. Good luck in Japan!

  8. Thanks for the tip about the Travel Linguist. I’ll have to check that out. I’ve always assumed that Japanese would be difficult to learn, but I’d like to give it a try — especially if I knew there was a trip there in my future!

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