20 Most Helpful Japanese Words

Published August 20th, 2021

Are you planning a trip to Japan soon and know zero Japanese? Or are you just getting started with the Japanese language? Either way, it’s important to get off on the right foot when dipping your toes into a new language. There are a handful of Japanese words that are more helpful than others. It’ll help those of you who are travelling to Japan survive day-to-day interactions, and ease into the language for those who are committed to studying Japanese.

Here we have a list of 20 of the most helpful Japanese words and phrases that you should have in memory before anything else.

1. Konnichiwa (こんにちは)

Nothing is more essential than a hello. Konnichiwa (こんにちは) is the Japanese equivalent. It’s used in both formal and informal situations. You can use this at any time of the day. It’s such a broad greeting that you can use it in a lot of situations. It’s also a way of saying “good afternoon”.

2. Konbanwa (こんばんは)

While konnichiwa is the general greeting, there’s one for just the evening. That’s konbanha (こんばんは). This translates to “good evening”. Similar to konnichiwa, you can use konbanwa informally and formally. Just like how we use “good evening” only after the sun sets, we use konbanwa when it’s nighttime.

3. Ohayou (おはよう)

So we have a general greeting which duals as an afternoon greeting, and an evening greeting. Now for the morning greeting: ohayou (おはよう). This greeting is slightly different from the first two where they can be used in both formal and informal situations. Ohayou is used mostly in informal situations. You have to add on “gozaimasu” (ございます) to make it formal: ohayou gozaimasu (おはようございます).

4. Arigatou Gozaimasu (ありがとうございます)

To show your gratitude, you thank them. In Japanese, you say “arigatou gozaimasu” (ありがとうございます). It has a similar ending as the formal morning greeting, making this version of “thank you” a formal one. Sometimes, this can be accompanied with a bow.

To make it informal, you can leave out the “gozaimasu”. “Arigatou” (ありがおう) can be used when you’re thanking someone casually.

5. Onegaishimasu (お願いします)

Whether it’s a cashier offering a plastic bag to pack your goods or you’re ordering a dish on the menu, you ought to respond with “please”. You can use this Japanese word: onegaishimasu (お願いします). This has a more polite and honorific tone to it. Whenever you’re making a request, add this word at the end of your sentence.

6. Yoroshiku (よろしく)

You can use yoroshiku (よろしく) like how you would use “please” as well. The word can loosely translate to “please take care of me” or “please treat me favourably”. You also use this to make a request as well as thank a person

It’s also usually used when you just met someone new. Like how you’d say “nice to meet you”, you’d say “yoroshiku”.

To make it more formal, add the previous word to make “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (よろしくお願いします).

7. Kudasai (ください)

Remember the two words we used to make requests, onegaishimasu and yoroshiku? There’s also a third one: kudasai (ください). In comparison to “onegaishimasu”, kudasai is a more familiar way to make requests. It’s more common to say “onegaishimasu” on its own while with “kudasai”, it’s more common to attach a verb or noun before it. I’ve heard it being said on its own as well, though.

8. Sumimasen (すみません)

You might find yourself in a situation where you need to apologise or excuse yourself. For example, you’re crammed into a train and need to go through the crowd to make your way out. To say “excuse me”, you use this Japanese word: sumimasen (すみません). It works in a similar way to get your waiter’s attention at the restaurant. Just like how you’d call out “excuse me”, you can call out “sumimasen”.

This word can also be used to apologise formally.

9. Gomennasai (ごめんなさい)

While “sumimasen” can be used to apologise, a more useful Japanese word to say sorry is “gomennnasai” (ごめんなさい). You use this word just like how you use “sorry”. You can cut the word short to “gomen” (ごめん) for the casual way of apologising to friends.

Credit: Parker Ulry on Unsplash

10. Itadakimasu (いただきます)

So far, the Japanese words were responses. This next one is more of an exclamation or remark. “Itadakimasu” (いただきます) can be translated to “thank you for the food”, but it’s used just like how you’d use “bon appetit”. You say it before you start eating your meal. At the end of it, you can say “gochisousama” (ごちそうさま) which can translate to “thank you for the food” or “the food was delicious”.

11. Omakase (おまかせ)

Omakase (おまかせ) is a very useful word when you don’t know what to order. When you request “omakase” at a restaurant, you’re leaving your dish up to the chef or the restaurant. You’re basically going to be surprised by the shop. This culture of “omakase” is regularly used in sushi restaurants and a big part of kaiseki (懐石), a type of Japanese traditional cuisine.

12. Osusume (おすすめ)

While omakase leaves it up to the chef, osusume (おすすめ) is just the recommendation. The chef or restaurant is not making the decision for you, but rather recommending you their best options. This can not only be used at restaurants but also in other places like retail shops.

13. Ii (いい)

This next word is pretty simple. “Ii” (いい) translates to “yes”. You can also say “hai” (はい), but “ii desu” (いいです) has a nicer tone to it. You can use this to agree with something, or also to brush something away. For example, if you want to say “it’s okay” or “it’s fine”, you can say “Ii desu yo” (いいですよ), “Daijoubu” also works in that case.

14. Iie (いいえ)

To say no, you can use the word “iie” (いいえ). This is a formal way of saying no or rejecting an offer. You can add the word “kekkou” (結構) to emphasise on the “no”. “Iie, kekkou desu” (いいえ、結構です) is like saying “no, thank you, I’ve had enough”.

15. Daijoubu (大丈夫)

“Daijoubu” (大丈夫) is a flexible and extremely helpful Japanese word. It can be used to say “it’s okay” or “never mind”. It can also be used to agree by saying “yes, that’s fine”. It’s a one-word answer for quite a lot of questions that can sometimes cause miscommunication (in a good way).

16. Iranai (いらない)

To reject a request, you can use “iie”. To reject an object, you can also use “iranai” (いらない). This helpful Japanese word translates to “I don’t need it”. If a cashier asks you if you need a plastic bag, you can respond with this word. The same goes for declining a copy of a receipt or straw.

17. Douzo (どうぞ)

When you’re giving way to someone or letting them know they can go ahead of you, use this helpful Japanese word: douzo (どうぞ). In that situation, it can be translated to “after you”. You can also use this word when you’re signalling someone that they can start something. Say you’re letting someone know they can start presenting during a meeting, you can say to them “hai, douzo” (はい、どうぞ), which translates to “please, go ahead and start”.

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18. ~ wa doko desu ka? (〜はどこですか?)

When travelling to a new country, you can quite easily get lost. I use this phrase on a daily basis to ask where the toilet is. It’s always best to know how to do that in Japanese. The phrase is “doko desu ka?” (どこですか?). All you have to do is add the location you’re asking about before the phrase. In my case, “where’s the toilet” is “toire ha doko desu ka?” (トイレはどこですか?).

19. ~ arimasuka? (〜ありますか?)

Whether you’re shopping or asking if there’s a toilet nearby (this seems to be an essential stop for everyone), you’re going to want to ask “do you have…?” or “is there…?” For both questions, you can use this Japanese word: “arimasuka?” (ありますか?) Similar to the previous phrase, you just add the item or location you want to ask about before the word. If you want to ask if there’s an S size, say it like this: “esu saizu ga arimasuka?” (エスサイズがありますか?)

20. ~ ikura desu ka? (〜いくらですか?)

Another useful phrase is asking about the price. Almost everything in the world is about money, so we can’t leave this helpful Japanese phrase out: ikura desu ka? (いくらですか?) You can use this phrase on its own and just gesturing to the item you’re asking about, or you can add the word before the phrase: “kono kaban ha ikura desu ka?” (このカバンはいくらですか?) translates to “how much is this bag?”

Be sure to memorise your numbers in Japanese first!

Memorise them all!

While there are dozens more helpful Japanese words to add on, these 20 are a good starting point to building your Japanese language skills. Whether you’re using it for travel or daily conversations, it’s best to cover the essentials. Start memorising them all now if you haven’t!