Basic Japanese: What You Need to Know!

Published September 17th, 2021

When learning a new language, starting out can be the hardest part. The Japanese language is no exception. It can be quite difficult to take that first step. But don’t worry, basic Japanese isn’t that hard to conquer! There is so much information on the net, it can be overwhelming. We’re here to break it down for you. There are only 3 parts that you need to know about basic Japanese: learning basic phrases, learning the Japanese alphabet, and learning basic Japanese grammar!

Keep on reading for a comprehensive guide on how to jump into learning basic Japanese!

Learn Basic Phrases

The first step you have to do is to learn the basic phrases. Even those who aren’t learning Japanese know the basic “konnichiwa” (こんにちは) and “sayonara” (さようなら). But there are tons of other basic phrases that are used on a daily basis.

To get you started, we’ve listed out a few of the ones that are daily usages in Japan.

Onegaishimasu (お願いします)

This Japanese phrase is one of the most useful one. In our podcast series, Season 1 Episode 1, we introduced this phrase as one of the most essential Japanese phrases to know. It’s so flexible and can be used in any situation.

“Onegaishimasu” can be translated to “please” and it’s used when making a request. For example, if you’re at a konbini (コンビニ) and the cashier asks if you would like a plastic bag, you can respond with “hai, onegaishimasu” (はい、お願いします). This means “yes, please”.

Arigatou gozaimasu (ありがとうございます)

This next phrase is one you definitely will use every day. “Arigatou gozaimasu” (ありがとうございます) translates to “thank you very much”. Just like in English, it’s such a common phrase to say to service staff when you’re out and about shopping, ordering food or paying for something.

You can also shorten this phrase to just “arigatou” (ありがとう), which is equivalent to the English short form, “thanks”.

There’s also another word that can be translated to “thanks”, and that’s “doumo” (どうも).

Sumimasen (すみません)

You might find yourself caught on a busy train and want to get out, or trying to get the attention of the waiter. In English, we would use the phrase “excuse me”. That’s “sumimasen” (すみません) in Japanese. You can use this just as you would in English. This is a pretty handy phrase to know, since you’ll definitely be using it during your time in Japan.

“Sumimasen” can also be used to apologise, but a better word for “sorry” is “gomennasai” (ごめんなさい).

Sou desu (そうです)

Up your Japanese language game by learning “sou desu” (そうです). This means “yes” or “that’s right”. While you can use “hai” (はい), this is a more conversational and colloquial language. While talking to people who you’re familiar with, you can drop the “desu” (です) and just say “sou” (そう).

Chigaimasu (違います)

We might find ourselves in a situation where something’s different from what you expected. You might have a waiter serving you a different dish from what you ordered. In this kind of situation, you can use the phrase “chigaimasu” (違います), which means “it’s different”. This comes from the verb word “chigau” (違う), which means “to vary” or “to differ”. You can also use this phrase to talk about things that are different, like varying opinions.

Another phrase that’s similar to this is “machigatteimasu” (間違っています). This means “this is wrong”.

Daijoubu (大丈夫)

Another phrase that we introduced in the first episode of our podcast series is “daijoubu” (大丈夫). This phrase is quite versatile and can be used in a lot of various situations. One is to say no by saying “it’s okay”. If you don’t want a plastic bag when you’re at the supermarket, you can use “daijoubu”.

This phrase can also mean “I’m okay”, as a response of “are you okay?” If you want to know more in detail about this extremely versatile phrase, check our podcast episode!

~ wa doko desu ka? (〜はどこですか?)

This phrase is one we find the most useful. Especially if you’re not good with directions or not familiar with the place, you might find yourself lost. Or if you’re just looking for the toilet in a restaurant. Approach a staff member and ask “where is the toilet” by saying “toire wa doko desu ka” (トイレはどこですか?). The phrase “wa doko desu ka” translates to “where is”. Just add the place you’re looking for before the phrase!

Learn Japanese Alphabet

One of the first few steps you need to take to master basic Japanese is to learn the Japanese alphabet. While there’s romaji (ロマジ), which is writing out Japanese words in the Roman alphabet, it won’t benefit you in the long run. We highly recommend learning all three: hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ) and kanji (漢字).

Hiragana has 46 syllabic written characters and they’re used to form sentences, along with kanji characters. Katakana also has 46 syllabic written characters but they are used to write out words from other languages. Kanji are Chinese characters that symbolise the meaning of things in just one character.

Many might struggle with kanji, but it’s best to at least recognise common characters like “入口” to mean entrance and “出口” to mean exit. Another important pair is “女” for women and “男” for men. This will get rid of any confusion with the toilet doors!

Learn Basic Japanese Grammar

Last but not least, learn the basic Japanese grammar. Think about the reason why you’re learning Japanese. Do you want to be able to survive day-to-day interactions, communicate with locals or for work? But regardless of the reason, you have to start somewhere.

The most basic Japanese grammar point is the sentence structure, which is usually subject-object-verb. For example, to say “I eat ramen”, it has to switch to “I ramen eat”. In Japanese, that’s “watashi ha ramen wo tabemasu” (私はラーメンを食べます).

The particle ha (は) indicates subject and the particle wo (を) indicates object.

If there’s no action in your sentence, drop the verb. For example, to say “this is a book”, it’s said as “kore ha hon desu” (これは本です).

Simple, right?

Let’s Master Basic Japanese!

As you can see, basic Japanese isn’t so hard once you actually get into learning it! If you follow our three steps to starting basic Japanese, you’ll have a solid foundation to build the more advanced Japanese learning on. Get studying, and good luck!