Say it like a local: Japanese language guidelines

Photo by Akifumi Ishikawa: Visitors stroll near Sensouji Temple.
Photo by Akifumi Ishikawa: Visitors stroll near Sensouji Temple.

Say it like a local: Japanese language guidelines

Stripes Okinawa

Japanese is not an easy language to master, but getting familiar with it can make a world of difference when getting around off-base. Many locals you encounter will be familiar with some English (its basics are a required subject in schools), and will try to communicate even if they do not fully understand you. Returning the linguistic effort will win you a wealth of appreciation.

Tips to get you started

Kanji are adopted Chinese characters used in modern Japanese writing with hiragana and katakana. Sometimes Roman letters, or “romaji,” are also used. There are literally thousands of kanji used in Japanese (several tens of thousands in Chinese). Learning the much-simpler hiragana and katakana alphabets can be useful during your tour of Japan.

Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet like English whose symbols stand for sounds. It is the first alphabet learned by Japanese children, allowing them to write the language without having yet learned kanji. Hiragana is generally used with kanji for grammar.

Katakana is a phonetic alphabet using the same sounds as Hiragana. It’s used to write foreign words and in some official documents. Since there are many English words incorporated into modern Japanese (though most are pronounced differently), learning katakana allows you to understand most words written in this alphabet.

When Japanese is written using Roman letters, the rules for pronouncing vowels differ from English. “A” is always short, like “ah” (but never like “bat”); “E” is always short, as in “get”; “I” is always short, like the “ea” in “eat”; “O” is always long, like “old”; and “U” is always long, like “tube.”

Also, “AI” indicates the long “I” sound, while the consonant “R” is somewhere between an “R” sound (at the start) and an “L,” with the tip of the tongue hitting the roof of the mouth (near the end). Unlike English, most multi-syllable Japanese words are pronounced with equal emphasis on each syllable.

 

Some Useful Japanese Phrases

My name is~.
Watashi no namae wa ~ desu.
Wah-tah-shee noh nah-ma-eh wah ~ dehs.

What’s your name?
Anata no namae wa nandesuka?
Ana-tah noh na-ma-eh wah nan-de-sue-kah.

Nice to meet you.
Hajimemashite.
Ha-gee-meh-mash-ee-teh.

Thank you.
Arigato (informal)
Air-ee-gah-toe.

Thanks.
Domo (very casual)
Dough-moe.

Thank you very much for everything.
Domo arigato gozaimashita (formal)
Dough-moe air-ee-gah-toe go-zah-ee-mash-ee-tah.

You’re welcome.
Douitashimashite.
Dough-tash-ee-mash-ee-the.

What time is it now?
Ima nanji desuka?
Ee-mah nan-gee deh-sue-kah.

What is that?
Sorewa nan desuka?
Sore-eh-wah nan deh-sue-kah.

That’s ok.
Daijoubu desu.
Day-joe-boo dehs.

When?
Itsu?
Ee-tsoo.

What?
Nani?
Nan-ee.

Could you please take me there?
Soko made tsuretette itadakemasuka?
So-co mah-deh zoo-reh-teh-the ee-tah-dah-keh-mass-kah.

Please drop me here.
Koko de oroshite kudasai.
Cocoa deh oh-roe-she-teh coup-dah-sigh.

Please follow me.
Tsuite kite kudasai.
Suite-teh kee-teh coup-dah-sigh.

I didn’t know.
Shirimasendeshita.
She-ree-mass-end-esh-tah.

I don’t understand.
Wakarimasen.
Wack-ari-mass-en.

See you tomorrow.
Mata ashita.
Mat-ah-shoe-tah.

Have a nice day.
Yoi ichinichi wo.
Yo-itchy-knee-chi woe.

How much?
Ikura desuka?
Ee-coup-rah deh-sue-kah.

What day is today?
Kyou wa nanyoubi desuka?
Kee-yo-wah nan-yo-bee deh-sue-kah.

I’m hungry.
Onaka suita.
Oh-nah-kah suite-ah.

My ~ hurts.
~ ga itai.
~ gah eat-thai.

Help!
Tasukete!
Toss-sue-keh-teh!

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