Speaking a foreign language as a traveler can be tough. Nerves kick in, you start to doubt your pronunciation, your mind goes blank... and suddenly English words tumble out instead of the foreign phrase you had been rehearsing in your head. I see this happen all the time with guests while touring Kyoto. And sometimes it happens to me as well! The natural tendency to revert to your native language without thinking is a hard habit to shake.
No one expects you to master Japanese or take more than a brief look at a phrase book before your trip. Exposing yourself to some common phrases and words is a great idea before traveling anywhere, but here's a secret that most travelers don't know: You only need to learn four simple words to vastly improve your Japan travel experience.
The English versions of all four of these words are almost universally understood by Japanese people, but saying these phrases in the local tongue will open doors and tear down cultural barriers in surprising ways. When travelers make an effort to take part in the local culture by showing an interest in and respect for the language of their hosts, it can make a HUGE difference in improving their travel experience. Mastering these simple Japanese words can bring all sorts of unexpected benefits. Don't be surprised if a restaurant owner brings you an extra plate of the house specialty, your hotel maids leave extra amenities for you, or local residents go out of their way to help you with locals-only sightseeing suggestions. I think this simple yet common sense travelhack is up there with gifts for flight attendants and the classic Vegas $20 trick (both of which - I can assure you - work really, REALLY well.)
Here's an interesting insight about Japanese people: I think they're incredibly nervous about talking to foreigners. Even after 6 years of English classes in school, most Japanese have a very hard time speaking English and it can be a source of embarrassment or hesitation for them. Trying to bridge the gap between a Japanese resident and foreign visitor by showing them that you can make the extra effort by speaking just a few words of their tongue not only brings about tangible benefits, but is simply a nice gesture from one person to another.
So here are the 4 Japanese words that you should be using when visiting Japan instead of their English equivalents.
Arigato ありがとう (Thanks)
Most people in the West know this word, but often ask about the nuance in using it. You'll head a lot of "arigato gozaimasu" being tossed around by shop staff and restaurant workers. The "gozaimasu" on the end makes the phrase more formal, upgrading it to "you have my thanks" or "thank you very much." As a visitor, I suggest that you stick to the more casual and simple version unless you're feeling particularly formal or in a fancy setting. Just throw out a friendly "arigato" with a smile as you leave a restaurant or take your purchase from a shop counter. Don't get caught up in worrying if you need to make it too formal. Just make your thankfulness known to those around you and they'll be happy! (After all, this is common sense manners, right?)
Even after the most laborious conversation with a local using Japanese, English, and a mix of the two through the Google translate app, dropping a heartfelt "arigato" will bring a big smile to the other person's face and end the encounter on a positive note. Even if you ask a local for directions and they can't find the words to help you out, be sure to offer an "arigato" to let them know you appreciate their effort. And as great as customer service is here, don't be shocked to find a sudden improvement in food prep speed or a few freebies if you give a few "arigatos" here and there to the staff during a meal. Every little bit counts when it comes to politeness here!
Be aware that "arigato" works as a perfect substitute for "goodbye" as well! A lot of us have heard the word "sayonara" in the west, but it's a very formal way to say bye, almost like "farewell." Just use "arigato" when checking out of your hotel or leaving a shop and your meaning will come across just fine.
Sumimasen すみません (Excuse me/Sorry)
This is great all purpose polite word that can be used in a number of situations. You'll most likely hear this the most in restaurants when calling waiters over to your table. Unlike in the West, staff won't come to your table to take your order or check up on you during the meal. (after all, they're not working on tips here). You'll hear locals calling the staff over with a hearty "sumimasen!" shouted out over the heads of the other patrons. At first, they may seem rude or pushy, but it's perfectly normal here. So speak up and raise your voice! Especially enjoyable in a rowdy place like an izakaya pub or any other establishment where the sake and beer is flowing.
"Sumimasen" is also really useful when navigating the crowded streets and trains of Japan since you can use it as a generic apology word. If you bump into a local while jostling down the subway stairs or step on someone's foot on the train, offer a quick "sumimasen" to patch things up. I really enjoy using this word in this sort of situation, because the Japanese person will often do a double take when they see that it was a foreigner who apologized in Japanese! Very funny to see some of the reactions you get in these cases! A serious case of "sumimasen' might be accompanied by a bow, but don't worry about bowing (that's a whole other topic that we're not gonna get into here). Keep it simple.
Dozo どうぞ (Go ahead)
Oh, this is a really great one that can lead to to some fun interactions with locals. "Dozo" is what you say when offering a seat or holding a door. It's considered good manners here to give up your seat on the train for the elderly or people holding babies, and this word works perfectly for that. A polite "dozo" and outstretched palm towards a vacant seat on the train will bring a huge smile to a little old Japanese lady (who has perhaps never interacted with a foreigner). Holding a door open for someone - a politeness that is not often practiced here unfortunately - conjures up similar reactions that will leave you smiling as well. If you and a suited businessman both reach a doorway at the same time, don't be surprised if you engage in a friendly dozo war and have to trade a few "dozo" "dozo" "dozo"s back and forth before one of you entering first. These small interactions will make you feel a little closer to the locals and can lead to some fun situations.
Level up your Japanese by combining the three words so far to create polite combos that will make you sound like a pro. If you return early to your ryokan room and find the staff is laying out your futon bed or preparing the table for dinner, you can say "Sumimasen, arigato" instead of "sorry to interrupt, thanks for your work!" Bump into someone while squeezing through a station turnstile? "Sumimasen, dozo" and an outstretched arm works wonders and will bring a relieved smile to your Japanese counterpart.
Ohayo おはよう ('morning!)
"Ohayo" (pronounced just like the state Ohio) is the more friendly version of "ohayo gozaimasu," meaning "good morning." The simple "ohayo" is reserved for friends and family, but as foreigners speaking Japanese, we can get away with keeping things casual. Lucky us! When your hotel staff offers you a hearty "ohayo gozaimasu," respond with just "ohayo!" You've instantly brought the level of formality between you down a notch, cleared the air, and showed that you are a friendly, fun loving person (after all, you ARE, right?). Don't even try to penetrate the levels of formality in Japanese language and just strive to make those around comfortable as well.
This is a perfect word to use when greeting the ryokan staff when they start bringing in your breakfast, or to say to a shopkeeper as you enter their store. Who knows what sort of benefits this friendly greeting will lead to?
"Ohayo" is used until about 11:00 or noonish, and then the standard midday greeting is "konnichi wa." One it starts to get dark, you can shift over to "konban wa" when saying hi to people. Definitely try to use these timely phrases as well, but I think starting the morning off right with a friendly greeting sets the proper tone for the whole day ahead.
Four simple words. That's not that tough is it? Get comfortable dropping these phrases into your interactions with the locals, and doors will open, people will smile, and your time in Japan will be that much more enjoyable.
Want to learn more helpful Japanese during your time in Japan? Ask your guide for some helpful phrases while out on one of our tours in Kyoto. Arigato!