Before I moved to Japan, I had already started learning Japanese for a few months. So when I got to Japan, I thought I would have enough Japanese language knowledge to have conversations and go through day-to-day interactions without any issue. Little did I know that theory wasn’t enough. I needed practice, but until then, I had to get around with what I call “survival Japanese”. 

As Japanese is the main language in Japan, most Japanese people are not fluent in speaking or understanding English. Whether you’re just traveling to Japan or moving there, you have to find your way around ordering food at restaurants where no waiter speaks English, or checking out an order at a supermarket with no English guidance.

In this article, I personally came up with 3 tips on how to master the “survival Japanese” so as to boost your Japanese language skills as well as have lesser interruptions to your travels.

1. The magical “sumimasen” 

The first one is the magical word “sumimasen” (すみません), which is one of the most useful Japanese phrases you ought to know. Sumimasen doesn’t really have a direct translation per se— it depends on how it’s used. Depending on the context, sumimasen can be anything from a sorry to a thank you, which is pretty bizarre — but the closest translation to help you understand its most common usages is “excuse me”.

One way to use it is to get someone’s attention — like passing through a crowd or calling the waiter over.

Another way of using it is when you want to apologise. You might think it’s gomennasai (ごめんなさい), which is correct, but some would say that sumimasen is the more formal version of gomennasai — others would disagree and say it’s the casual version.

Anyway, regardless of which usage, I think it’s crucial to know this word as it’ll definitely help you out during your Japan trip! If you want to know more about this phrase, check out our Nihongo Master Podcast, Season 1 Episode 1 where we elaborate more on this phrase and three other useful Japanese phrases.

2. Learn the basics

On top of that, if you haven’t already started learning, you might also want to consider learning the basics of Japanese. When going to any foreign country, it’s no guarantee that everyone can speak English. In Japan, the first language is Japanese. And while the people here learn English in school, not everyone can speak it. To make your trip go more smoothly and just for the sake of convenience, learn basic Japanese. Or what I would call, survival Japanese.

Pick up a cheap Japanese learning book and learn how to introduce yourself, how to order, how to ask questions, and how to ask for directions. It’s okay if you can’t put a sentence together quickly. Just the basics like migi (右) and hidari (左), to mean right and left, or de ii desu ka? Which is a question to ask if something is okay, can go a long way. Our Season 4 Episode 11 discusses how to ask questions, even simple ones, in Japanese. 

Or alternatively, you should subscribe to Nihongo Master right now. We have the best of the best materials to help you learn Japanese! Plus, we have a free one-week trial!

3. If using English, speak slow 

But hey, if you insist on using English, or you don’t have time to brush up on your basic Japanese, try your very best to speak slowly and use basic words. I recommend adding gestures while you speak. Visual cues and basic words are a good combination to get your message across when there’s a language barrier. 

Of course, it definitely helps if you know basic Japanese words as well. Like if you want to ask “is the toilet on the left?”, you can switch out some words to Japanese like “is the トイレ at 左??” Baby steps to mastering your Japanese, am I right?

Master Survival Japanese!

Learning a new language is tough, but what’s tougher is putting it into practice when you’re in the environment. Believe me, I personally went through that. And that’s okay. We’re all at our own pace, but in the meantime, while you’re getting there, you can use these three tips to get the ball rolling for you. Good luck!