There’s a term floating around the English-speaking community in Japan, and that is survival Japanese. This specific term often pops up when one is asked if they can speak Japanese. Instead of replying “sukoshi” (少し), which translates to “a bit”, some might respond with “I know survival Japanese.”
It is neither a good nor a bad thing to know survival Japanese. It only becomes bad when you’re out of survival Japanese to get you by! Regardless, it’s best to know of its existence and what is and isn’t considered survival Japanese.
If you have zero clue about what it is, you’ve come to the right spot! Here’s everything you need to know about the term “survival Japanese.”
What is “Survival Japanese”?
This can encompass basic, everyday Japanese words and phrases an English native needs to get by the average day in Japan. Some might categorize the lowest level of beginner Japanese as survival Japanese because it can’t be effortlessly used in everyday conversations.
Survival Japanese isn’t definite. It generally refers to the necessary Japanese skill, often the lowest level, a foreigner should at least have.
Why is it Called “Survival Japanese”?
Rumor has it that the term came about by a tourist who gathered random words and broken sentences to get through their holiday smoothly. Any foreigner who has been to Japan would know that it isn’t an easy task to travel around when you don’t speak their native language. It’s not impossible, but it definitely would be so much more convenient when you know a word or two.
To survive in Japan and live a semi-smooth lifestyle, it’s best to have the basics of the Japanese language. That’s generally how the term “survival Japanese” came about.
Survival Japanese Phrases
Enough talk about what it is, let’s get on to using it!
As mentioned before, survival Japanese can consist of anything from words and phrases to a full sentence. Most of the time, they can be used in most general circumstances as it happens more often than other situations.
The Japanese language has pretty easy pronunciation, so don’t worry about mispronouncing the romanisation to it. There’s quite a high chance that you’re pronouncing it perfectly.
The survival Japanese phrases depend on the place it occurs. We categorized the different survival Japanese phrases into these common situations: greetings and goodbyes, exclamation, in a convenience store, in a restaurant and in a taxi.
Greetings & Goodbyes
The survival Japanese greetings can be said to anyone. It’s a pretty general section. If you’re a traveler in Japan, use some of these greetings to greet the hotel staff and receptionist on your way in or out. If you’re living in a dormitory or sharehouse, your roommates are bound to understand these greetings, too, regardless if they’re Japanese or not. After all, it is survival Japanese!
Ohayou gozaimasu! (おはようございます！)
Good afternoon! / Hello!
How are you?
Genki desu ka? (元気ですか？)
See you later!
Mata ne! (またね！)
In a konbini
A konbini (コンビニ) is what the Japanese calls the convenience store. There’s always a similar flow of system when it comes to ordering and paying at the convenience store. Most of the time, the staff will either gesture at what they’re referring to (like the microwave if it’s to heat up your purchase, or a plastic bag to ask if you would like one). With these survival Japanese phrases to use at the konbini, you’re bound to go in and out in a jiff!
This one, please.
Do you have ______?
_______ arimasuka? (＿＿＿ありますか？)
This last phrase can be used to ask if the place has a specific product. Insert any product into the black space. For example, if you’re looking for Coca Cola, ask the staff, “koka kora arimasuka?” (コカコーラありますか？)
In a restaurant
You’re going to need these few survival Japanese phrases. There’s no way you’re not going into a restaurant when you’re in Japan. Be it a fancy, English-speaking restaurant or a local ramen-ya (らめんや), it’s always best to know these essential phrases to survive the time you spend in the eatery!
____ o kudasai. (＿＿をください。)
For the above phrase, you can substitute any item you want. For example, if you want water, add mizu (水) into the blank. If you’d like to order something off the menu, just point at it and say “kore o kudasai” (これをください).
Where’s the toilet?
Toire wa doko desu ka? (トイレはどこですか？)
Tip: you can substitute out toire for any location to ask where it’s at.
In a taxi
After a long night or when you just can’t be bothered to take the public transport, a taxi is the way to go. Don’t be scared off if you don’t know a lot or any Japanese. There are a few survival Japanese words and phrases that will get you through your experience and to your destination safe and sound.
________ onegaishimasu. (＿＿＿お願いします。)
If you have watched a Japanese movie, anime or show, you would know that the Japanese love their exclamation. A basic remark can be applied to countless of situations. That’s the beauty of Japanese exclamations, and in that sense, it’s like English as well. Whether it is a thought that popped in your head when you see something as you walk down a street or a response to what your friend is saying, pick one from this survival Japanese exclamation phrase below!
This is probably the most common phrase you’ll hear on the streets. It can basically be applied in any and every situation and reaction to statements. For example, if your friend told you they bought an expensive piece of clothing, you can react to it by saying, “eeeeeh!”
Ii desu ne! (良いですね！)
You’ve worked hard.
Wait a moment.
This last one is one you have to know. It’s often used when you clink glasses in the air at a bar or club. And in the Japanese case, in an izakaya (居酒屋), which is a Japanese-style bar.
Can One Survive on Survival Japanese in Japan?
Another question remains: can one actually survive on survival Japanese living in Japan? The answer is yes and no. Of course, it’s possible to live off survival Japanese for most of the time you spend in Japan. These words and phrases are essential in navigating day to day activities. It only becomes a problem of insufficient Japanese when you need to take care of official business like going to the post office, the bank, ward office, immigration office and other official situations.
With that said, survival Japanese is best when you’re in Japan solely for travel and vacation as that eliminates any serious business.
If you think that survival Japanese is difficult, watch a few Japanese anime and shows. With the number of times these words and phrases come up, it’s bound to be drilled into your head by the end of the episode.
Survival Japanese is a great step to take to integrate into Japanese culture as a beginner. The Japanese appreciate all efforts, big and small, the foreigners put in to learn and speak their language.