Survival Guide to Japan: Don’t Say That!


Reading time: 3 minutes

Before you head to Japan, have you considered how you’re going to catch a train? Ask for directions? Barter with a sexbot? What will you do when faced with the language barrier? Don’t expect Japan to be ‘English friendly’, the level of spoken English is generally very low/nonexistent and typically most, if not all signs and information, will be in Japanese only. No ones ‘gna’ turn around for, “scuse’me mate“, so read here for some helpful tips and phrases that will be received with surprise, gratitude and depending on your pronunciation, mockery (I joke). Here on Clueless in Asia, we recently interviewed China-based Youtuber, ‘Laowhy86’, you can read the exclusive interview here; you can also find Clueless in Asia over on Instagram and on Youtube to see a different side to Asia. 

5 Simple Phrases to Impress.

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Let’s get you started with some simple and easy-to-say phrases to help you get by, but don’t think for a second that these won’t be enough; a typical Japanese dialogue between two passing individuals will most likely consist of some if not all of the below phrases. Consider using, 2. “Sumimasen” for initiating conversation or gaining the attention of a member of staff if you’re in need of help, just be sure to thank them afterwards with, 3. “Arigatō gozaimasuotherwise… you’ll look like a dick.


  1. Hello”  & “Goodbye” / “Kon’nichiwa” – “Sayōnara” – Pronunciation link.

  2. Excuse me” & “I’m sorry” / “Sumimasen” – Pronouciation link.

  3. Thank you” / “Arigatō gozaimasu” – Pronunciation link.

  4. Yes” & “No” / “Hai” – “iie” – Pronunciation link.

  5.  “Go ahead” / “Douzo” – Pronunciation link.

What Words Sound Like English?


Let’s be honest, most tourist give little to no thought to learning basic phrases when visiting another country, so below you’ll find a ‘lazy list’ of words that sound similar to those in English. The Japanese have invented many new words based off of English, yet, these words out of context probably wouldn’t mean much to native English speakers; these words are called ‘wasei eigo’, or ‘Japanese-made English words’. Consider falling back on these as a ‘mutual understanding’ to restore hope in the conversation if it all goes tits up. If you struggle with the Japanese pronunciation of the following ‘wasei eigo’, you’ll likely be better off saying these words in English as your native pronunciation will be easier to understand. Here are just a few examples of words you may need: 

apo / appo(intment)

appu / up(grade)

chiketto / ticket

depāto / depart(ment store)

eakon / air con(ditioning)

kōhī / koffie

konbini / conveni(ence store)

toire / toilet

  • Survival Guide to Japan: Don’t Do That! READ HERE

You Can Already Speak Japanese.

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That’s right, believe it or not, the English language also has ‘loanwords’ from Japan, meaning you probably know more Japanese words than you think; just don’t put on a ridiculous accent and change the way you pronounce these words, otherwise, no one will understand you and everyone will hate you.


Typhoon / 台風 /  means “table” or “pedestal,” and means “wind.”

Tsunami / 津波 / means  “harbour” or “port,” and means “wave.”

Manga / 漫画 / means “random” or “uncontrolled,” and is “picture.”

Emoji / 絵文字 / means “picture” and 文字 is “character” or “letter.”

Origami / 折り紙 / means “to fold,” and is “paper.”

Sushi / 寿司 / 寿 means “congratulations” or “longevity,” and is “official.”

Wasabi / 山葵 / means “mountain” and is “hollyhock.”

Teriyaki / 照り焼き / 照り means “shine” and 焼きmeans “grilled.”

Zen / / literally means “silent meditation.”

Futon / 布団 / means “linen” or “cloth” and is “group.”

Koi / /  means “carp”

Should I Just Speak In English?


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fu*k off, neckbeard

Yes and no, of course, it’s important to try your best and speak Japanese to Japanese people, after all, it would be arrogant to expect everyone to speak English, but, if a situation calls for a sense of urgency, you may be better off standing by the fact you can’t speak Japanese. What do I mean? The Japanese have a tendency to not slow down at all when speaking to a foreigner, even if you’re holding an app in their face that reads, “I can’t speak Japanese!” they will still continue to ask you questions and proceed as if you’re native; thus, using even the simplest of Japanese phrases may very well create the impression that you’re fluent, which in turn can make your situation so much harder. This inability to change up the way they approach foreigners may stem from the lack of diversity in culture, so they’re certainly not as well prepared to communicate with ‘aliens’ as us foreigner-loving-Brexiters who shout in broken and short sentences to nonnatives.

If in doubt, remain strong and reaffirm your ignorance with, “nihongo wakarimasen“, which means, “I don’t understand Japanese” – Pronunciation link. Eventually, the person you’re speaking to will either try using their English, or get another member of staff that also doesn’t speak English (yeah, I know, but that’s what they do). If all of this is a little too overwhelming, then don’t fret, consider downloading Google Translate from your app store as it offers real-time translations of signs and conversations, so when you ask, “can I take a selfie with you?” to the petrified young girl, you’ll understand perfectly clear when she says, “fu*k off, neckbeard“.

  • Survival Guide to Japan: Don’t Wear That!READ HERE

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