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How To Pretend To Speak Fluent Japanese

5 key words (or sounds) that will have you speaking fluent Japanese in no time.

By 3 min read

Japan is actually surprisingly easy to get around with just the few basic phrases in your travel guide or textbook, and, like in any country, Japanese people will appreciate a bit of effort to meet them halfway rather than you shouting “WHERE IS THE STATION. YOU KNOW, TRAINS, CHOO, AGATHA CHRISTIE, LIKE JE SUIS ZE DETECTIVE POIROT?!”

But getting past the basics can be a challenge that many of us (ahem…me) struggle with.

Japanese is hard. And it can be pretty awkward communicating with only the vocabulary of a very well-trained cat. So, after 2 years of language exposure and not enough studying, here are my 5 top phrases to help you sound fluent in Japanese so you can at least pretend to understand what’s going on around you until that elusive day when you finally do (one day guys, one day…).

*Disclaimer: These phrases are powerful tools of fluency deception, so use at your own risk of ending up in a binding contract that may involve wearing strange underwear in public.

だいじょうぶ です (Daijoubu desu)

A classic pretender phrase known for its amazing versatility; ‘daijoubu’ can mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘it’s ok’, ‘is it ok?’ and more. The best thing about the ‘daijoubu’ is that its ambiguous meaning forces the listener to interpret what you said, shifting the responsibility for successful communication onto them. For example, if a store clerk asks ‘Would you like a bag?’ and you have no idea what they just said, answer with a ‘daijoubu desu’ and it’s now up to the clerk to decide for you whether you’d like one or not. Or, you stand there in awkward silence looking a little bit insane.

あの (Ano)

‘Ano’ is the equivalent of ‘um’ or ‘uh’ in English and is used in a similar way to fill in the gaps between sentences. You can use ‘Ano’ when you’re talking as a way to stall time until somebody’s phone rings, there’s an earthquake or you suddenly remember you have somewhere to be and can swiftly exit the conversation.

うん and えええええ (Un and Eeeeee)

One of my favorite things about attempted communication in Japanese is that there are so many ways to support the speaker by making sounds that suggest that what they’re saying is incredibly valuable and interesting. Anytime somebody is speaking to you in Japanese throw a few ‘Un’ noises in there, followed by the occasional ‘Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’ to show your appreciation of their communication efforts, as well as to seem like you really understand what they’re saying even if you have absolutely no idea. In this way, two people can have a conversation where neither knows what the other is talking about but both walk away feeling satisfied.

すみません (Sumimasen)

This one is very important. Most likely as a non-native you’ll be making several cultural blunders per day but (depending on the context…) each one can be resolved with a simple ‘Excuse me’ – in Japanese, ‘Sumimasen’. In fact, it’s a good idea to regularly hand out a few ‘Sumimasens’ so that you can always look respectful and not get arrested while making a horrible Japanese faux-pas.

ちがうよ! (Chigau yo!)

Save yourself at the last minute with ‘Chigau yo!’ to mean ‘That’s not true’, or as I like to think of it, ‘No, silly, I was just joking!’ Pretend fluency can often result in dangerous situations where you accidentally say yes to a question asking if you’re against children’s rights or something equally offensive, e.g.: 

Japanese person: ‘I’m so sad my pet beetle just died’
You (not understanding): “Un, daijoubu desu”,
Japanese person (who is now offended): ‘Wait, what?’
You (thinking quickly): ‘Chigau yo’.
Japanese person and you who are now extremely relieved: ‘Oh, hahahahaha! www!’

Do you have any phrases you use to sound fluent? Is my Japanese totally wrong and should I stop talking?
Comment below!

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  • Marcowlino says:

    If the other person is speaking in japanese, you have no ideia what the person is talking about but don’t want them to know it, just shake your head while saying “なるほどね” and you’ll look like a fluent speaker!

  • raeldor says:

    When I first went to Japan I thought the most useful phrase was… それとそれ、お願いします as I pointed to stuff that I wanted. Those それと could go on for a long time in the でパーチか though. 😉

  • Barnaby Jones says:

    I did find that “Eeeeeeeeeeee?” works best for women. When I use it people still look at me strangely…

  • Ain says:

    If you’re going to Japan, you HAVE TO know how to comment on food. When I learned how to say 美味しそう and いいにおい, life got better!

    • Barnaby Jones says:

      I still haven’t learned how to pronounce, and when to say “gochisosamadeshita”… 🙁

      • Robert Avery says:

        I have found the easiest way to say the word is to pronounce each syllabel , my English has gotten worse from using Japanese. go chi so sama deshita. But I still have a long way to go. I am getting better o kage sama de…

  • Ain says:

    What does “Hikuwa” mean? I’m just curious.

  • basspig says:

    pardon me, but this seems rather insulting to the Japanese person’s intelligence. If they cannot tell the difference then I think it is us who are the fools here.

    • Guest says:

      this happens all the time even between 2 people who speak the same language like if someone wasn’t paying attention to what the other person said then they would probably just nod along and pretend that they were listening

  • Anastasia Estefan says:

    I really like 悪いですが,…(わるい). For example 悪いですが、頼むがある。

  • Oscar Hernández says:

    heh, this made me remember the time I was buying some food at a konbini, kinda spacing out, and was asked if i wanted the dog with ketchup or mustard… Automatically I just replied “hai” to which the clerk just looked at me awkardly for a few seconds before putting both in my bag…

  • Terangeree says:

    This phrase has come in useful when my Japanese ability and my interlocutor’s English ability fall into the gulf of confusion:

    “ごめんなさい、私葉馬鹿街区故人です。” (“Gomen nasai, I am a foreign idiot.”).

    • Hirari says:

      Wrong kanji, do you really know Japanese? ^^; 「ごめなさい、私は馬鹿の外国人ですから。」

      • Robert Avery says:

        I find it is more difficult to write the kanji than speak it. If I cannot read the kanji I ask, hiragana de kaiete kudasai. The person above is critical over the Kanji which means little if the spoken word is correct. I find Japanese expect perfection but when speaking English do not care if they cannot even say the word correctly. It is not difficult to learn Ls and Rs and there is absolutely no reason to add an O or U’s to English words. So the Japanese who want to learn good English just need to learn where to put their tongue but most do not try. My name is Robert, not robato if they even get close by say Rabert I find no problem.

        • Hirari says:

          And also do not compare yourself to others. But if you’re comparing at least choose someone who’s succeeded in something.

        • Hirari says:

          All of the stuff you wrote is just a poor excuse for not learning a language properly. When you learn a language you learn to speak, to write and to read it. Anything less than that is a half-a**ed attitude.

      • Ain says:

        whew, now I can read that. Whereas the previous statement…?!?

        • Rhoid Rager says:

          me thinks he typed this and just merrily hit the space bar:
          ごめんなさい、わたしはばかがいくこじんです。(笑)

    • Jettoki says:

      I don’t know, whether it’s only my browser, or you really made a mistake with the kanji, but it should be “ごめんなさい、私は馬鹿な外国人です。”
      I don’t mean to be a smart-ass, but it might be helpful, if it really was a “spelling” mistake 🙂

      And as for my personal experiences and opinion: Even though you should be humble in Japan, but I would refrain from belittling yourself. Even though I guess you normally use that phrase humouristic, you should not put yourself on the level of people who go to japan and refuse to learn the language.

      Let’s keep up the learning everyone 😀

      • Thomas Dawe says:

        Who uses the kanji for baka????
        And I know it’s self-referential, but it also seems weird to use です after an insulting phrase.

  • Emerald Layugan Lausin says:

    ‘chigai masu’ more polite than ‘chigau yo’

  • Rebecca Quin says:

    Haha thanks Junko! I’ve noted these all down for future reference!

  • Tanja Schwindsackl says:

    In my (feeble) experience the word すみません “Sumimasen” is definitely the most useful. I’ve also been successful in murmuring something unintelligible and simply adding a clearly audible “masu” as an ending, that seems to work in many situations too. (o^^o) Other than that I can only advise everybody who travels to Japan to learn the following phrases:
    Please.
    Thank you.
    Excuse me./Sorry.
    Good morning./Good afternoon.
    Where can I find…?
    Which platfrom do I have to get to for this train?

    Anything else is optional. Well, it can be good to know the name of some local foods and if you’re able to read two basic noodle dishes “Ramen” and “Udon” in Japanese letters you will definitely never go hungry, no matter where you are. (In case you get lost easily, like myself. (^_^;) ) Japanese people are always so helpful communication mainly works very well.

    • Ain says:

      Another trick that’s not really a trick is to start your sentence and just trail off…
      For example, if you’re at the train station, 京都へ行きたいですが・・・ (I’m wanting to go to Kyoto, but…) It’s very effective when you need help or advice.

    • Rebecca Quin says:

      The amazing mumble followed by “masu” trick – genius! 🙂

  • Chris Smiles says:

    そうね. My friend used “sou ne” constantly even though he couldn’t speak much Japanese. As a result he ended up agreeing to things that he had no idea he’d agreed to. Dangerous, but everyone thought he was fluent.

  • Katriel (Kit) says:

    One of my favorites is ええ、ちょっと。。。”eh, chotto…’ which can be used in nearly all situations: from gaining attention (short for “chotto sumimasen ga…”) or “maybe” or “just a little” or any response/filler like that.

  • Laurice Ann Buagas says:

    I really want to learn the japanese. I know only the basic and alphabet like hiragana and katakana. But I know its not enough. Thanks for this blog. Glad I found this site too. It was really a big help to those who like to learn and know about japan.

    • Rebecca Quin says:

      Good luck learning Japanese Laurice! It’s a wonderful language and a great thing to be able to speak it – check the website for more information on resources. I use Genki I and II to self-study but there are many other useful textbooks out there too!

      • Justin Ray's says:

        Hi!:
        Japanese! Use Sixteen Ways To Say Things’.
        The Sound”Inu” can turn into “cynical” @kenjuudeki if you did say that (FYI) which uses (inu ) there are many more examples but I will end it there l^~^|

  • Layfon Lin says:

    daijoubu desu = i’m fine, i’m alright, it’s ok.. (you reply back to someone or that someone asking you)
    daijoubu desu ka? = are you alright?, are you okay? (you are asking someone)

    chigau yo, anta, atashi wa joudan da yo = No, silly, i was just joking (this is the correct way of replying back when you think you said something wrong or used the wrong set of words/sentences.)
    chigau yo = That’s not true (this one you are correct.)

    there is a difference, don’t confuse yourself.. your japanese is not totally wrong and you should continue what you are doing~~ XD (good to learn from others like me, i too am a non-native asian who self study rather than attending courses and i’m glad to share my thoughts on their language.

    • Lisa says:

      ya, but still you can just use intonation and rise your voice at the end of だいじょぶ and it will become a question. not the most polite but still correct.

    • Rebecca Quin says:

      Thank you Layfon. This is really helpful – hopefully I’ll get it right from now on!

    • Lizbeth Daluz says:

      I’ve attended the most basic course on Japanese and my teacher warned us on using ‘Anta’ ’cause it’ s somewhat the disrespectful version of ‘you’. We often hear it from action based Anime and films though. You could prefer to use ‘anata’ or ‘kimi’ to sound more polite.

      • Sik says:

        “Anta” is informal, if you ever use it outside an informal context (e.g. if you’re talking to a stranger) you’ll get in trouble. This is true for any sort of informal speech, which is acceptable only when talking to a close friend and such.

    • Remy says:

      chigau yo, anta, atashi wa joudan da yo <— that s not correct at all, its very weird japanese

      At first Chigau yo it doesnt mean im joking, or kidding it means No or its wrong
      If you want to say i was just joking you should say uso desu or joudan desu

      • Layfon says:

        dude, i think you did not read clearly.. i wrote there together with my translation..

        “chigau yo, anta, atashi wa joudan da yo = No, silly, i was just joking”

        nevertheless, this is the way i talked to my close japanese friends and they are fine as long as i watch out for my tone of voice when replying them..

        what you have learned is just in general theory.. go out and sit at a cafe or restaurant and listen to other people’s conversation.. try using a certain tone of voice to match whatever sentence you wanna reply.. tone of voice will make a huge difference in your sentences/words.. i believe tone of voice is very essential to your conversation..

        how we scold others and how we greet others is all part of ‘tone of voice’.. try it yourself.. ^__^

        • よしのみゆき says:

          Saying 「あたしは冗談だよ」, isn’t that like saying “I’m a joke, you know,” because 冗談 means ‘joke’, and.. For a sentence like this, I think it’s just best to not use any subject here, just 「冗談だよ」, no 「あたしは」. If you just say 「冗談だよ、」then it will be more like “It’s a joke” instead of “I’m a joke”

          And also, saying 「違うよ、あんた、」gives a kind of feeling like “You’re wrong, idiot,” even though あんた doesn’t literally mean ‘idiot’, but it kind of gives off that kind of vibe. Unless they’re like some of your CLOSEST friends, I don’t suggest you say that

          Yes Remy made a good point. 「うそ」 is also good to use, as an alternative to 「冗談」。「うそ」literally means ‘lie’ though, but it’s common to use this kind of terminology in Japan.

          • Ain says:

            I’ve often heard Japanese people say「うそ!」Yes, it literally means “lie,” but when you say that one word (in an incredulous tone) it’s like in English when we say, “No way! (You’re kidding!)”

      • Rebecca Quin says:

        Thanks Remy! Good to know.

        • Bobby Judo says:

          “Uso desu!” Is a good way to say I’m just kidding. “Chigau yo” is too strong and makes it seem like you’re accusing the listener of being wrong.

          Layfon’s suggestion of “Atashi ha joudan desu” sounds really weird to me, but I can imagine contexts in which people might say it.

          It’s all about context but I’d say Remy’s suggestions are much more natural than that though.

  • ローラ呉 says:

    For people who come here and want to sound fluent, I would also add
    そうそうそう!= It means you agree or like what the other person says …. hopefully you DO really agree and like LOL
    そうだね~! = Also shows agreement
    やっぱり… = It can have many meanings, this word, but in small talk it usually means “As I thought”
    そうなの?= Similar to English “really?”
    そうか = Similar to English “is that so?”
    そうかそうかそうか = Saying it fast and repeatedly can also mean ” yeah, that’s it!!”

    • Lisa Williamson says:

      Also anything ending in “no” (ex. そうなの?) is quite feminine and very informal.

    • Rebecca Quin says:

      Great stuff – I hear “sou..” a lot so (ha!) it’s good to know the nuances.

    • Remy says:

      Not really

      そうそうそう!= you say it when the other people understand what you mean, yeah thats it

      そうかそうかそうか = I see

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