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.
‘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.
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?