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Do I Need To Know Japanese To Visit Japan?

learn japanese before trip to Japan

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For a lot of people, traveling around Japan without a care in the world is a lifelong dream. However, many people often wonder whether you need to know Japanese before you go, to make the most of your trip.

In simple terms, you absolutely don’t need to learn Japanese fully to go on your trip to Japan. However, if you can, you should learn a few survival phrases that will allow you to make the most of your holiday.

Let’s take a look at some of the most important phrases to learn, and figure out whether or not you can get by entirely with English during your trip.

A Few Helpful Phrases To Help You On Your Trip To Japan

If you can’t be bothered to read the whole article, here are a few important survival phrases for you to take on your trip to Japan. Granted, it’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but it should be more than enough for some people!

こんにちは – konnichiwa – Hello

これわいくらですか – kore wa ikura desu ka – How much is this?

すみません – sumimasen – Excuse me

わかりません – wakari masen – I don’t understand

ありがとうございます – arigatou gozaimasu – Thank you (formal)

___ 和どこですか – ___ wa doko desu ka – Where is ___ ?

Can You Get By With Just English In Japan?

If I’m being honest, the vast majority of people probably won’t want to learn Japanese before their trip, not even the survival phrases. It might not be the same path that I would take if I was visiting Japan for a holiday, but I do understand that everyone is different.

So, can you get by in Japan with just English? The answer depends on a few different things.

The first factor that’s going to be crucial in determining whether you’ll be ok just speaking English is where you are staying. If you’re following the popular route from Tokyo-Osaka-Hiroshima (or practically any other big city), you’ll likely be absolutely fine by just speaking English.

Of course, it really will help to know a few little words like the ones above, but technically you could just speak English on your holiday and be fine. I’m not saying I recommend it (because anyone can learn a couple of words!), but it’s certainly a viable option.

As long as you’re polite, realize you may not be understood (and that’s not their fault!), and correctly bow when saying thank you (not as hard as you think), you’ll be fine. If all else fails, people in Japan love politeness, so a little courtesy goes a long way.

Is It Worth Studying Japanese For Your Holiday?

We’ve already talked about a few of the phrases you could use on your trip to Japan to make the most of it, but do you need to study the language in depth?

Japan is widely considered to be an extremely difficult language to learn. Whether you consider yourself a polyglot or not, the idea of learning 3 separate alphabets and a whole host of confusing grammar rules will probably make you slightly apprehensive.

Japanese is a tough language to learn. In fact, I have over 20 books and I still don’t think I’ve touched the surface of what I’ve got to learn. With all that knowledge, how am I not fluent?!

…ok maybe I haven’t read every book on the shelf…

That’s not to say learning Japanese isn’t fun. Take it from someone who’s been learning on and off for a few years, it’s incredibly rewarding. But for a lot of people who simply want to enjoy their holiday in Japan, the benefit you’ll get from properly studying Japanese won’t be worth the amount of time you’ll have to dedicate.

For 99% of people, it doesn’t make sense to study Japanese purely for the purpose of going on holiday. You’ll have a much better time preparing for your trip properly and grabbing a survival phrase book.

The Benefits Of Learning Katakana For Your Holiday

If, after reading everything above you still want to study to make the absolute most out of your holiday to Japan, then let me give you a compromise. I still don’t think it’s worth it to fully dedicate hours of your time to study Japanese (unless you truly want to or are doing it anyway to fully learn the language) but there’s one part of the Japanese language that could be extremely helpful for you.

In case you don’t already know, Japanese has three different alphabet scripts: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.

Hiragana is often the first script you’ll learn. It’s easy, includes all the sounds in Japanese, and technically gives you the ability to read everything in Japanese. You could learn the 48 characters in a couple of hours if you studied hard.

In simple terms, Kanji is like the words where Hiragana is the letters. For instance, the water for kanji is , and in hiragana it is みず. Technically they both mean the same thing, but kanji is more frequent in day-to-day life. You’d need to learn just over 2,000 kanji to have a proper fluent conversation.

Finally, we have Katakana, the alphabet I would suggest learning before you go to Japan. Katakana has 46 individual characters and is frequently used in the Japanese language.

Why do I recommend learning this alphabet? Because it’s used for English loan words.

Take a look at the table below and see just a few of the English words that are frequently used in Katakana.

KatakanaRomajiEnglish
カメラkameraCamera
トンネルtonneruTunnel
ハンドルhandoruHandle
コックkokkuCook
クリスマスkurisumasuChristmas
ハンバーガーhanbāgāHamburger
アイスクリームaisukurīmuIce cream
ケーキkēkiCake
Katakana loan words

So, in theory, all you have to do is learn 46 individual characters and you’ll be able to recognize a hell of a lot of words during your trip. Obviously, this is far harder to do in practice even if you know the characters off by heart.

With an almost infinite amount of fonts, contexts, and sizes, it won’t be as simple as just reading it off your computer screen. So while you might not be anywhere near fluent, it’ll certainly give you a kick when you recognize a word!

Best Japanese Phrasebooks For Tourists

If you’re anything like me the thought of actually learning a language before you go on holiday seems like a big ordeal. Sure, you could just learn Katakana and feel a spark of joy every time you can read and translate a word, but how helpful is that actually going to be?

A quick and simple Japanese phrasebook might be the best option for you if, at the very least, you just want to seem like you’re trying the native language. Here are two of my favorite phrasebooks for your first time in Japan.

Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook & Dictionary

I’ve talked about this book before on the site, and my love for it hasn’t diminished. Packed full of useful phrases, a dictionary, and a handy pull-out card, the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook & Dictionary is worth its weight in gold.

What makes this book so incredible is that it’s specifically designed for travelers. That means you’ll only be presented with phrases specifically designed to help you navigate your way through your trip to Japan. Bypass all the ‘Filler’ in traditional Japanese phrasebooks and only learn what you need.

The Ultimate Japanese Phrasebook: 1800 Sentences for Everyday Use

For those that want something a little more in-depth, I would highly recommend ‘The Ultimate Japanese Phrasebook” which includes 1800 phrases to use. While it’s not entirely dedicated to just travel, for some people it will likely be worth it to approach learning Japanese phrases from a broader perspective.

Do I Need To Know Japanese To Visit Japan?

When it really comes down to it, you don’t need to know Japanese to visit Japan, but it’ll always help if you know just a little bit.

It’s like most countries, if you visit and know a few survival phrases (or at the very least know how to say please and thank you) you’re likely to get a lot more out of your time there.

Take a few moments to think about why you’re visiting Japan in the first place, and then decide on your best course of action. If you just want to see a few of the most popular sites, do some shopping, and visit the tourist attractions, you may not need to learn all that much.

If you’re thinking of wandering off the beaten track and visiting some of the smaller towns, learning a few survival phrases will be invaluable to your trip. Whichever path you chose, I’m here to help you make the most of your holiday. Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions!

Jonny Gleason

Photographer, Magazine owner, Matcha drinker. One of these is definitely the most important, just unsure which...

Instagram: @jonny.gleason

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