Are you ready to start speaking Japanese, right now?
Even if you just thought about learning Japanese today, you can start speaking from Day 1!
Whether you are learning Japanese to prepare for travel to Japan, or for a language exchange, it’s a good idea to learn Japanese essential words and phrases to get the ball rolling. I’ve got your back with this list to help you get started!
It can be a bit intimidating to know where to begin. Any time you learn a new language, especially one where the writing system is very different, it can become difficult to make the connections between grammar, memorized words, and creating sentences. Don’t get too stressed about it, though.
Even though I speak often now with Japanese language exchange partners, it wasn’t always that way. I found it hard to truly start speaking Japanese at first, too. But these basic Japanese words and phrases helped me start to get to know others in Japanese. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
Learning some stock phrases and words to fall back on to keep the conversation going or ask questions is the key to relaxing a bit when speaking. So, of course you should know your essential 挨拶 (aisatsu: “greetings”) and basic Japanese words. But here, I’ll also go over questions, cool Japanese words, and cute Japanese words and expressions to really go far in your speaking. You’ll sound めっちゃかっこい (meccha kakkoi: “very cool”).
Japanese Greetings for Everyday
おはようございます！ (Ohayou Gozaimasu: “Good Morning!”)
A formal way to greet someone in the morning, you’ll use this with co-workers, strangers, or superiors. With friends and family, you can shorten it by saying おはよう！(Ohayou: “‘Morning!”)
こんにちは (Konnichiwa: “Hello” or “Good Afternoon”)
This is a fairly formal greeting, and not usually how you greet friends and family. It’s used for strangers or formal situations. But it is the most standard greeting for hello.
あー、＿＿＿さん。(Ahh, _-san: “Ah, Mr./Mrs. _”)
Although it may sound strange to speakers in English, greeting someone with just “Ah!” like you’re surprised to see them is most common. You greet them with this exclamation and their name, followed by the appropriate suffix (“-san” is standard and good to use for most people). You follow it with a question, like asking about the weather. Speaking of which…
いい天気ですね！(Ii Tenki desu ne: “Good Weather, huh!”)
いい (ii) means “good” and 天気 (tenki) means weather. So you can change いい to whatever word fits the day, but this is the common greeting.
元気ですか (Genki desu ka: “How are you?”)
Although it’s instinct to always greet everyone with “How are you?” in English, it’s not the case in Japanese. Greeting your friends and family with this phrase every time you see them is a bit strange. And it’s awkward when said to strangers (often strangers barely nod and say nothing, anyway). This phrase is actually only used when it’s been quite some time since you’ve seen the person.
久しぶり！(Hisashiburi: “Long Time, No See!”)
If you haven’t seen someone for about 3 weeks or longer, then you’ll often be greeted with 久しぶり！ This is when it’s good to follow up with, 元気ですか？
こんばんは (Konbanwa: “Good Evening”)
This is said in the evening around dinner time. It’s a formal greeting.
おやすみなさい (Oyasumi Nasai: Goodnight)
When you say goodnight to someone you’re close to, you can shorten it by saying おやすみ (oyasumi: “‘night!”)
じゃまた (Ja Mata: “See You Later” or “Goodbye”)
Although you probably know さようなら (sayounara) is “goodbye,” it has a very strong sense of finality, almost like you may not see that person again. So it’s often better to say じゃまた. Other variations are じゃね (ja ne: “see you”), バイバイ (baibai: “bye-bye”), and お元気で (o-genki de: “take care”).
Other Aisatsu (Greetings) in Daily Life
ただいまー (Tadaima-: “I’m Home”)
When someone comes home, or you arrive home, you announce it with this phrase. Then, whoever is home replies…
おかえりなさい (Okaeri Nasai: “Welcome Home” or “Welcome Back”)
You can also use these two phrases to greet a coworker if they’ve returned back to work from somewhere else, like a business meeting or trip.
失礼します (Shitsurei Shimasu: “Please Excuse Me (for Leaving)”)
When you leave ahead of someone else, you say this as an apology for leaving before them. Especially at work, you always want to say this before leaving because you’re leaving them to finish the work for the day.
お疲れ様でした。(Otsukaresama Deshita: “You Must Be Tired” or “Thanks for Your Hard Work”)
You say this in reply to 失礼します (“please excuse me for leaving”) as a thank you for their hard work that day, but it can be used in many other situations. Any time anyone works hard, you can say this to acknowledge their hard work — like a child who did well and finished their homework. You can also use it as a greeting when someone returns from a hard task.
行ってきます (Ittekimasu: “I’m Going”)
Say this to family at home, friends, or co-workers to announce you’re heading out.
行ってらっしゃい (Itterasshai: “Go and Come Back”)
In reply to 行ってきます (“I’m going”), you say this — it's kind of like saying, “Be careful!” or “Okay, take care” and lets them know you’ll see them when they get back.
Basic Japanese Words and Phrases for All Situations
ありがとうございます (Arigatou Gozaimasu: “Thank You”)
There are several ways to say thank you, but this is the most polite way. With friends, you can say ありがとう (arigatou) or ども (domo).
ごめんなさい (Gomen Nasai: “I’m Sorry”)
You can also say it more casually as, ごめんね (gomen ne: “sorry”).
はい or うん (Hai or Un: “Yes”)
You use はい when speaking formally, and うん when speaking with friends.
いいえ or ううん (Iie or Uun: “No”)
Like with “yes,” いいえ is more formal, and ううん is casual. You don't actually hear いいえ that often though, because it's too direct in formal situations. Instead, you say “ちょっと…” (Chotto: “It's a bit… [inconvenient, not good for me]”).
名前は_ (“Namae wa _”: “My name is ___”)
Although you can specify it is your name by saying 私の名前は (watashi no namae wa: “My name is”), it’s more natural in Japanese to leave off 私 (watashi: I, me).
_ です。(* desu*: “I am ”)
A very basic, but versatile sentence! You can add anything to describe yourself before です which means “is, to be.” You could say 二十七歳です (Ni juu nana sai desu: “I am 27 years old”), アメリカ人です (Amerikajin desu: “I am American”), or 作家です (Sakka desu: “I am a writer”). You could also use it to describe other things, like いいほんです (Ii hon desu: “A good book”).
いいですよ。(Ii desu yo: “It’s Good.”)
You can omit or change the ending — よ (yo) at the end of a sentence makes it a stronger statement. You could also use ね (ne) to say “huh?” or “right?”
だめです。(Dame desu: “It’s Bad.”)
Like with “it’s good,” you can add よ (yo) to the end to make it stronger, or ね (ne) to ask for agreement.
もう一度お願いします。(Mou Ichido Onegai Shimasu: “Again, Please.”)
If you didn’t understand or missed part of what someone said, you can ask them to repeat it with this phrase.
ゆっくりお願いします (Yukkuri Onegai Shimasu: “More Slowly, Please”)
Japanese can seem very fast when you start learning — so this is a very useful phrase. Now, you can ask for the speaker to talk a bit slower.
わかりません (Wakarimasen: “I Don’t Understand”)
If you don’t understand, let the speaker know! You can then follow it with もう一度ゆっくりお願いします (mou ichido yukkuri onegai shimasu: “Please, [say it] again more slowly”).
良かった (Yokatta: “Great!” or “I’m Glad!”)
Use this as a reply when someone tells you something good happened, or as a sigh of relief when something works out in a good way.
どうぞ、お願いします、ください (Douzo, Onegai Shimasu, Kudasai: “Please”)
The word for “please” changes with intent. どうぞ (douzo) is the most straight forward. You use this word when you are offering something to someone else. Like, “お先にどうぞ” (osaki ni douzo: “Please, you first” or “Please, after you”).
お願いします (onegai shimasu) and ください (kudasai) are used almost interchangeably but have different formality. お願いします is used to ask a request of someone with higher status than you, or for a service (because those offering services are usually considered to have higher status). So if you make a request of your boss, or take a taxi ride, you would use お願いします.
ください is used when you ask a request of someone close to you, like a friend, or when what you ask for is expected, like when ordering at a restaurant. You also use ください whenever the verb it follows is in て-form, like ちょっと待ってください (chotto matte kudasai: “please wait”), no matter the formality.
すみません (Sumimasen: “Excuse Me”)
You can also use this expression as a more formal way to apologize than ごめんなさい (gomen nasai).
どういたしまして (Dou Itashimashite: “You’re Welcome”)
This phrase sometimes seems intimidating when you’re new. A lot of my former Japanese classmates always complained they would forget it. But my best friend shared a great way to remember it (and I have shared it with everyone else learning Japanese since): In a Super Mario- like voice, say “Don’ta toucha my mustache.” Close enough to “doh-ee-ta-shi-ma-shi-te” that you’ll never forget it again.
少し日本語を話します (Sukoshi Nihongo wo Hanashimasu: “I Speak a Little Japanese”)
Yes, you can start using this phrase right now. You speak a little — just from what you’ve learned here!
また会いましょう (Mata Aimashou: “Let’s Meet Again!”)
If you met a language exchange partner (or a new Japanese friend!) that you got along well with, then use this phrase to ask to meet again!
Japanese Questions to Boost Your Conversation
With any question word, you can use a raised inflection at the last syllable to express that it’s a question. But, more formally, you can add the Japanese equivalent of a question mark: ですか (desu ka).
誰 (Dare: “Who?”)
If you’re wondering who someone is, or their name, you can say あれは誰ですか。お名前は何ですか。(Are ha dare desu ka. Onamae ha nan desu ka.: “Who is that? What's his/her name?”).
何 (Nani or Nan: “What?”)
When using this word with a particle or on its own, it’s said “nani.” When you combine it with another word, it becomes “nan.” Like 何をしてる (Nani wo shiteru: “What did you do?”), which connects to the particle を (wo). 何時ですか (Nanji desu ka: “What time is it?”) connects it with the word for time, 時 (ji).
いつ (Itsu: “When?”)
Try asking your Japanese language exchange partners or friends questions like “お誕生日はいつですか” (Otanjoubi ha itsu desu ka: “When’s your birthday?”).
どこ (Doko: “Where?”)
Don’t know where your friend is? Send them a text and ask, どこにいますか (doko ni imasu ka: “Where are you?”).
どうして (Doushite: Why?)
You can also use, なぜ (naze). どうして is more common on its own, and なぜ is more common in a longer sentence that asks why someone is doing an action/verb.
どう (Dou: “How?”)
You can use this to ask how something is going, like 勉強はどうですか (Benkyou wa dou desu ka: “How are your studies?”).
どちら? (Dochira: “Which?”)
If you’re not sure which one someone is talking about, ask them “どちら?”
お名前は何ですか (Onamae wa Nan desu ka “What’s your name?”)
When you announce your own name, you only say “namae.” But when you ask someone else’s name, you use the honorific prefix “o-.”
いくらですか (Ikura desu ka: “How much Is It?”)
If you're out shopping and can’t find a price, ask the 店員さん (tenninsan: “shop clerk”) how much.
わかりますか (Wakarimasu ka: “Do you understand?”)
If you're not sure if someone understood what you said or what you meant, you can ask to make sure.
はどこですか (* wa Doko desu ka*: “Where is the ___?”)
A useful expression if you’re lost, unsure, or need to know where something is, like お手洗いはどこですか (Otearai wa doko desu ka: “Where is the bathroom?”).
これは何ですか (Kore wa Nan desu ka: “What’s this?”)
Any time you don’t know the word for something, you can point to it and ask what it is.
これは何意味ですか (Kore wa Nan Imi desu ka: “What does this mean?”)
Another great expression to keep learning… in Japanese. If you don’t know the meaning of a word or kanji, ask.
日本語で_は何ですか (*Nihongo de _ wa Nan desu ka*: “What is _ in Japanese?”)
If the person you’re speaking with knows a bit of English, you can use this phrase to keep you talking in Japanese – with a little help.
英語を話せますか (Eigo wo Hanasemasu ka: “Can you speak English?”)
You can also ask, 英語で言ってもいい (Eigo de itte mo ii: “Can I say it in English?”).
何って言ったの (Nani tte Itta no: “What did you say?”)
Make sure to raise your inflection at the end. の at the end of the sentence means something is left out (but it’s understood).
_ がありますか (_ga Arimasu ka: “Do you have __?”)
If you’re talking to a friend, you can shorten it by saying があるの? ( ga aru no?)
大丈夫ですか (Daijoubu desu ka: “Are you okay?”)
You can answer, “はい、大丈夫です” (Hai, daijoubu desu: “Yes, I’m fine”) or “いいえ、ちょっと悪いです” (Iie, chotto warui desu: “No, I’m feeling a bit bad/sick”).
どうしたんだ (Doushitanda: “What happened?”)
You may hear, “別に” (Betsu ni: “Nothing”), if it was no big deal or they don’t want to explain.
E-メール／電話番号を教えてもらえますか (E-meru/Denwa Bango wo Oshiete Moraemasu ka: “Could I Have Your Email Address/Phone Number?”)
Make sure to keep in touch with your new Japanese friends by asking for their email (E-メール, e-me-ru) or phone number (電話番号, denwa bango)!
_ を利用しますか (* wo Riyou Shimasu ka*: “Do you use _?”)
You can use this for many things, but you can ask if your Japanese friend uses a specific social media website to keep in touch. Japan has their own version of Facebook called Line that most Japanese people use instead. But you can ask フェイスブックを利用しますか (Fesubukku wo riyou shimasu ka: “Do you use Facebook”).
いつは会えますか (Itsu wa Aemasu ka: “When Can We Meet?”)
If you’re planning to meet regularly, ask when it's convenient for them to meet next with this phrase.
Bonus: Some Cute and Cool Japanese Words to Level Up Your Speech
かわいい (Kawaii: “Cute”)
You probably know this one, as it’s become a staple of otaku in America, but it’s very common in Japan too. Everything is “kawaii.”
かっこいい (Kakkoii: “Cool”)
Also, “handsome.” It’s mostly used to describe dreamy guys or cool objects.
すごい！(Sugoi: “Wow!” or “Amazing!”)
I promise you, if you reply すごい to most everything that has a positive tone and body language, you'll sound like a native. This is hands down the most overused word in Japanese, and it’s a reply to everything. In fact, you’ll probably hear “すごい!” in reply to your attempt to speak Japanese!
ヤバい (Yabai: “Uncool”)
The opposite of すごい, this means something is uncool or terrible.
ちょ、めっちゃ、とっても (Cho, Meccha, Tottemo: “Very,” “Super”)
Depending on the dialect, you’ll hear one of these three words to say something is “very __.” てっても (tottemo) is most standard, and the small つ means it has extra emphasis.
マジで (Maji de: “Seriously,” “Really”)
Like ちょ, マジ is used as an intensifier, but this one is more masculine.
うそ! (Uso!: “No way!”)
It actually means “a lie,” but it used as “no way!” in casual conversation when you hear something unbelievable.
Ready, Set, Speak!
Now, get out there and speak Japanese!