Japanese Phrases and Culturally Significant Terms

by Worldschooler /
Worldschooler's picture
Jul 22, 2009 / 2 comments

Here are some basic sentences for beginners learning the Japanese language, with explanations on grammar that show patterns to apply to other sentences. Plus there are some some helpful words that are used often and give a glimse into Japanese culture

The first thing I want to say is learning Japanese is quite doable! I know I started off assuming there must be a mystery to how to speak it since it was so foreign but learning basic Japanese is surprisingly easy.

Japanese Phrases and Culturally Significant Terms

We’ll start with some of the most basic and important sentences for a traveller: “My name is____.” and “Where’s the bathroom?”


My name is ____.: Watashi wa ____ desu.

Watashi = I
wa = (grammatical marker, basically showing “watashi” is the subject)
des(u) = is (the “u” is barely pronounced, it’s more like: “des”)


Where’s the bathroom?: O toire wa doko desu ka?

O = (this shows respect and honor for the noun that follows, in this case it’s meant to just make “toilet” sound nicer)
toire = toilet (pronounce it like “toy-ray” only the “R” is really a cross between English “R” and “L”)
wa = (grammatical marker, basically showing “toire” is the subject)
doko = where
desu = is
ka = (marker showing this sentence is a question, like a spoken question mark)

Notice that the verb usually goes at the end of the sentence in Japanese, literally: "My name ____ is." and "Toilet where is?" In English the basic form is, "Subject Verb Object" (SVO) but in Japanese the basic form is, "Subject Object Verb" (SOV).


Important and helpful words and terms (anything in parenthesis makes it sound politer but isn’t totally necessary):

arigatou (gozaimasu) – “Thank you” (again the “R” is a cross between our “R” and “L”)

(desu) ne? – “Isn’t it?” This is often added to the end of a sentence. It’s fun, every language has this sort of thing. In English we’d say: “Eh?”, “Right?”, “You know what I mean?” or “Huh?”

kudasai – “please” You can tack this on to the end of most requests, more often than we would in English.

onegaishimasu – “please” This word is stronger than “kudasai” and also a bit different: it literally means “I pray” and can be used by itself in order to really beg for something: “Onegaishimasu!”

-san – “Mr., Ms. Mrs., or Miss” This is added to the end of someone’s name. But it’s a sign of respect so don’t talk about yourself or someone in your family using “san” because it sounds conceited.

-sama – “Oh honorable, so and so…” Like “san” only more respectful. I once called myself “Eli sama” by accident and they didn’t say anything but it was embarrassing.

gaijin / (gaikokujin) – “foreigner” Non-Asian people will often hear this word while in Japan. They’ll sometimes even be referred to as “gaijin san”: “Mr. Foreigner”.

gambarimasu – often used in the imperative form, as “gamabatte” or “Gambatte kudasai!”, it literally means “be strong under the pressure”. One answers by saying “Gambarismasu!”, or “Gambaru!” to be less formal. It’s often translated as “Good luck!” or “Do your best!”, and is usually used in the same contexts. But “be strong under the pressure” may give a better definition of the spirit of the word and a part of the Japanese spirit as a whole.

omatase (shimashita) – “Sorry for making you wait.” A nice convenient word that is used more often than the equivalent English phrase.

otsukarasama (deshita) – “That was a job well done.” or “Good job.” This phrase is used much more often than in English and it has none of the patronizing edge to it: people of equal status often say it to each other at the end of a work day.

I originally wrote this up for the young adult homeschoolers going on the Worldschool Travels group trip to Japan this November. But I recommend anyone going to Japan, or any foreign country, to learn at least some basic words and phrases before going and then don't be too shy to use them! 

Learning some basics of the language and culture shows a lot of respect to the people and country you are visiting. It also enriches and adds a depth to the experience you just can't get by sticking to English all the time.


Eli Gerzon/Worldschooler is the Worldschool Editor for Wandering Educators. He leads Worldschool Travel: small group travel where the world is your school, and writes and speaks about travel and education. You can find him on the web at eligerzon.com.

Comments (2)

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    14 years 7 months ago

    Eli - you've got it. Once you know how, learning Japanese is really enjoyable! i will never forget STOPV, subject, time, object, place, verb. thanks for the great article.


    Jessie Voigts, PhD

    Publisher, wanderingeducators.com

  • Worldschooler

    14 years 7 months ago

    I've actually never heard of STOPV: that's great! Yeah, it's a fun language and like many things you just have to take some first steps and realize it's not as hard as it may seem.

    Eli Gerzon


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