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A Character Worth a Thousand Words: Top 10 Useful Japanese Kanji

The Japanese language uses many characters for writing called kanji. There are more than 10,000, but only about 2,000 are used in daily life. Westerners may not be familiar with many of them so here are a few that you will serve you well when visiting Japan.

1. 本 - Hon : Book

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If you love books, want to find your own language book to study with, or the latest popular manga then look for stores with this kanji outside. When asking for books, you can say the title with –hon at the end and the staff will help you find it. For example: ryoko no hon (traveling book), ryori no hon (cookbook), or eigo no hon (English book).

2. 生 - Nama : Raw/Fresh

This kanji is important when eating out since many restaurants and izakayas serve raw meat dishes other than sushi. It can help you decide if you want your food raw or cooked. If the waiter asks you, “nama ga hoshii desu ka” that will mean, “Would you like it raw or cooked?” Besides meat, when shopping at a grocery store, you will also see this on cream cartridges, meaning it is fresh cream. Do not say cream only though. The word “cream” by itself means ice cream in Japanese, but nama-cream is the liquid one.

3. 英語 - Eigo : English

The kanji "ei" actually means pleasant and "go" is used to mean language. On taxis and on café signs, this display means they have English speaking personnel or menus available. You can use this to ask someone if they speak English, just ask, “Eigo?”

4. 酒 - Sake : Alcohol

Photo : Hiro - Kokoro☆Photo on Flickr

Japan is a country with many varieties of beer, rice wine (sake), and whiskey. If you wish to find a great drinking spot or taste some Japanese sake, you need only look for this kanji outside the restaurant or liquor store. It means the place serves alcohol or has alcoholic beverages of all kinds for sale.

5. 人 - Jin/Hito : Person

This kanji stands for people. When you see this in airports or outside government buildings, the place has to do with people. If you are looking for a specific government department this kanji will help. The word foreigner in Japanese is gaijin (外人) if you must announce who you are. If people ask you what country you are from, you can say your country and –jin (for example: america-jin).

6. 駅 - Eki : Station

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This is how you will get around Japan, by taking the train to any interesting location. In Japan, the most popular form of transportation is the train. To find the train station, you need only find this symbol carried by every station. Everywhere in Tokyo has a train station, you can ask for the name and ‘–eki’. Train stations are not the only places that use this kanji, bus stations (michi no eki) do too. See Japan’s bus stations for yourself and find interesting markets and restaurants.

7. 肉 - Niku : Meat

Photo : toyohara on Flickr

Niku” is often posted outside restaurants to let people know that they serve it. Japan has some of the best grilled meat restaurants in the world. They are always packed and are recommended by locals. The meat is served to you raw and you grill it yourself on the table. Names for meat in Japanese are pork, butaniku; beef, ushiniku; chicken, toriniku; and lamb, hitsujiniku.

8. 男 - Otoko : Man, 女 - Onna : Woman

It will be a good idea to know which is the correct man/woman sign in Japan but also keep on the lookout for places with women-only and men-only signs. Recently, to prevent sexual harassment, trains with women-only carts have been created so men will not be allowed on those during rush hours. Know these kanji and you will know which place you can enter.

Photo : Paul Downey on Flickr

9. 寿司 - Sushi

Photo : Veronica on Flickr

Your trip to Japan could not be complete without some authentic sushi. This kanji will help you find the right sushi restaurant. Some of the best local sushi restaurants in the country feature this kanji on the sign. When you are looking for great sushi, be sure to spot this for a delicious meal.

10. 薬 - Kusuri : Medicine

This is a kanji for pharmacies and drug stores. You may use this when you must find medicine or beauty products. Japanese drug stores have a wide variety of drugs but also food products and drinks so I highly recommend walking through one of these. Almost every city in Japan has one in really bold display, so it will not be too hard to find.

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