Taiken Japan

Autumn Leaves 2016

Words and Characters You Should Know When Going to Japan

Photo: Travis Juntara on Flickr

Words and Characters You Should Know When Going to Japan

Poppy Reid

Learning bits and pieces of a language before you go abroad is a whole adventure in itself. A warm "thank you" or "hello" when in a shop or restaurant can do the world of good, and the locals will appreciate it. Many countries in Asia have different writing systems as well as spoken languages; Japanese has three alphabets, all of which are used daily in written Japanese.


Photo: Kirt Cathey on Flickr

Even if you're only going to visit, it's important to learn a few phrases when going to Japan. Even in Tokyo, the capital city, people rarely can (or are willing) to speak English. This article examines some survival written Japanese that you might need on your journey, as well as a few common phrases.

1. Woman and Man

Otoko (Man)

Photo: Wintkk
During your stay in Japan, you'll most likely use a public bathroom at some point. In most cases, the generic cartoon silhouette of the appropriate gender will be plastered on the door, or even "Women" and "Men" in English. However, there might be a time when it'll just be the Japanese Kanji character on the door - and you don't want to wander into the wrong loo. This is far more likely to happen if you're visiting a particularly rural area, outside of the usual big cities and tourist areas such as Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka.

Onna (Woman)

Photo: Wintkk
'Man' is the first Kanji, and 'Woman' is below. Really, you only have to remember one of them to know which bathroom is for you. Worst case scenario, you'll have to spy on the toilet with your legs crossed to see someone going in or out to see which is which, but hopefully it won't come to that.

Otoko (man) = O (like in 'boy') to ('tomato') ko (coke)
Onna (woman) = On-nah

2. Entrance and Exit

Iriguchi (Entrance) and Deguchi (Exit)
Photo: Blog Sureimu
Two more useful words are 'Iriguchi' (Entrance) and 'Deguchi' (Exit). These are also useful to learn how to say, not just how to read. If you can't remember how to read it, you could always ask someone.

Iriguchi (Entrance) = ee-ree-goo-chee
Deguchi (Exit) = deh-goo-chee

The top Kanji is Entrance and the bottom is Exit. They're fairly simple, and shouldn't be too difficult to remember.

3. Alcohol and Cigarettes

If you smoke and/or drink, it's useful to know how to get some alcohol and cigarettes during your stay in Asia. *Please keep in mind that the legal drinking and smoking age in Japan is 20.


Photo: coniferconifer on Flickr

Osake (Alcohol)
Photo: Kanji Dictionary
The top Kanji is the character for 'Osake' (Alcohol). The word itself is easy to remember - take the famous Japanese beverage, sake (pronounced sah-khey) and add an 'o' at the beginning. The bottom word isn't Kanji, but Hiragana, the first Japanese alphabet. The pronunciation is 'tabako', and again easy to keep in mind.
Tabako (cigarettes)
Photo: halfrain on Flickr
There are countless places where you can buy booze and cigarettes. 7 Eleven, Family Mart, Circle K and other chain convenience stores have alcopops, beer and whisky available (and some are open 24/7). Most supermarkets also have an alcohol section, and there are even vending machines that offer different brands of cigarettes and beer.

4. Stop

In case you're planning to rent a car, the Japanese word for 'Stop' is useful. Even signs have the Kanji written on them rather than in English.

'Tomare' - a typical 'Stop' sign in Japan

Photo: Danny Choo on Flickr

When speaking Japanese, people usually understand the English 'Stop', but whilst on the road, you'll need to be able to read it. The word most commonly used on Stop signs and painted on the road (such as near zebra crossings) is 'Tomare'.

Tomare (Stop) = To-ma-reh

This is a word that mixes Kanji (the first character) with the first alphabet, Hiragana.

5. Food

When searching for food, it's nice to know what kind of restaurant you're going to. Particularly if you fancy trying authentic Japanese food, you'll need to know how to read common signs. Sometimes restaurants aren't as obvious as you'd think - some rely on the sign to get customers in, and you might miss them completely if you can't read the letters.

Ramen (Chinese noodles)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Ramen (Chinese noodles in broth) = Rah-men

Soba (buckwheat noodles)

Photo: Hive Mind on Flickr
Soba (buckwheat noodles and dipping sauce) = Sor-bah

Soba has its own Kanji, but is often written in Hiragana outside restaurants.


Photo: Danny Choo on Flickr

Sushi = soo-shee

So there you have it - several useful Kanji characters and words to know during your travels in the Land of the Rising Sun. If you're not confident that you'll be able to remember them by heart, simply write them down in a pocket notebook and get it out when you need help. Don't forget the pronunciation, either, as they might come in useful.


Here are some useful phrases that you may need to pair with the above words, and to get around. This is not a hub about Japanese travel phrases, however, and so only the simplest and most common are included in this small list.

Sumimasen (soo-mee-mass-en) = Excuse me (when gaining someone's attention, and also to apologise)
Arigatou gozaimasu (a-ree-gah-to-oo go-zai-mass) = Thank you (just 'arigatou' will also do)
____ ha doko? (____ wa doh-koh) = Where is the ____? (Useful to pair with 'iriguchi' or 'deguchi')
Oishii (oh-ee-shee) = delicious (when you've found a restaurant, say this to compliment the food

Next, time you plan an itinerary to Japan, you surely will be prepared!