Many first-time travellers to Japan worry about a perceived language barrier. However, the truth is that is not only completely possible to travel the length and breadth of Japan without knowing any Japanese whatsoever, but that millions of visitors each year actually do!
Most Japanese people speak or understand at least some English, since all secondary school students study it for at least six years, and many working adults take English conversation classes in their spare time. While being completely fluent and articulate in English is not widespread, most people you meet will probably recognise quite a lot of English words, as Japanese has incorporated a lot of English loanwords into its vocabulary over the years.
While communication is nearly always possible, for those times when a combination of basic English, gestures, and hand-drawn diagrams just don’t cut the mustard, knowing some basic Japanese phrases can be very useful. Aside from which, memorizing even just a few words of Japanese will be hugely appreciated by the Japanese people you meet on your trip, often leading to heart-warming encounters that will stay with you a lifetime.
Beginning in this newsletter, we’ll introduce some handy words and phrases to make your trip to Japan even easier - and even more memorable. We start with some handy phrases for the airport, as that is where almost all foreign travellers’ visits to Japan will begin - and end.
At the Airport: Checking in
First of all, it’s good to know where you are going - the airport, naturally. In Japanese, the word for “airport” is “kūkō
”. Don’t be frightened by the lines over the vowels here - they just indicate that the pronunciation of the vowels should be lengthened. (So in “kūkō”, pronounce the “ū” like the “oo” in a pigeon’s “coo” and the “ō” like the “o” in “chorus”.) An “international airport” is “kokusai kūkō
”, so Narita International Airport (NRT) is called Narita Kokusai Kūkō
, and Kansai International Airport (KIX) is Kansai Kokusai Kūkō
in Japanese, but it is also often abbreviated to Kankū
Other major airports you might use are Haneda Airport (HND) and Nagoya Airport (NGO). Haneda Airport’s official name is actually Tokyo International Airport (Tokyo Kokusai Kūkō), but it is commonly called Haneda Airport (Haneda Kūkō). Likewise, Nagoya Airport’s official name is actually rather a mouthful: Chūbu Centrair International Airport (Chūbu Kokusai Kūkō)! But it is often referred to by its nickname, Centrair (Sentorea), and people should also have no trouble understanding Nagoya Airport (Nagoya Kūkō).
Airports often split their terminals or gates for international and domestic flights, so being able to find the right part of the airport for your flight is sure to come in handy: “kokusai-sen
” are “international flights”, while “kokunai-sen
” refers to “domestic flights” (“sen
” means line, and is also used for train lines). To ask where something is in Japanese, put the noun for the place you are looking for in front of the phrase “wa doko dess-ka?” So for example, “Where are the international flights?” is “Kokusai-sen-wa doko dess-ka?”
After you’ve found the right part of the airport, the first thing you’ll probably want to do is check in, so you’ll need to look for your airline company’s counter. Handily, Japan’s two main national carriers’ names can also be abbreviated in Japanese, so you can do this using the same phrase as above: “Where is JAL(‘s check-in counter)?” is “JAL-wa doko dess-ka?” and “Where is ANA(’s check-in counter)?” is “ANA-wa doko dess-ka?”
One you’ve found your counter, to check in you’ll undoubtedly need to present at least your passport (“passpōto
”, sometimes also called “ryoken
”) and your air ticket (“kōkūken
”) or e-ticket (“e chiketto
”) to prove you’re who you say you are and confirm that you have a booking.
Next, you’ll need to check in your “luggage”, known as “nimotsu
” in Japanese. If you hear the words “jūryō ōbā
” (excess baggage) you’re in trouble - it means your luggage is too heavy! Buy yourself some time and much-needed bargaining power by offering to compromise: “Wakemasu” (“I’ll split it up.”) or “Herashimasu” (“I’ll reduce it.”). Don’t forget to keep your carry-on luggage to hand - in Japanese, it’s literally known as “te-nimotsu
” (“hand luggage” - “te
” means hand).
Many other airport and check-in related words are Japanized versions of English words, so you might find yourself picking up on vocabulary such as the following…
Then there are the three common travel classes on airplanes:
The final - and possibly most important - thing for those fussy flyers is to ensure that you’ve got the seat you desire (we’ll save bargaining for an upgrade for another time!), so make sure you memorize the three types of airplanes seats, including the much-maligned middle seat (we know there must be some of you out there who actually prefer it!):
Don’t despair if you look down at your boarding card and realize in horror that you’ve been assigned the dreaded middle seat - expressing your preference for a particular seat is well within your burgeoning Japanese language abilities! If you’re asked your seat preference, or if you want to want to switch to another seat, just put the type of seat you want in front of “-o onegai-shimass”. So, if you desperately want to catch one last glimpse of Mt. Fuji from the window on your way out of Japan: “Mado-gawa-no seki-o onegai-shimass.” (“I’d like a window seat, please.”)
The top two phrases to take away from today’s lesson are how to ask where somewhere, something or somebody is: “-wa doko dess-ka?” (“Where is …?”) and how to request something politely: “-o onegai-shimass” (“I’d like …, please.”). These two phrases should give you plenty of (air) mileage on your travels in Japan.
So there we are - by now you’ve navigated your way to the right part of the right airport, checked in your luggage, and bagged the seat you want. Stay tuned next time for useful Japanese words and expressions for how to get to your gate, navigate the queues at passport control, and breeze through your duty-free shopping with ease.
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