Presumably you’re here because you’re interested in studying Japanese, and there are many reasons to do so! Maybe you know someone Japanese, or would like to travel in Japan some day. Or perhaps you enjoy Japan’s influential pop culture, or are interested in learning a language for its own sake. All of these can be great motivations, and motivation is key when learning a language.
However, learning a language can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start, and on the surface Japanese may seem especially difficult.
Through these 50 vocabulary words, I hope to demonstrate that Japanese is actually much more accessible than it seems – as well as give you a sampling of some of its unique characteristics that make it fun and help you build a foundation to keep learning the language.
Ground rules: the Japanese writing system
If you’d like to focus on pronunciation, a column in the tables below is provided with phonetics that are intuitive to an English speaker. The other remaining columns refer to different types of Japanese writing.
First, let’s touch on the three Japanese writing systems: romaji, kana, and kanji.
“Kana” refers to hiragana and katakana. Hiragana and katakana are both phonetically based. Hiragana is the most basic Japanese writing system, and the one that’s first taught to Japanese children. Katakana is largely used for words that originally came from other languages, mostly Western languages.
Lastly, “kanji” refers to the Chinese-derived characters used in Japanese. Each character has a meaning, but the pronunciation changes depending on context.
I’d like to start this list of words by encouraging you with this knowledge: you can already easily understand more Japanese than you might think! The overwhelming majority of Japanese vocabulary written in katakana originally came from English.
This means that you can quickly learn to recognize a large number of Japanese words. Here are some examples:
While these words are quite similar to their English counterparts, I would also like to caution you that sometimes a word being English-derived can lead to misunderstandings.
If you only heard “sando”, “aisu”, and “poteto”, you’d probably think they were saying “sand”, “ice”, and “potato”. They are all still related to English, but have been modified in such a way that it is misleading to English speakers. Unfortunately this can cause problems.
Although many food labels in Japan are also translated into English, I have seen “sand” instead of “sandwich” many times. When talking with one Japanese person in English, they even said “I like to eat sand”!
English-derived words are a double-edged sword, so you must be careful. Nevertheless, I hope knowing that many words are based on English is an encouragement, and that seeing the unexpected differences from English can be amusing.
Excuse me and thank you
You may have encountered these words before, possibly in A Beginner-Friendly Japanese Phrasebook. Here we’ll focus on these two crucial words and give them more context.
When traveling in Japan, there is no word more important than “sumimase.” It’s not only crucial for when you need to get off a crowded train or apologize for accidentally committing a cultural faux pas, but it’s the best way to get someone’s attention when you need help.
Even if you know no other Japanese words, a “sumimasen” gives the other person enough time to assess the situation and mentally prepare to interact with a foreigner.
English classes are part of the core curriculum in Japan, and thus most Japanese people have at least some English skill. Still, most of them are not confident with their English, so at the very least proper forewarning will go a long way in being able to communicate. (Of course being able to speak Japanese is even better!)
You may have heard of arigatou (/ah ree gah toe/) or arigatou gozaimasu (/ah ree gah toe goh zye mahss/). Those are for when you want to thank someone for a big favor, and are casual and formal respectively.
While also good to know, it’s rare that you must use them. There’s also a risk because saying only “arigatou” to a stranger can come off as rude, but you may forget the second part or not have time to fully say “arigatou gozaimasu.” In that case, saying “doumo” is much more preferable.
If you have the chance, try saying “doumo” to service workers and people who do small favors for you, such as holding the door.
Yes and no
Knowing these words will naturally allow you to answer yes-or-no questions, but they also have other helpful functions. “Hai” can also mean “here you are” as you hand someone something. Saying “iie” two times in succession is like humbly saying “not at all.”
With these examples, you can see them in practice.
Example with “hai”:
At a cash register:
You, as you give the cashier your items: Hai. (Here you are.)
The cashier scans and bags your items and says the cost, which also appears at the register.
You, as you give them your method of payment: Hai.
They accept your method of payment, process it and give back your card or change, and give you your items.
You: Doumo. (Thank you.)
With just “hai” and “doumo” you’re able to have a successful interaction, which can be a big confidence booster!
Example with “iie”:
Japanese person, in English: Your Japanese is so good!
You: iie iie. (Not at all.)
Even after you have increased your Japanese skill, culturally it is still good to respond humbly with “iie iie”. You can also use “iie iie” in response to someone thanking you, as if to say, “no need to thank me”.
When you’re just starting out learning Japanese, it’s natural to have many questions.
Just as in English, sometimes a single-word question is enough. If you would like to be more clear, these words will help you.
You can use “kore” as you point to a word or object. This means even if you don’t actually know the word in Japanese, you’re still able to communicate. If you’re ordering food, pointing and saying “kore” will successfully get you your order.
We can use the pattern “kore/sore ha (question word)?” to create a variety of questions!
Notice that the order of the words is basically flipped from that of English.
You, while pointing at an object you don’t know: kore ha nani? (What’s this?)
You, while pointing to a location name written in Japanese: kore ha doko? (Where is this?)
You, when there is some problem or sudden change in plans: sore ha doushite? (Why is that?)
You, when suggesting a restaurant: kore ha dou? (How about this?)
You, when your companion gets a taste of their food): sore ha dou? (How is that?)
You’ll notice that “dou” is used in two different ways. “Dou” is a rather flexible word, and very useful for any time you want to ask someone’s opinion.
If you do know the Japanese word for the object in question, simply replace “kore” or “sore with the word. For example, if you want to suggest, “How about ice cream?” you’d say, “aisu ha dou?”
Countries (languages, people)
Since you’re presumably interested in Japan, are learning Japanese, and would use the language with Japanese people, those are our next words.
You’ll notice that in order to make the word for Japanese (language), you just add “go” to the end of the word for Japan. This “go” suffix means language. Adding “go” to the end of most countries’ names gives you the language for that country.
For example: furansu = France, furansugo = French, and supein = Spain, supeingo = Spanish.
In order to say a person from ___ country, you similarly only have to add the suffix “jin” to the country’s name. You may notice that the kanji for “jin” looks a bit like a stick figure person. That’s because the 人 kanji means person.
With this you can see how learning the name of a country can automatically add two more words to your vocabulary, simply by remembering the suffixes “go” for language and “jin” for person! Now you try it on your own. Here are the names of a few more countries that you’re likely to encounter their people and language in Japan:
Unfortunately the word “English” is a bit of an exception to the rule. Although it still uses the suffix “go”, the first part “ei” by itself is not the word for England (although it does represent England).
If you do go to Japan, you’re also likely to meet people from other “eigo-speaking” countries. Here are some of the most common:
You may notice that many of these countries’ names in Japanese resemble their English counterparts. Like some previous vocabulary words, they are also English-derived.
Japanese grammar: dropping the subject
In Japanese, if the subject of a sentence is obvious, it’s natural to drop it entirely. This results in people rarely saying “I am”. Therefore simply saying “___jin” is sufficient as a sentence. If you just say “amerikajin”, people will know you’re saying “I’m from America” (or if you’re talking about someone else, it’s clear that you mean “they’re from America”). Also when you ask someone a question, it’s assumed that you’re asking about them, so you don’t need to include “you”.
However, if you do want to make it clear you’re talking to someone, in Japanese culture you refer to them by name directly. Although it feels strange to use the third-person at first, it’s the correct thing to do in Japanese.
Person A: nani jin? (What country are you from?)
Person B: amerikajin. nani jin? (I’m from America. Where are you from?)
Person A: kankokujin. (I’m from Korea.)
As mentioned in the previous section, if the subject of a sentence is obvious, it’s natural to drop it entirely. This also applies when you’re talking about “it”. That means you can simply say the adjective, and people will understand you mean “it’s ___”. These are some of the easiest words for you to start using to comment on different things you encounter!
If you would like to be more specific, however, you can use “kore ha ___” or “sore ha ___” from earlier.
There are no separate words for “scary” and “scared” in Japanese, and you interpret the intent based on context. This does make it tricky for Japanese speakers learning English, however, because they are not used to making a distinction. If you talk to a Japanese person and they say, “I watched a horror movie, and I was so scary”, you’ll understand the reason for that mistake!
In Japanese there are separate words for when the weather is cold vs. when an object is cold. Be on the lookout for other distinctions they make that we don’t.
Talking about things you like is one of the easiest topics to have a conversation about. If you like any Japanese media or entertainers, it will be easier to connect to Japanese people!
While “anime” literally means “animation”, since most of the popular animated franchises in Japan originated there, they will also mostly think of anime series if you say “anime”. If you do want to be specific, however, you can say “nihon no anime” (Japanese animation). Also be careful of the pronunciation, which is slightly different than that in English!
In order to list your hobbies, use this grammar pattern: “shumi ha ___ toka ___ toka ___” etc., putting “toka” between each word.
For example: “shumi ha supo-tsu toka eiga” = “My hobbies are sports and (watching) movies.”
To ask and answer follow-up questions when talking about hobbies, or just to ask if someone likes something, these words will help you out:
“Ga” is a particle like “ha”, but here can be thought of as a set with “suki” or “kirai” when you need to connect them to a noun.
To use these words in sentences, use these patterns:
The only difference between “I like ___.” and “Do you like ___?” in casual Japanese is the intonation. In fact, any question without a clear question word follows this same pattern. For example:
This makes it grammatically easy to create question sentences. However, it also means that you must be very careful with your intonation! Make sure that you clearly sound like you’re making a question or a statement, whichever is your intention.
Person A: san no shumi ha? (What are your hobbies?)
Person B: shumi ha geemu toka ongaku toka ryokou. (My hobbies are things such as: games, music, and travel.)
Person A: donna geemu ga suki? (What kind of games do you like?)
Person B: pokemon ga suki. (I like Pokemon.)
Person A: donna ongaku ga suki? (What kind of music do you like?)
Person B: J-POP ga suki. (I like J-pop/Japanese pop music.)
Person A: Utada Hikaru ga suki? (Do you like Hikaru Utada?)
Person B: suki! (I do [like her]!)
If you’re unable to say the name or genre in Japanese, you can still continue the conversation by pulling up a picture!
Person A: sushi ga suki? (Do you like sushi?)
Person B: maa maa. (Somewhat./It’s so-so.)
Person A: ra-men ga suki? (Do you like ramen?)
Person B: suki!= I do (like it)!
Now you’re ready!
You don’t need to memorize a large amount of vocabulary to use Japanese. Single word sentences are rather common, and the same sentence patterns can be used in a variety of situations. With only these words, you’re already capable of having simple yet natural interactions. So get started on practicing these words – after all, practicing a language is the only way to improve. And have fun with your newfound Japanese ability!
If you’d like to work with a one-on-one tutor who can adjust to your pace and give you personalized feedback, find your perfect fit on Wyzant.