10 Phrases to Know For High School Abroad in Japan

Japanese Prayer Cards

So you’re heading on a high school program in Japan. Obviously, learning a few new Japanese phrases is a great way to prepare for your time in Japanese high school. While your newly purchased phrasebook or Japanese lessons back home may teach you the basics, there’s a lot of culturally significant phrases you may not learn in the classroom -- which is where we come in.

From asking strangers for directions to impressing your home stay families, here’s a list of ten phrases you should be sure to learn before your high school program in Japan!

Your Japanase Language Cheat Sheet

1. Sumimasen

If there’s one phrase you need to know before traveling to Japan, it’s “sumimasen.” This phrase directly translates into a combination of “excuse me” and “pardon me.

Using this phrase, sumimasen, will gain you a lot of respect in the eyes of the locals.

It can be used when asking a stranger for directions, calling a waiter, pushing through a crowded area, or apologizing for a minor inconvenience. Using this phrase will gain you a lot of respect in the eyes of the locals, especially when asking others for help.

2. Bai Gaeshi Da!
Students in Japan

If you want to get some laughs or make new friends, be sure to shout this phrase which means “double revenge.” Commonly used in Japanese television shows about bankers and businessmen trying to deceive one another, it can be interpreted as “I will take my revenge!”

So, if a Japanese friend teases or plays a joke on you, be sure to shout “Bai gaeshi da!” and you’ll have everyone doubled over in laughter, asking how you’re so up to date on Japanese pop culture. Winning!

3. Mottainai

A common Japanese expression, “Mottainai” means “don’t be wasteful.” Japan is a very resource-conscious nation, and places a high value on conservation, especially saving food. Be sure to only order what you can eat, or take leftovers home for later. Even beyond language, mottainai is a great principal of follow -- especially if you're studying abroad on a budget and want to save some food and money!

4. Hai

The literal translation of “hai” is “I’m satisfied." The phrase “hai” is used very frequently in Japanese, and is a great way to sound polite and appreciative. It’s also a really great phrase to know if you’re staying with a homestay family since it can be used in so many different ways.

Homestay families in Japan can be very kind and accommodating, so be sure to use the phrase “hai” to show your appreciation and make your family feel at ease!

For example, if your homestay family asks you if you’ve had enough to eat, you can say “hai” (meaning, “Yes, I’m satisfied”). If they ask if you’d like any more food, you can also respond with “hai” (which means, “No thanks, I’m satisfied). Homestay families in Japan can be very kind and accommodating, so be sure to use the phrase “hai” to show your appreciation and make your family feel at ease!

Harajuku
5. Mana-a-moudo

The Japanese pronunciation of the English phrase “Manner Mode,” “Mana-a-moudo” is a common way to say “mind your manners.” Most commonly heard on public transportation announcements, “manner mode” is a strict code of conduct you should abide by in Japan.

For example, in Japan it’s considered rude to talk on your phone or have your ringtone go off on public transportation, and even friends talk to one another in hushed whispers.

When you enter public transport be sure to speak quietly and put your phone on “manner mode” (silent), or risk getting dirty looks from fellow passengers. If you must answer your phone, follow the cue of other passengers and whisper a quick and discreet "I'll call you back later".

6. Itadakimasu

Before digging into your delicious Japanese meal, be sure to utter the phrase “itadakimasu” with a slight bow. While the literal translation is “I will have it,” “itadakimasu” is a way to show appreciation for the meal.

Think of it as thanking the chef for the food, but also showing appreciation to the farmers who provided the food in the first place. When natives forget to say “Itadakimasu,” it’s considered very rude. But as a foreigner, this simple phrase will bring a smile to the face of any chef or host.

7. Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu

This phrase can be used to thank someone in advance for his or her help. You can use this phrase with your language partners, school administration or anyone that will help and guide you through your time abroad.

Generally it is used as a conversation closer meaning, “Thanks in advance for your future help.” This phrase can also be used in professional emails as a way of saying, “I look forward to working with you.” For example you might write: "yoroshiku onegaishimasu" -- Sincerely, Amy.

8. Wakarimasen

While living and studying in Japan, there are bound to be times when you just don’t understand what is going on. That’s when “wakarimasen” comes in handy. Literally meaning “I don’t understand,” you can use this phrase to explain that you don’t understand what is being said in Japanese, or you need some sort of clarification.

A good phrase to know when arriving in Japan, hopefully by the end of your studies, you won't need it much anymore!

If you don’t speak any Japanese at all, you can use the phrase “nihongo wa wakarimasen” which means, “I don’t understand Japanese.” A good phrase to know when arriving in Japan, hopefully by the end of your studies, you won’t need it much anymore!

9. Konnbanwa
Woman on bike in Tokyo

While “Konichiwa” is commonly translated as “Hello,” it literally means “How is your day going?” Also note that locals use “Konnbanwa” once the sun goes down, meaning, “How is your evening going?” While both are questions, they should be translated as “hello.” -- there's no need to tell your Japanese friends how your evening is actually going.

10. Bye Bye

While “Sayonara” is the official Japanese word for “goodbye,” most locals will use the English “bye-bye” when saying a quick goodbye to one another. “Sayonara” is normally reserved for long-term permanent or semi-permanent goodbyes.

If you’re saying goodbye to your friends at the end of the school day, say “bye-bye" instead. But when you go home at the end of the summer or school year, be sure to use “Sayonara!”

Suggested High School Programs in Japan

Arigatou!

These are just a few words and phrases that will help you prepare for high school in Japan. Japanese is a difficult language to master, and you may not always know the words to say. But you know what? That’s okay. So many new experiences await you in Japan, where you will be immersed in a historic and vibrant culture. While spending time in Japan as a high school student will definitely be challenging at times, it will also be extremely rewarding.

Living in a culture completely different from your own can be difficult and extremely intimidating, but trust me, you’ll have the time of your life!

Keep an open mind and do your best to embrace Japanese culture, and you’ll be surprised by how much your determination and effort is appreciated. Cultural understanding, like language learning, is always a work-in-progress. So put yourself out there, practice your language with the locals and you’ll learn more about Japan than you ever thought possible. Living in a culture completely different from your own can be difficult and extremely intimidating, but trust me, you’ll have the time of your life!

Photo Credits: Jessie Beck and Richelle Gamlam.
Photo of Richelle Gamlam

Traveler, blogger and serial expat, Richelle has been living and working in China for the last four years. From high school English teacher to college admissions consultant, Richelle has tried her hand at many different jobs in China. She spends all of her vacation days traveling Asia off the beaten path, and in her spare time, she loves to scuba dive, salsa dance and try weird foods no one else will eat. For more of Richelle's crazy misadventures, check out her blog Adventures Around Asia.