Basic Japanese Explained the Slang-y Way

I have a blog!

I have remembered my blog.

Why have I remembered? Because I have a gift for you, gentle reader.

★ THE GIFT OF JAPANESE ★

So my college roommate is here from the States for a few months and rather than throw a bunch of phrases at her all at once, I figured it’d be easier to post it all organized here.

Disclaimers: 1) I’m not fluent, not even close. I started learning Japanese in my junior year of college, and although I’m very much not in my junior year of college anymore, I’ve still got a long way to go. As I just explained to a friend of mine, you start Japanese thinking, “Holy shit.” And then you master the basics and think, “Oh, this isn’t so bad,” and then you hit intermediate level and go, “Holy shit,” again. 2) In no way is this an academic exploration of Japanese. But if you just want to learn some to get by, this’ll probably do the trick.

Note on Polite/Casual: If you’re using a language guide you’ll see a lot of masu and desu. If these are at the end of words, it makes those words more polite. It doesn’t change the meaning of what you’re saying, it just makes it sound well-mannered. So I can say a very polite, “Sono kumo wa watashi no tomodachi desu,” or a more casual, “Sono kumo wa tomodachi da,” and I’m still saying, “That cloud is my friend.” (Kumo can also be “spider,” though. Be clear when pointing.) Pronunciation wise, if you want to sound more natural you can skip the u and say it like “mass” and “dess.” Keep the “s” sound short and you’re golden.

★DAILY LIFE

Thank you – [a•ree•GA•to] ありがとう This’ll be the thing you use most probably. If you want to be super polite, you can tack on gozaimasu ございます for a thank you very much effect. There’s also [DO•mo] どうも from Mr. Roboto fame, if you just want a quick thanks vibe.

Excuse me – [SU•mee•ma•sen] すみません When you’re in Japan, this becomes the thing you use second most. Bumped that guy by accident? Sumimasen. Want the check? Sumimasen. Want the cashier’s attention? Sumimasen. Called someone’s baby scary-looking? Then you want:

I’m sorry – [GO•men] ごめん This is the next step up, and since this is Japan, if you find yourself in a situation needing to use I’m sorry then you’d best tack on [na•SAI] with it for the full gomen nasai ごめんなさい or I’m very sorry. Knocked that guy over? Gomen nasai. Accidentally burned the check you asked for? Gomen nasai. Punched the cashier? Gomen nasai. The difference between gomen and sumimasen can be vague sometimes depending on the situation (like if you almost knocked the guy over, but not quite), but Japan’s renowned for politeness, so if you use gomen when a simple sumimasen would have done fine, nice people will probably just think more kindly of you for going the extra mile. Mean people will think other things, but no one can do much to prevent that.

Hello – [o•HA•yo] おはよう [KON•ni•chi•wa] こんにちは [KON•ban•wa] こんばんわ Technically this is “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “good evening” respectively. Japanese doesn’t really have an all-purpose “hello” for all times of day unless you count “Usss” which is primarily used by ruffians and dudes who are lazy with their vowels and consonants. You will get weird looks if you use usss while being obviously foreign.

Nice to meet you – [HA•ji•may•ma•shi•te] 初めまして Check it out, we’re in kanji land now. 😀 Not much explanation required for this. “Hajimemashite, watashi no namae wa Namae,” or, “Nice to meet you, my name is Name.”

Please look after me/a lot of other sentiments – [YO•ro•shi•ku o•ne•GAI•shi•mass] 宜しくお願いします Truth be told, there’s no comfortable way to translate this one into English. There’s no easy equivalent for yoroshiku onegaishimasu. It’s a kind of catch-all phrase for a bunch of different situations. More of a catch-many, actually. When you’re meeting someone for the first time, you say it. When you’re asking someone for a favor, you can use it. It’s smooth way to end a telephone conversation you don’t know how to end otherwise. You get a good sense of when to use this the more time you spend in Japan participating in conversations. It’s a necessity in business Japanese but if you’re a tourist, the only time you’re likely to use this is after you meet someone for the first time. Going off the example above: “Nice to meet you, my name is Name. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” In that context you’re basically saying, “Please be awesome to me.”

I understand – [wa•KA•ree•mas] 分かります Say you are in a state of not understanding where you are (otherwise known as “lost”). You go up to a nice lady and say, “Sumimasen,” and point to an address on your iPhone. The nice lady peers at your phone, ascertains after a few questions you don’t understand that you don’t understand Japanese, and then either speaks English or makes with the helpful gestures. When you understand or would like her to stop because neither of you are benefiting from this interaction anymore, you can say wakarimasu and an arigatou gozaimasu for good measure and be on your merry way. Speaking of being lost:

I’m lost – [MY•go nee na•ta] 迷子になった Okay, so this is the cutesy way of saying it, but it’s also the fun way. Maigo means “lost kid” and natta is the verb for “to become” so you’re literally saying, “I have become a lost child,” but it’s understood as, “I’m lost.” Grown-ups use it, too, even though it’s cute. It’s Japan, after all. Cute is King. Speaking of cute (I’m enjoying this transition thing, can you tell?):

Cute – [KA•wa•ee] 可愛い Most people on Earth know what this means. Cute shit is probably Japan’s largest cultural export right now, so most people have probably heard the word kawaii before. It’s used a lot. A loooot. You’ll hear everyone use it from kids to the elderly. Embrace the Cute or it will eat you alive. And just to add insult to injury, it’ll do it in an adorable way.

Scary – [KO•wai] 怖い There’s a familiar joke/experience among Japanese-learners: you’re standing in front of a parent and baby and, hoping to show off your awesome Japanese abilities, you proclaim what you think is, “How cute!” Instead of the awe and accolades you were expecting for your kind words, your audience looks insulted and the parent kicks you in the face (this will probably never happen unless it’s an ill-tempered mafia leader). You realize you have made the common mistake of mixing up “cute” with “scary” because your pronunciation was off. Think of it this way to make it easy on yourself: cute/kawaii has three syllables (ka•wa•ee). Listen to Avril Lavigne’s video; she says the word about thirty-seven times and enunciates the word very clearly. Scary/kowai has two syllables (ko•wai). Don’t call people’s babies scary. Unless the parents dressed their kid up as a demon or something, in which case go nuts.

Skilled – [JO•zu] 上手 As a visitor you’ll hear this one most often in the context of language ability. For example: Nihongo jouzu! or, “Your Japanese is great!” One of the super positive things to Japan for me is that you get a lot of praise to bolster your confidence as you’re learning the language. Most Japanese people won’t laugh at you for making mistakes in their language. When they do laugh at you, you know you’ve become close friends. Or they’re jerks. That also happens.

Chopsticks – [o•HA•shi] お箸 The o is there to make it fancy. Most Japanese call chopsticks ohashi rather than hashi. Same with sushi. You’ll hear osushi a lot. So if you’re in a restaurant and they have shockingly forgotten to give you chopsticks (or, more likely, you can’t find them because they’re in a fancy box you didn’t notice) you can say “ohashi wa?” What’s the “wa” for? GLAD YOU ASKED. 😀 (It’s in the question section below.)

Train – [DEN•sha] 電車 Trains are a huuuge part of life in Japan. The three most common words you’ll hear are that one, plus subway [CHEE•ka•teh•tsu] 地下鉄 and the one most people know already: bullet train [SHEEN•kan•sen] 新幹線.

Alcohol – [SAH•keh] 酒 95% of the Western world mispronounces this as sah-kee.

Karaoke – [KAH•ra•oh•keh] カラオケ Same with this word. Avoid saying [ka•REE•oh•key] and you’ll get a constellation named after you (maybe).

Phone – [su•MA•foe] スマフォ This is short for スマートフォン, which is “smartphone” with a Japanese accent.*

* A big part of the reason many Japanese people don’t understand native English speakers is because schools in Japan teach their kids English using Japanese syllables, which gives them a severely warped idea of how English words sound. So instead of learning the word “smartphone” they learn the way to comfortably say that word using only Japanese sounds, which ends up sounding like “su-ma-to–fone.” Then they shorten that word into a shorter word, ending up with sumafo.

If you want to make communication easier with a Japanese person who doesn’t speak English, pay attention to the Japanese accent and try to pronounce English words with that accent. It sounds insulting, but the Japanese actually use a lot of English loan words in their language – they just don’t pronounce them the way we do. So laptop became pasokon (personal+computer), ticket became chiketto, and elevator became erebeyta. I’ve been in situations where I couldn’t think of the Japanese noun for what I wanted to say, so I pronounced it with a Japanese accent and they figured out quickly what I meant.

(Also, every single Japanese person who has ever sat through an English class in this country has heard this phrase: “This is a pen.” It’s the one phrase 99% of Japanese people know. It’s the first thing they’re taught, and it’s the only thing many end up remembering. Carry around a pen for this to have significance. Or hold up nothing, just for fun.)

★QUESTIONS★

First the important words you’ll use to make the questions:

Who – [DA•rey] 誰

What – [NA•ni] 何

When – [EE•tsu] いつ

* Time for a break to talk about tsu vs. su. We don’t have the “tsu” sound in English, so a lot of English speakers end up pronouncing Japanese words with “tsu” like “su.” In most cases Japanese people will understand you anyway, but better safe than sorry. Here’s a bare bones, no flourishes example.

Where – [DO•ko] どこ

Why – [DOSH•te] どうして [NAN•de] なんで [NA•ze] なぜ Without going much into detail about the nuances here, you’ll use doshite most often. When in doubt, doushite it out. (Also, the do in DOSH•te is do as in doe.)

How – [DOH] どう Think Homer Simpson catchphrase without yelling.

Which – [DO•rey] どれ [DO•chee] どっち

Where is the wild boar? [EE•nu•she•she wa DO•ko DE•su KA] イノシシはどこですか? If you’re ever visiting the more mountainous parts of Kobe, you too can ask this question! They have boars there. I have run from them. Anyway, if you want to ask where anything is in Japanese, you just take the word for boar away and fill in whatever it is you’re looking for. And if you don’t want to bother with politeness, all you have to do is say NOUN + wa. Seriously, it’s that easy. Café: café wa? Bathroom: [TOY•reh] wa? Spider/cloud: [KU•mo] wa?

How much is this? [KO•rey WA EE•koo•ra DE•su KA] これはいくらですか? Simple one. Point at thing, say this. The trick is understanding the answer, but most Japanese staff can handle English numbers.

What is that? [NA•nee KO•rey] Okay, I can sense Japanese speakers cringing every time I write “rey” so let me clarify: think of “rey” as a soft sound. it’s not Ray like the name, more like reh with a dash of y at the end.

What time is it? [NAN•jee DE•su KA] Or you can just go with nan ji and drop desu ka.

★DIRECTIONS

Straight – [MA•su•gu] 真っ直ぐ

Right – [MI•gi] 右

Left – [HEE•da•ri] 左

Behind – [OO•shee•row] 後ろ

In front of – [MY] 前 This one’s pronunciation is difficult to explain. It’s not exactly like “my,” it’s more like ma+ey smushed together.

Up – [OO•eh] 上

Down – [SHEE•ta] 下

★FUN TIMES

Beer [BEE•ru] ビール I could be underinformed about this, but I don’t think the Japanese had beer before their first real contact with foreigners. Aaand Wikipedia reassures me that’s right. You’ll see this over and over in Japan, that the Japanese use loan words for things they have no Japanese word for. So beer is just “beer” with an extra “u” tacked on because the Japanese alphabet is made up of syllables instead of letters. Ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, ra, ri, ru, re, ro, etc. That’s why you hear so many Japanese people adding on vowels to the ends of words when they’re speaking English – they’re not used to a full consonant stop (except their only consonant: ん which is like “n” but in the back of your throat).

Idiot [BA•ka] バカ Goes without saying after all the stuff about being polite in Japan that you want to save this for a time when someone’s pissed you off and you’re 1) bigger, 2) faster, and/or 3) more sober. You can also call your friends this depending on your friends’ tolerance for friendly insults. In the Kansai region, we use “aho” アホ more than “baka.” Commonly heard phrase in Kansai is アホか? which literally means, “Are you a moron?” but depending on the situation it can sound more like a confident, “You’re a moron.”

Beautiful [KEY•ray] 綺麗な If someone calls you beautiful, hurrah!

Beautiful Woman [BEE•jeen] 美人 Literally “beautiful person,” but I mostly hear it used for women. The first time I heard this was from a ten-year-old boy riding past me on his bicycle in Osaka. I didn’t understand what he’d said, so I turned around and called out, “What?” He shouted it again over his shoulder. I looked it up in my dictionary, waved to him, and yelled, “Thanks!” and he waved back as he turned the corner.

Sexy Man [EE•kay•men] イケメン This term was coined several years back. Ah, interesting cultural difference: most men here hate to be called cute. Now that I think about it I’m not sure men back in the States like it much either, but in general whenever I’ve called a Japanese man cute in the past, he’s recoiled like I called him a fish. You only use cute for inanimate things, animals, girls, and women, apparently. I could be wrong, but Japanese people have told me men don’t appreciate cute. It’s kind of misogynist, true, but it’s a lesser form of it.

Small Face [CHEE•sai ka•oh] 小さい顔 This is a compliment. I’ve had it explained to me numerous times, and I’m still not sure I understand it completely but I’ll give it a shot: this basically means your facial features are proportional with the rest of you. …Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a good thing. Basically someone’s saying you’re purdy. Smile and nod. If the person speaks good English, ask them to explain and then come back and tell me.

Bad [DA•may] ダメ Japanese people rarely use the word “no.” It’s considered too direct in many contexts, so people tend to go for “bad” or “different” [CHI-gao] 違う. If someone is trying to make plans with you tomorrow and you’re too busy, you can make a sad face and say, “Dame desu.” If someone is trying to steal your wallet, you can kick him in the head and yell, “DAME.” Sometimes, politeness is all in the context and tone of voice.

Nooooo [EE•ya•da] 嫌だ You’ll hear everyone use this a lot. The Japanese version of valley girls use this even more, often at a pitch and tone that will make plucking out your brain with a melon baller seem pleasant by comparison. Basically it’s a quick form of, “Eugh, no way,” or “this repulses me to an extreme degree,” or just, “I don’t want to.” For example:

“Do your homework!”
“Iya da.”

“Wake up.”
“Iyaaa daaaa.”

“Eat these live spiders.”
“IYA DA! AHO KA?”

I think that’s a good note to end on for now.

So again, this was written with my friend in mind, but I hope it’s helpful for others, too! I might write up some more in the future if any good subjects come to mind. Til then, enjoy!

P.S. No one will offer you live spiders in Japan. Monkeys might. They’re assholes.