Japanese For Dummies
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If you're learning Japanese, you need the basics — numbers, questions, and phrases—for meeting, greeting, and being polite. In Japanese, verbs change according to whether they're negative or affirmative but not according to the person who's the subject of the action. Japanese also has particles rather than the articles and prepositions of English — all of which adds up to a fascinating learning experience.

Numbers in Japanese

One of the most basic skills in picking up any new language, including Japanese, is learning to count. The following table shows Japanese numbers from 1 to 20 and selected higher numbers along with the pronunciations in parentheses.

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Polite Phrases in Japanese

The Japanese place a premium on politeness, so the Japanese language includes key phrases to keep conversation on a polite footing. The following list sets out common courteous Japanese phrases and questions:

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Japanese Greetings and Goodbyes

When traveling in Japan, the words and phrases you’ll use most frequently will be the common Japan greetings (gashi). These Japanese greetings and good-byes will quickly become second nature because you use them day in and day out with everyone you come across.

In Japan, greetings are given great importance. It is considered rude to fail to greet someone or even to greet them in a lazy or offhand manner. The most common ways to greet someone in Japan are:

  • Konnichiwa (Hi; Good afternoon.)

  • Ohayō gozaimasu/ Ohayō (Good morning [formal/informal])

  • Konbanwa (Good evening)

    Say Ohayō gozaimasu to your superior instead of Ohayō. And don’t forget to bow when you greet him.

As you’ve probably noticed, people in Japan also greet each other by bowing. A small head nod is a considered casual and is used when greeting family or friends. When greeting a superior, it is a sign of respect to use a deep, longer bow: roughly a 90-degree bend at the waist. Most Japanese people don’t expect foreign travelers to understand bowing etiquette and so will usually accept a nod of the head or a handshake.

How are you? How’s it going? How many times a day do you hear or say these brief greetings at the beginning of your conversations? So many times, in fact, that half the time, you don’t even pay attention. These pleasantries are common in Japan as well. The Japanese phrase equivalent to “How are you?” is Genki desu ka, which literally means “Are you well?”

Other common ways to ask how someone is doing are

  • Hajimemashite. (How do you do?)

  • O-genki desu ka. (How are you? [formal])

  • Genki? (How are you? [informal])

  • Maiku-san wa? (How about you, Mike?)

As you’d expect, when someone asks you how you’re doing, there are many possible responses.

  • Hai, genki desu. (Yes, I’m fine.)

  • Ē, māmā desu. (Well, so-so.)

  • Hai, watashi mo genki desu. (Yes, I’m fine, too.)

    The particle mo in Watashi mo genki desu means “also.”

There are also many ways to say goodbye.

  • Mata ashita. (See you tomorrow.)

  • Sayōnara. (Goodbye.)

  • Oyasumi nasai. (Good night.)

    Say Shitsurei shimasu when you’re parting from your superior. It literal means is “I will be rude,” but the general idea is to say “Excuse my rudeness of leaving you.”

How to Ask Basic Questions in Japanese

How do you ask basic questions in Japanese? Well, Japanese interrogative words mean the same as they do for English: who, what, when, where, why, and how. By knowing basic Japanese interrogatives, you’ll be able to express your questions, even without an extensive vocabulary.

For example, say you’re at a street market and you want find a shirt that you like. You could ask the vendor Kono shatsu wa ikura desu ka?” (“How much is this shirt?”). But if you don’t know enough vocabulary, you can simply point to the shirt and say Ikura? and the seller will understand that you want to know the price.

Dare (dah-reh) (Who)

Nani (nah-nee) (What)

Itsu (ee-tsoo) (When)

Doko (doh-koh) (Where)

Dôshite (dohh-shee-tay) (Why)

Dô (dohh) (How)

Ikaga (ee-kah-gah) (How) Polite form.

Ikura (ee-koo-rah) (How much? How many?)

Dore (doh-reh) (Which one?)

In Japanese, all questions Japanese end in the particle ka. Here’s a look at some different ways to put these question words into a variety useful phrases.

  • Ano hito wa dare desu ka. (Who is that person over there?)

  • Kore wa nan desu ka. (What is this?)

  • Are wa nan desu ka. (What is that over there?)

  • Are wa Fujisan desu ka. (Is that Mount Fuji?)

  • O-namae wa nan desu ka. (What is your name?)

  • Otearai wa doko desu ka. (Where is the restroom?)

  • Dochira kara kimashita ka. (Where are you from?)

  • Tanjôbi wa itsu desu ka. (When is your birthday?)

  • Itsu ikimasu ka. (When will you go [there]?)

  • Nan-ji ni shimarimasu ka. (What time do you close?)

  • Densha wa nan-ji nidemasu ka. (At what time does the train leave?)

  • Chekkuauto wa nan-ji desu ka. (When is checkout time?)

  • Kore wa ikura desu ka. (How much is this?)

Japanese Grammar: Particles

English grammar has articles and prepositions, but Japanese grammar has particles that follow a noun to show the noun’s function. Japanese particles denote such things as the topic of the sentence; the start point, end point, and direction of the action; the tools and means of the action; and even the subject and direct object of the sentence. The following table shows the Japanese particles with pronunciations in parentheses, their English equivalents (if one exists), and their roles.

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Japanese Verb Forms

To understand any language, including Japanese, you need to know verbs — the words that convey action. Like English verbs, Japanese verbs have a few eccentricities, so you need to keep a few facts in mind when you’re dealing with Japanese verbs:

  • Habitual actions and future actions use the same verb form, so taberu means I eat and I will eat. (You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent of present tense.)

  • You don’t conjugate according to person. It doesn’t matter who’s eating — you use taberu for I eat, you eat, he/she/it eats, We eat, and they eat.

  • Use the stem form if you’re adding a suffix to show politeness or another condition.

  • Use the te-form if you’re adding another verb or an auxiliary verb to the main verb.

In Japanese, you don’t conjugate verbs according to person; rather, you use different forms for present and past tenses, for affirmative and negative statements, for polite and informal speech, and to convey respect. The following table shows the various forms of taberu (to eat).

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About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Hiroko Chiba, PhD, is professor of Japanese at DePauw University, where she teaches all levels of Japanese language and directs the Japanese language program. Eriko Sato, PhD, is associate professor of applied inguistics and Japanese at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she is also director of undergraduate studies. She has published many scholarly articles and been recognized for excellence in teaching.

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