This guide has 70% of what you need to know for daily conversation in Japanese, is a 20-minute read, may make your day better by 50%, and is 100% helpful. I know learning Japanese can be a challenge, especially when you are starting your quest. Everything is so new and different compared to our comfortable, and singular, English phonetic alphabet. If you can learn English and all of its rules that aren’t even followed, you most definitely can learn some easy Japanese.
As a Japanese-American myself, I admit that I probably did have a slight head start compared to most people. But in my defense, all my parents and extended family know how to say is “yes,” “no,” “please,” “thank you,” how to count up to ten, and the odd phrase that’s usually used in the wrong context. So yes, I too also had a difficult time learning Japanese. Luckily I found some easy ways, words, phrases, and techniques to start learning, memorizing, and utilizing Japanese which I will share with you in this article.
This article will help jumpstart your Japanese learning process in a fun and memorable way.
How to Japanese: The Basic Explanation
The Japanese language consists of 1 phonetic or spoken alphabet and 4 writing systems to express that alphabet. You may know these writing systems as
- ひらがな (Hiragana): The phonetic writing system characterized by the sounds of the Japanese alphabet. Generally, hiragana uses rounded characters and is used for native Japanese words and other sounds where kanji is not used.
- カタカナ (Katakana): The other phonetic writing system characterized by the sounds of the Japanese alphabet. Katakana is hiragana’s other half in that it uses sharper and blockier characters and is used for foreign loan words and emphasis on onomatopeias.
- ローマ字 (ローマじ or Rōmaji, literally meaning Roman characters or alphabet): The romanized writing system that uses the Latin Alphabet (what English uses) to spell out Japanese.
- 漢字 (かんじ or kanji, literally meaning Chinese character): The pictorial writing system adapted from China. Each Chinese character can be characterized by a sound and a meaning. We’ll get to this later.
If you know how to read hiragana and katakana, learning Japanese words and phrases is easy as they are often written in these systems. For those who want more of a challenge learning some simple kanji is easy too.
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Easy Words and Phrases
Common easy Japanese words include normal words you first learn when learning any language and very basic words. This encompasses words like “yes,” “no,” “please,” “thank you,” etc, and I will list them out in the table below:
*Note: These words have a polite and a casual way of saying them, the longer one is usually more polite.
**Note: These words, when written in kanji, have more than one reading.
Next, we have some expressions that are used by people in Japan quite often. I find myself using all of these on a daily basis. For all of the following expressions, they may have different meanings if used in different situations or with varying tones. Nonetheless, they are still commonly used and easily learned through an array of different situations.
Greetings in Japanese are very much like English greetings. There are greetings for different times of the day, for friends, for acquaintances, for the sake of being polite, etc.
Greetings for different times of the day goes as follows:
In the table above the polite ways are listed. Polite forms are used to talk to people who need to be polite to or in a non-casual setting like a business. If there is a casual form of a word, you can use that form with your friends or in a casual environment. For example, there are easier, shorter, and more casual ways to say both ohayōgozaimasu and oyasumi nasai.
おはようございます (ohayō gozaimasu) can be shortened to おはよう (ohayō)
おやすみなさい (oyasumi nasai) can be shortened to おやすみ (oyasumi)
Other greetings (similar to hello) include:
- はじめまして (hajime mashite, “nice to meet you”) is used when meeting someone new.
- げんきですか (genki desu ka, literally “are you in good health?”) is used to ask “how have you been” in a formal matter.
- More informally is げんき? (genki?), which is used to casually ask if a person has been in good condition.
- ひさしぶり (hisashiburi, literally “a long time since”) is used to say “long time no see” to anyone you’ve previously met but haven’t seen in a while.
- あけましておめでとうございます (akemashite omedetō gozaimasu, literally “congratulations for opening”) is used to politely say “Happy New Years” because you are congratulating the person on starting a new year. Just like in English, people use this greeting when seeing someone for the first time in the New Year.
- Casually people will say あけおめ (akeome) to close friends when saying “Happy New Years.”
Other greetings (similar to goodbye) include:
- きをつけてください (kiwotsukete kudasai, literally “please take care of yourself”) is used to send a person off by saying “please be careful.”
- You can also say きをつけて (kiwotsukete), which is saying the same thing without the “please” so it much more casual compared to the former.
- おつかれさまでした (otsukaresama deshita, literally “you were tired”) is a bit funny because it is used to say “thank you for your hard work.” Its literal meaning kind of sounds like an insult but its contextual meaning is a compliment used for formality when saying goodbye to co-workers or peers that you have worked with that day.
- In a more casual setting like after a sports game with friends or a long day at school, you can say おつかれ (otsukare) which is just a shortened informal version.
- またあした/またね/じゃまた (mata ashita/mata ne, literally “again tomorrow/again right?/well then again”) is used to say “see you tomorrow” or “see you later” or “I’ll see you again sometime.” All of these parting greetings are very informal and should only be used in casual settings.
There are also greetings that I call call-and-response greetings. These greetings are most commonly used by native Japanese people when they or another person is leaving or returning home. The reason I call these greetings call-and-response greetings is that the person leaving or returning prompts the person already there to respond with their greeting.
Call-and-response greetings include:
- いってきます (ittekimasu, literally “I’m going”) is used when leaving the house to say “I’m heading out” or “bye.”
- いってらっしゃい (itterasshai, literally “go and come back”) is used in response to someone saying いってきます (ittekimasu) to say “Have a good day.”
Son: *leaving house* いってきます (ittekimasu)
Mother: *Staying home/still in house* いってらっしゃい (itterasshai)
Son: *leaves house*
- ただいま (tadaima, literally “just now”) is used when arriving home to say “I’m home” or “just got home.”
- おかえりなさい (okaeri nasai, literally “you have come home) is used in response to someone saying ただいま (tadaima) to say “welcome home.” You may also hear おかえり (okaeri) which is just a shortened version of the original.
Son: *returns home* ただいま (tadaima)
(friendly) Mother: *already in house* おかえり (okaeri)
Son: *returns home after skipping school* ただいま (tadaima)
(strict) Mother: *already in the house* おかえりなさい (okaerinasai)
Other Situational Phrases
There are also other phrases to use when a situation calls for it.
- いただきます (itadakimasu, literally “I will eat and receive”) is the phrase used to express appreciation before eating a meal said with hands together in a prayer formation. Traditionally this practice originates from Buddhism and symbolizes the recognition that plants and animals died to give the person eating energy.
- ごちそうさまでした (gochisōsama deshita, literally “polite, feast, respect to a person”) is the phrase used after finishing a meal, again said with their hands together like a prayer. Originally, this phrase was to politely thank the person who prepared the feast by running and laboring. Nowadays it is easier to prepare a meal but it is still in good form to thank the person who made the meal, hence the continued use of this phrase.
- しつれいします (shitsurei shimasu, literally “I will be impolite”) is used in a polite manner to say “excuse me.” It literally means “I will be impolite,” but ironically, someone who says しつれいします (Shitsurei shimasu) is most likely being polite.
- おじゃまします (ojama shimasu, literally “I will be a disturbance”) is used when entering a place someone owns and they have invited you too (i.e. visiting someone’s house). This phrase is used to politely let the person know that you are visiting. In English, it is similar to saying “thank you for inviting me and sorry for bothering you.”
- おめでとう (omedetō) does not have a literal meaning but it does translate to “congratulations.” This one is pretty straightforward because it is used similarly to English. To say congratulations on graduating, you would say そつぎょう おめでとう (sotsugyō omedetō).
- おなかがすいた (onaka ga suita, literally “Stomach is empty”) is the expression used to say “I’m hungry.” The literal Japanese translation is just really literal.
- おなかがいっぱい (onaka ga ippai, literally “Stomach is full”) is the opposite of the previous example, and is used to say “I’m full.”
- のどがかわいた (nodo ga kawaita, literally “Throat is dry”), just like the two examples before, in Japanese, this expression is a literal way to say “I’m thirsty.”
For a more visual look at Japanese greetings, check out the video below. It gives examples of how to use the greetings and in what situations.
Learning Through Food
I believe that food is a universal language, so another great way to learn easy Japanese words is through food.
Sample sentences with food words:
シチュー に やさい は おおい ですね。(shichū de yasai wa ōi desune.) = There are many vegetables in stew right?
おにぎり が すき です！(onigiri wa suki desu!) = I like onigiri!
ランチ で ぎゅうにく を たべました。(ranchi wa gyūniku wo tabemashita.) = I ate beef for lunch.
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Once you get the katakana system of writing down you will be able to guess the meaning of some words. When the base language is English, as an English speaker, it should be easy to identify the word’s meaning. Some words are quite challenging, but you can turn it into a fun and educational guessing game for yourself or for your friends.
Gairaigo & Wasei-eigo
The Japanese are smart and knew language is always changing and evolving. Kanji cannot cover all the new words being created every day, hence they created 3 different writing systems for specific purposes. One of those purposes being for foreign loan words or gairaigo. Gairaigo (外来語, がいらいご) literally means “outside coming language” which is very appropriate since the concept of gairaigo itself takes foreign words and makes them Japanese in nature. The other use of foreign words was turned into wasei-eigo. Wasei-eigo (和製英語, わせいえいご) literally means Japanese-made English. Wasei-eigo either 1) takes English words and gives them a different meaning from their original English meaning or 2) combines Japanese with foreign words.
If you're a geography-buff, another great way to learn katakana words is through country names.
To say a country’s language is quite simple in Japanese as well. It is just normally the county’s name + 語 (ご, go, literally “word,” “speech,” or “language”). For example, Spanish (language) is simply スペイン語 (supeingo, literally “Spain + language”).
You can also say a person from a certain country with ease as well. Just like saying a country’s language, all you have to do is add the person kanji (人, じん) after the country’s name. For example, a French (person) would be referred to as フランス人 (fruransujin, literally “French + person”).
A fun thing that all languages have in common are onomatopoeias, or words that make the sound they are associated with when said (i.e. bang, roar, etc.). Japanese is probably the language with the most prominent use of onomatopoeias. In fact, some of these words do not even make sounds but instead were assigned sounds. To me, the strangest example of this is the onomatopoeia for silence (しーん, shīn) because it is so ironic.
There is no real rule when it comes to using hiragana or katakana for Japanese onomatopoeias. The general rule of thumb is that hiragana is used for softer sounds and katakana is used for harsher sounds or for more emphasis. In my experience, I most often see onomatopoeias being used for background or situational noise in manga (Japanese comics). Here are some examples of onomatopoeias I’ve most often seen written in katakana.
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Numbers & Counting
Being able to understand Japanese numbers is an easy way to start learning Japanese. Numbers are what I first learned to say in Japanese as a child. Later in life, I also realized that most Japanese people will understand Arabic numerals (1,2,3…) in writing or reading, but they may not know how to say them in English (i.e. one, two, three, ...).
*Note: Generally the Arabic numeral 0 will be written down if there is a sequence of other Arabic numerals and will be pronounced as ゼロ (zero) or れい (rei). You may also find a 〇 that stands for 0. 〇 (マル, maru) literally means circle and is used as 0’s placeholder. People may also pronounce an Arabic numeral 0 as マル (maru) to stylize it just like the famous building Shibuya 109, pronounced one-oh-nine in English, and in Japanese, it is pronounced as 1〇9 (ichi-maru-kyū).
To count numbers higher than 10 you just add a number from 1-9 after and that fulfills the ones place. 11 is 10 and 1 together じゅういち (jyūichi), 12 is 10 and 2 together じゅうに (jyūni), and so on.
Now how do we count more than 19? We add a number from 1-9 before the 10. To get 20 we have to make 2 tens, so 2 and 10 together makes 20, にじゅう (nijyū). So now we know how to do both the tens place and the ones place we can combine that and say 78 is 7 tens and an 8, or ななじゅうはち (nanajyūhachi).
If we keep adding places we can figure out the hundreds and thousands places as well. Just like the tens place we can count how many hundreds or thousands we need then just combine all the values together. For example, 9,452 would be きゅうせんよんひゃくごじゅうに (kyūsenyonhyakugojūni). Broken down we literally have きゅうせん (kyūsen, 9,000), よんひゃく (yonhyaku, 400), ごじゅう (gojū, 50), に (ni, 2).
Counting specific types of objects such as cars or chopsticks gets a little more advanced because you will need to memorize the conjugations of certain numbers for certain counters (kanji or words that follow a number indicating what is being counted). Generally, you will be fine if you use the general counters listed in the table above.
Most times you can get away with saying the borrowed English versions of colors (a.k.a. the katakana column below), but if you want to sound more native keep reading.
*Note: 青 (あお, ao) also refers to green in some usages because it originally meant both blue and green
Here is the cheat to sound more native Japanese-speaking. You may have noticed that some of the colors use the kanji of 色 (いろ, iro), and that is because this kanji is literally the kanji for color. The cheat is to say a noun with a definite color then adding 色 (いろ, iro) to the end of it. Some of the colors already do this. For example, the color grey has two ways of saying it in the table above, but both mean grey.
- 鼠色 (ねずみいろ, nezumiiro) literally means mouse color
- 灰色 (はいいろ, haiiro) literally means ash color
Days of the Week
In Japanese, every day of the week consists of three kanji,
- The element that differentiates the day
- The day of the week kanji 曜 (よう, yō)
- And the kanji for day 日 (び, bi)
For the purpose of simplicity, we will only be focusing on the first kanji which is the element that differentiates the day from the week.
Many people will just ignore the last two kanji and refer to multiple days using its corresponding element. If I want to refer to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, in writing it would be abbreviated as MWF. In Japanese, you can abbreviate it in much the same way both in writing and in speech as 月水金 (げつすいきん, getsusuikin) which will literally mean moon, water, and gold, but through context clues, the speaker and listener will understand it as MWF.
Convenience Store/Grocery Store/Restaurant/Retail Shopping Visits
Going to a store and interacting with other people in a foreign language can be a challenge. Heck, it can even be difficult in your native language. To mitigate that difficulty level, here are some phrases that you will hear everywhere you go in Japan. I will explain what these phrases mean and how to handle them below.
- いらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase, literally “come in”) is a greeting that store employees will use to say “welcome to our store.” Different situations will call for different tones ofいらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase). A person who enjoys their job may give a pleasant greeting, a person who does not may give an unenthusiastic one, but no matter the workers’ feelings they will greet you out of courtesy and customer service. As a customer you do not need to reply, but if you do feel inclined to acknowledge their welcome, a curt bow will do.
- いらっしゃい (irasshai) is also commonly used as a shortened form.
- ごゆっくりどうぞ (goyukkuri dōzo, literally “please slowly”) is an expression that restaurant workers commonly use to say “please take your time,” or “please enjoy the meal at your own pace.” You may also hear this at other establishments telling you to “please take your time (browsing or enjoying their services).” You can respond with a simple head nod to motion a bow and an acknowledgment that you heard the worker.
- ごりようですか (~goriyō desu ka, literally “will you be using ~”) is used to ask the customer if they would like something extra, like a plastic bag or if they would like their purchase gift wrapped. If you would like the extra service or good you can respond with はいおねがいします (hai onegai shimasu, politely “yes please”). If you do not want the extra good or service you could say だいじょうぶです (daijyōbu desu, politely “I’m ok”) or けっこうです (kekkō desu, politely “I’m fine).
- おすすめ (osusume, literally “recommendation” or “suggestion”), in regards to a customer service setting, is a recommendation or suggestion regarding the good or service being offered.
- おきまりでしたか (okimari deshita ka, literally “Have you decided?”) is usually used by servers or retail store employees to politely ask if you have decided on a menu item or a retail item or service. Then you can reply with a はいきまりでした (hai kimari deshita, “yes I have decided”) if you have made your decision. Or, if you have not decided yet, you can say まだです (mada desu, “not yet”).
- ごちゅうもんはなんですか (gochūmonwanandesuka, literally “what is your order?”) is used when waiters or food workers are asking for your order in a polite manner.
- ごちゅうもんは？(gochūmonwa?) is the shortened and more informal form of ごちゅうもんはなんですか (gochūmonwanandesuka)
- おかいけい (okaikei, literally “bill/check”) is mainly used in restaurant or the service industry where a customer is sitting down and being served. It is used to ask for the bill by a customer or to politely offer the bill to the customer by the waitstaff, especially if the store is closing. Like in many other countries, you can politely raise your hand and say “excuse me” (すみません, sumimasen) to call over someone to ask for the bill
Take a look at the video below for an example of how a customer might interact with a waiter in Japanese.
Every language has its own slang so here are some easy ones to sound more fluent and cool. We also have a guide for Japanese Slang if you want a more extensive look into it.
- やばい (yabai, literally “dangerous”) is probably the slang that I use the most and is the coverall term in Japanese slang. It has many meanings and uses, both good and bad, ranging from “terrible” to “awesome”. It is generally used like English’s “no way.”
- ちょう~ (chō~, literally “super~”) is used before a word or phrase to emphasize it to say it was super or really something.
- めっちゃ~ (meccha~) is the Kansai region’s version of ちょう~ (chō~) and is used in the exact same way. It is most commonly used in the Kansai region but recently it is quite common to hear it in Tokyo.
- まじで (majide) means “really” or “seriously” and is used when asking about something hard to believe or to confirm something.
- うそ！(uso!, literally “lie!”) is used similarly to まじで (majide) when in disbelief about something.
- カッケー (kakkē) is the shortened version of かっこいい (kakkoii) which means “cool.”
- ムカつく (mukatsuku) comes from the onomatopoeia ムカムカ (mukauka) meaning “to be angered or offended” and the word meaning “to make.” This results in a combined slang meaning “to be frustrated/irritated/pissed off.”
- ウザい (uzai) is the shortened form of うるさい (urusai) which means “noisy (in an annoying way),” but its slang definition is a bit different. ウザい (uzai) is an adjective that can refer to anyone or anything that is a “pain in the ass.”
- キモい (kimoi) is the shortened form of きもちわるい (kimochi warui) which means a “bad feeling.” キモい (kimoi) can be used to call something or someone “gross” or “disgusting” or it can be used as an expression to say “ew.”
- ダサい (dasai) does not have a clear origin, but in slang, it means “lame,” “unfashionable,” “out of style.” This word is mostly used by the younger generation to judge older generations or their peers.
- ドンマイ (donmai) is actually the shortened version of the English phrase “don’t mind,” and is used to say “don’t worry” or “forget about it.” This slang is often used while playing sports or in reply to an apology.
I first learned kanji through numbers, and for the most part, they are very basic kanji. The highest number of strokes you will ever need for a single number kanji is 5 which is not a lot compared to some kanji with 20 or more strokes.
*Note: The zero kanji (零, れい, rei) is rarely every used and is normally either a 〇 (マル, maru) or just a 0 (ゼロ, zero).
Some more easy and beginning-level kanji are the Japanese element kanji which we’ve seen before on the days of the week.
Other Easy Kanji
Other easy kanji that I learned quite early that are not numbers or elements include:
Common Uses of Kanji
Common uses of kanji are kanji that are found everywhere and anywhere you go in Japan. They are there often on signs or in noticeable places so they can help us, but they can only help us if we know what they mean. Some examples of common uses of kanji are:
- 開 (あける, akeru, “to open”) I find this kanji mostly in elevators to indicate the “open door” button.
- 閉 (しめる, shimeru, “to close”) Just like the open kanji, I find the close kanji mainly in elevators as the “close door” button
- 押(す) (おす, osu, “to push”) This kanji is most commonly found on one-way swinging doors to tell the person the door needs to be pushed open. Sometimes there is a す after the kanji and sometimes it is just the kanji, either way, they both mean to push. Other places I’ve seen this kanji quite often are on bus buttons to indicate that you are stopping at the next stop and in bathrooms where the flush is a button on the wall that needs to be pushed.
- 引(く) (ひく, hiku, “to pull”) Like the push kanji, this pull kanji will be found on the opposite side of the one-way swinging door to tell the person to pull the door open. Also just like the push kanji, the く may or may not appear after the kanji.
- 出口 (でぐち, deguchi, “exit”) Individually these kanji mean “to leave” and “mouth,” but together they just indicate where the exit is. These kanji are most commonly found in train stations, in buildings, or on maps to indicate the exit point.
- 入口 (いりぐち, iriguchi, “entrance”) Individually we have the kanji for “to enter” and “mouth,” but just like the exit kanjis, we get an entrance. And again, these kanji are most commonly found on buildings or on maps to indicate the exit point.
- ~屋 (~や, ~ya, “~shop or ~sales person”) When used after a noun, the kanji indicates a shop or person that sells that noun. For example, a 本屋 (ほんや, honya) is a shop or person that sells books.
- 店 (みせ, mise, “store”) This kanji alone can refer to any kind of store or shop. It can be used in a similar way to the kanji above if a の (no) is put in between the noun and the store kanji.
- ~駅 (~えき, ~eki, “railway station”) This kanji refers to any station of a train, subway, or anything of the sort that uses something like train tracks. It is found after the location’s name or kanji to indicate that it is the station of that location. For example, 新宿駅 (しんじゅくえき, shinjukueki) is a combination of 新宿 (しんじゅく, shinjuku) and 駅 (えき, eki), and it refers to Shinjuku station, the most popular train station in the world.
- ~線 (~せん, ~sen, “line”) Trains don’t only have stations they have routes as well. In Japanese, routes are referred to as lines such as the famous Yamanote line that circles inner Tokyo. The Yamanote line in Japanese is 山手線 (やまのてせん, yamanotesen), which is the name of the route 山手 (やまのて, yamanote) and line or 線 (せん, sen)
- 空 (あく, aku, “empty”) With a different reading, this kanji can mean “sky” but in this case, it refers to a state of emptiness. It is most commonly found as the first kanji on taxi light-up signs to indicate that the taxi is vacant.
- 禁止 (きんし, kinshi, “forbidden or banned”) This combination of kanji is often found on signs to indicate that something is not allowed, i.e. parking or smoking.
- 料 (りょう, ryō, “fee”) This kanji is used to indicate that there will be a fee. It is often found after other kanji that indicate what type of fee it is. It can also refer to materials needed to make something.
- 無 (む, mu, “nothingness” or “none”) Is often found at the beginning of words and is used to negate the other kanji it is used with. For example, 無 (む, mu) plus 料 (りょう, ryō) together, 無料 (むりょう, muryō) means “free of charge.”
If you would like to learn more about kanji, check out our Guide to Japanese Kanji.
To be able to form proper sentences, first, we need a subject, and what’s better than some easy Japanese Pronouns.
*Note: The use of “you” is pretty uncommon and might be rude in some cases as it can also be used in a derogatory fashion. Instead of using “you” it is best to say a person’s name, and if you do not know their name just ask or use かれ (kare, “he”) or かんじょ (kanojo, she). For example, instead of あなたはここです (anata wa koko desu, “you are here”) you could say トムはここです (tomu wa koko desu, “Tom is here”) or かれはここです (kare wa koko desu, “he is here”).
**Note: Japanese does not really have plural forms or words like English does. Instead, they add a suffix. In most cases, it will be ~たち(~tachi), but sometimes it will be ~ら(~ra).
Next, let's focus on how to ask questions. To start, here are some commonly used question words.
Generally, questions in Japanese begin with a question word and end with a か (ka), which acts like an English question mark. In more casual conversations, the ka can be taken out if the speaker uses a rising intonation just like when an English speaker asks a question. A common example of this is asking how someone has been. Normally one would say げんきですか (genki desu ka, “how have you been?”), but you can also say げんき？ (genki?, “how’ve you been?”) and it comes across as more casual.
Example sentences using question words:
ミーティング は いつ です か。(mītingu wa itsu desu ka.) = When is the meeting?
その ひと は だれ です か。(sono hito wa dare desu ka.) = Who is that person?
こうえん は どう だった か。(kōen wa dō datta ka.) = How was the park?
There are two types of adjectives in Japanese, the ~い (~i) adjective and the ~な (~na) adjectives. In basic terms, adjectives that end with い (i) are ~い (~i) adjectives, and adjectives that do not end with い (i) are ~な (~na) adjectives. ~な (~na) adjectives do not end with な (na) but to make the word an adjective a ~な (~na) must be added at the end. For more details on Japanese adjectives see our Guide to Japanese Adjectives. Here are some common and easy Japanese adjectives:
* Note: きれい (kirei) ends in an い (i), but this is a rare case where what should be and ~い (~i) adjective is actually a ~な (~na) adjective.
To form a sentence in any language verbs are an essential part of grammar. There are 3 different types of verbs, ~る (~ru), ~う (~u), and irregular verbs. ~る (~ru) verbs are usually verbs that end in いる (iru) or える (eru). ~う (~u) verbs are usually words that end in anything besides いる (iru) or える (eru) such as taberu (たべる, “to eat”) or oriru (おりる, “to get off”). There are only two irregular verbs that do not follow the rules of the other two categories. The type of verb will matter because the word will change depending on the grammar structure needed, but we’ll get to that later. Below I have listed some basic dictionary forms of common and easy Japanese verbs.
*Note: かえる (kaeru) looks to be a ~る (~ru) verb but it is actually an ~う (~u) verb.
How to Easily Conjugate Verbs
To conjugate something means to change the form of the word to fit the grammar being used. The easiest form to conjugate is the ~ます (~masu) form which changes the verb into a polite form.
- To conjugate ~る (~ru) verbs into ~ます (~masu) form you simply drop the る (ru) off the end of the word and add the ます (masu). For example, by dropping the る (ru) from おりる (oriru) becomes おり (ori); then we add the ます (masu) to get おります (orimasu).
- To conjugate the ~う (~u) verbs into ~ます (~masu) form you must change the ending vowel from a “u” to an “i” and then add the ます (masu). For example, by changing the “u” to an “i” in のむ (nomu), we get のみ (nomi); then by adding the ます (masu), we get のみます (nomimasu).
- For our irregular verbs, you just need to memorize how to conjugate them. Luckily it's pretty easy
- する (suru) becomes します (shimasu) and
- くる (kuru) becomes きます (kimasu)
This article here explains the ~ます (~masu) form more thoroughly.
Another fairly easy form is the ~て (~te) form. For this form, there are a plethora of songs on Youtube, about how to conjugate verbs into this form, but in my opinion, the song below is the best one that I found.
Putting Them Together (in a sentence)
Grammar can be a challenging thing, but we can easily put everything we learned in this section into a single sentence.
- First sentence structure, A は B です or A is B. A is a Noun and B can be a noun or an adjective. は (ha) is actually pronounced as “wa” (I have no idea why that’s just how it is) as a particle and indicates the subject or topic of the sentence.
- “I am American.” = わたし は アメリカじん です (watashi wa amerikajin desu)。
- “I am pretty.” = わたし は きれい です (watashi wa kirei desu)。
- Second sentence structure, A は Bを Verb~ます (~masu form) or A is Verbing B. Next, we have を (wo) or the particle that indicates the object or the noun being acted on by the subject of the sentence.
- “We are meeting her.” = わたしたち は かのじょ を あいます (watashitachi wa kanojo wo aimasu)。
- Third sentence structure, A は Noun に Verb~ます (~masu) form or A is Verbing in/at/to Place. Our last particle listed here is に (ni) and this particle indicates a place where a moving action like “to go” or “to come” is taking place. It can also mean “by,” “to,” or “from,” a person, place, thing, or idea when receiving or giving something.
- “He is going over there.” = かれ は あそこ に いきます (kare wa asoko ni ikimasu)。
- "She gave him a present" = かのじょ は かれ に プレゼント を あげました (kanojo wa kare ni purezento wo agemashita)。
- Now a compound sentence would seem difficult but we already know how to do those too! A は Place に adj. B Verb~て (~te) form, adj. C Verb ~ます (~masu) form. A is Verbing adj. B and Verbing adjective C at Place.
- I am eating delicious food and drinking clean water at a restaurant. = わたし は レストラン に おいしい たべもの を たべて、きれいな みず を のみます (watashi wa resutoran ni oishi tabemono wo tabete, kireina mizu wo nomimasu)。
The video below has a quick look at sentence structure in a more visual format.
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Easy Way to Pronounce Japanese Syllables
Pronunciation can be a hard thing to learn, but the easiest way to learn is to listen to native speakers. With the internet, it is so easy to hear how things should sound in their native language but Japanese is understandably a little difficult for English speakers. That’s why I’m here to help.
How to Pronounce あいうえお (Vowels)
- あ (a) is pronounced as English’s short “a” sound and sounds like a reaction to when someone hits you, “ah.” It is never pronounced with a hard “a” like the “a” in “ate” or “mail.”
- い (i) is ironically pronounced like the English long “e” sound like the “e” in “ear” or “eagle.” Do not let it fool you into thinking it sounds like English’s “i.”
- う (u) is actually pronounced as English’s double “o” (oo) sound that is found in words like “boot” or “shoot.”
- え (e) can be pronounced as “eh,” English’s short “e” or long “a'' sound. It can be found in English words like “error” or “extra.” This sound is the most common response to get from a surprised or confused Japanese person.
- お (o) also sounds like an expression “oh” like in the phrases “oh no” or “oh my gosh.” This pronunciation of “o” is the long “o” sound in English that can be found in words like “boat.”
Now Let’s Add Consonants
Now that we got our vowel down we can move on to adding consonants to make syllables. Japanese is made up of about 14 English consonants and 5 English vowels each with a distinct pronunciation. The 14 consonants are k, g, s, z/j, t, d, n, h/f, p, b, m, w, r, and y. The video below is the most concise and informative video I’ve ever seen on the topic. It shows all of these pronunciations, their corresponding character, and how the character is written.
You may have noticed that the Japanese alphabet does not include the consonants for g, z, d, b, and p. That is because they use extra marks above and to the right of the original character to indicate the change in the consonant. K → G, S → Z, T → D, and H → B or P. The video below highlights this pretty well and ends with a fun song.
But Wait (things we do not have in English)
First of all, all Japanese syllables are treated equally and are given about the same amount of time unlike our stress and unstressed syllables. The other difference is that English does not contain certain consonants that Japanese has.
- The Japanese Rōmaji “r” is not pronounced like an English “r.” Most people characterize it as a sound in between an “r” and an “l.” For that reason, native Japanese speakers have a difficult time pronouncing and differentiating our English “r” and “l.” To pronounce the Japanese “r,” don’t pronounce it like English's "er" in squirrel or "r" in raft. You need to use the same motions used when pronouncing the hard “t” sound in English. The hard “t” sound appears in words like “star” or “fact.” Now try saying an “r” sound with the hard “t” motion and that should be similar to the Japanese “r” sound.
- Another difficult sound comes from ふ (fu or hu). We do not have this sound in English. I learned to pronounce it by saying the “f” sound while keeping your mouth like your saying う (u) or English’s “oo” sound. You do not use your teeth to pronounce the “f” like you do in English.
Japanese, like many languages, also uses glottal stops or brief pauses in a word characterized by a small つ (tsu) or っ. However, a unique thing Japanese does is that it combines syllables. The video below teaches you how to combine Japanese syllables and how a glottal stop is used in Japanese.
Easy Tips to Remembering Japanese
Before I leave you, here are some tips for remembering Japanese!
Make a Funny-sounding English Phrase
I started learning Japanese 7 years ago, and to this day I remember some ridiculous things my teacher taught us to help us remember words. A classic one that was taught to me is “don’t touch my mustache,” which sounds vaguely similar to どういたしまして (doitashimashite, “you’re welcome”).
Another incident happened not too long ago when my friend taught me the word for disinfectant (sanitizer). The Japanese word is しょうどく (shōdoku) and for the life of me, I could not remember it. Then she thought for a while and turned to me and said “show dog, it sounds like show dog.” I burst into a fit of laughter at the ridiculousness, but I never forgot the word or the incident. The shock value of something so ridiculous can help you remember some things.
Make it Fun
Another trick I learned early on is to make a song (or find one). There are so many songs on the internet just dedicated to learning Japanese. So if you’re having a hard time learning something, someone else probably was too and made a song to help them remember it. Something that I used to struggle with was the days of the month, but a song like the one below helped me to remember it.
Additionally, you can make learning fun by playing games and challenging your knowledge. One such game is the word search (shown below) our friends at Risu Press worked hard to make.
Draw a weird picture
This one is more for remembering kanji, but you can put your creative skills to use too. Most kanji are very pictorial and, for the most part, represent what they mean. However, if you can be creative and draw your own weird picture on a kanji I’m positive it will stick in your head better.
Make it Weird, Make It Memorable
Lastly, the best tip to remembering Japanese is to make your experience learning it memorable, AKA unique (and maybe a little strange). If your learning method is a little weird (in a way that maybe only you understand) then it will be easier to remember things. Making funny-sounding English phrases, songs, and drawing pictures over kanji are all weird and unorthodox ways of learning, but I guarantee that you will remember things better because of their shock value. The greater the shock value the easier it is to retrieve that memory from your brain.
I hope you learned a lot here, and remember, make it weird, make it memorable.
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