If you’re studying Japanese, then you know it can be a tricky language. However, it can also be an incredibly useful language. In this article, we’re going to look at some ultra useful Japanese words and phrases that are so handy we only wish they had an English equivalent. Most of these will be helpful to you in various situations, so be ready to take notes!
1. よろしくお願いします (Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu) – Please Treat Me Well
“よろしくお願いします” is a staple in Japanese society. It is also elusively difficult to translate into English. Buddhist theologists summed up the reason for this quite well: the proper English translation of yoroshiku onegaishimasu changes depending on the situation (Japanese only).
Some common translations might be I’m in your care, Nice to meet you, Thanks in advance, Take care, and Please treat me well. Due to this versatility, yoroshiku onegaishimasu might be the phrase Japanese speakers miss the most when conversing in English. It is a phrase that will take you far if you’re traveling in Japan!
When to Use it
The phrase “よろしくお願いします” is acceptable in most situations. Some common uses for it are:
- Introducing yourself (especially in a formal or work-related setting).
- In a class setting, i.e., before class starts.
- Before a sports match.
Those are just a few common examples. Believe it or not, yoroshiku onegaishimasu is even used between couples who have just started dating!
1. My name is Tanaka. I look forward to working together.
田中と申します。よろしくお願いします。 (Tanaka to moushi masu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu)
2. English class will officially begin. We are in your care.
これから英語の授業が始まります。よろしくお願いします。 (Kore kara eigo no jugyou ga hajimarimasu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu)
2. 空気を読む (Kuuki O Yomu) – Read Between the Lines
Literally translated, kuuki o yomu means “read the air.” In Japanese society, it’s essential to live a life that is considerate of those around you. For this reason, “reading the air” is pivotal to Japanese people. Someone who “reads the air” well tends to understand social cues or mood changes in any situation. They are highly aware of what’s going on around them and handle things with courtesy.
In contrast, a person who “can’t read the air,” or 空気を読めない人 (kuuki o yomenai hito) is socially clueless and can’t take a hint. Although not necessarily an insult, this isn’t something you want people to say about you. So make sure you “read the air” while you’re in Japan!
1. He’s a bit clumsy. He doesn’t read between the lines.
彼は少しおっちょこちょいです。 空気も読めないし。 (Kare wa sukoshi occhokochoi desu. Kuuki mo yomenai shi)
2. Please take a hint!
空気を読んでくださいよ！ (Kuuki wo yonde kudasai yo)
3. もったいない (Mottai Nai) – Waste Not, Want Not
“もったいない” is something your mom might have said to you as a child when you didn’t want to finish your vegetables. The best English translation might be, “What a waste!”
It comes from the word mottai (勿体), or “important” and the newer Japanese ない (無い), meaning “nothing, futility.” Mottai nai can be used by mothers telling their children to eat all their vegetables, but it has a broader meaning closer to the English phrase, “Waste not, want not.”
Mottai nai can either be used to complain when something has been wasted or as an encouragement to avoid wasteful living.
1. It’s wasteful not to finish (all of the food) so I am going to eat it all.
もったいないから残さずに食べます。(Mottai nai kara nokosazu ni tabemasu)
2. She has a talent for playing the piano but she gave it up. What a waste!
彼女はピアノの才能があるのにやめてしまいました。なんてもったいない！(Kanojo wa piano no sainou ga aru noni, yamete shimaimashita. Nante mottai nai)
4. 仕方ない/しょうがない (Shikata Nai/Shouga Nai) – It Can’t Be Helped
The English translation might sound defeatist, but shouga nai is a phrase that many Japanese believe to be the backbone of their country’s quiet perseverance through natural disasters and other problems. Although translated as no (ない, nai) remedy/means (仕様, shiyou), shouga nai doesn’t mean a situation is hopeless. It is a Japanese person’s way of saying that the situation can’t be changed by worrying or being upset. It holds the nuance of, “It can’t be helped, so let’s move on.”
1. Son: Dad, I left my books at home!
お父さん！本を家に忘れてしまった！ (Otousan! Hon o ie ni wasurete shimatta)
Father: It can’t be helped, son. We’re not turning around.
もう、戻れないよ。しょうがない。 (Mou, modorenai yo. Shouga nai)
2. Our house was damaged in the typhoon. It can’t be helped; we just have to rebuild.
台風で家がダメージを受けた。仕方ないね。 修理するしかない。 (Taifuu de ie ga dameeji o uketa. Shikata nai ne. Shuuri suru shika nai)
5. 我慢する (Gaman Suru) – Grit Your Teeth and Bear It
In the same genre as shouga nai, the phrase gaman suru is used to show perseverance. Parents or teachers often use gaman suru when trying to placate their children.
1. We’re almost home. Hang in there a little longer and you’ll get a snack.
もうすぐ家に着くから、我慢して。 後でおやつをあげるから。 (Mou sugu ie ni tsuku kara, gaman shite. Ato de oyatsu o ageru kara)
2. That really must have hurt. Good job hanging in there!
とても痛かったでしょうね。良く我慢したね。 (Totemo itakatta deshou ne. Yoku gaman shita ne)
6. さすが (Sasuga) – As Expected
The word sasuga refers to something that went as expected, or to a person who has just acted in character. Often it’s used to compliment someone for performing a positive and expected action.
1. That’s Tom for you! I knew he’d make the goal!
さすがトムさん! やっぱりゴールに入った！ (Sasuga Tomu-san! Yappari gooru ni haitta)
2. As expected, the marathon was tiring!
マラソンはさすがに疲れましたね。 (Marason wa sasuga ni tsukaremashita ne)
7. よし/よいしょ (Yoshi/Yoisho) – Up We Go!
There is no English phrase that perfectly captures “yoisho!” After all, “yoisho!” is hardly a word. It’s more of a sound people make when lifting something heavy or exerting energy in some other way.
However, Japanese people say “yoisho!” so often to physical “boost” themselves that it’s become a sort of word by itself. Groups carrying the ceremonial mikoshi, or shrine, during a festival, will shout “yoisho!” in unison. Sometimes an office worker might mutter “yoisho!” to himself as he gets out of his chair. There’s no limit to when or why you can use よいしょ, so long as you get a boost from it.
1. We’ll pull together on the count of 3! One…two…three…up we go!
「三」で引っ張るよ！いち…に…さん！よいしょ！ (“San“ de hipparu yo! Ichi…ni…san! Yoisho)
2. Alright! I’m fired up now!
よーし！やる気が出てきたぞ！ (Yooshi! Yaruki ga dete kita zo)
8. ギリギリ (Giri Giri) – By the Skin of One’s Teeth
Giri giri is another sound-based word or onomatopoeia. Japanese is full of these words, and they play a more significant role for Japanese speakers than English onomatopoeia might for us.
The phrase giri giri is best translated to as “by the skin of the teeth” in English. It’s used to describe a “barely made it” situation.
1. I ran all the way so I barely made it in time!
走ったからギリギリ間に合った！ (Hashitta kara girigiri ma ni atta)
2. I passed the test by the skin of my teeth!
あの試験にギリギリ合格した。 (Ano shiken ni girigiri goukaku shita)
9. 適当 (Tekitou) – 1. Without Thinking, Haphazardly; 2. Proper, Suitable
Tekitou has two different meanings that seem to oppose each other. It can mean “haphazardly, without thinking” OR “proper, fitting, perfectly suited.” The latter definition is mostly found in a formal or school setting.
The former can describe measurements (or rather, a lack thereof) or a lack of specificity. A relatable example of 適当 would be your grandma’s secret ingredient chocolate cake: she probably doesn’t have specific measurements on the recipe but puts everything in 適当, or by taste.
“Without Thinking, Haphazardly.”
1. I add the salt by taste, so it’s not in the recipe.
塩は適当に入れるから、レシピには書いていない。 (Shio wa tekitou ni ireru kara, reshipi ni wa kaiteinai)
1. Circle the answer that best describes this passage.
最も適当な答えに〇を付けなさい。(Mottomo tekitou na kotae ni maru o tsukenasai)
10. 勝手に (Katte Ni) – Arbitrarily, As You Please
To do something “katte ni” is to do it on your own accord and no one else’s. Being accused of an action that is katte ni isn’t necessarily a good thing. It has a nuance of impulsivity. 勝手に can be used to refer to a person’s or an inanimate object’s actions.
1. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
人のことを見た目で勝手に判断するべきではない。 (Hito no koto o mitame de katte ni handan suru beki dewa nai)
2. That door sometimes opens by itself.
あのドアは勝手に開くことがあります。(Ano doa wa katte ni hiraku koto ga arimasu)
11. わがまま (Wagamama) – Selfish, Willful
Calling someone “selfish” might not sound very nice, but わがまま can be used endearingly. A “wagamama” person is usually self-centered and bad. However, there are situations where “wagamama” can be used more playfully.
For example, a child who keeps trying to take pictures of herself might be considered “wagamama.” There isn’t a translation that encapsulates the true heart of わがまま. Be sure to take a moment to breathe if someone uses the phrase on you; they may be saying it fondly.
1. She’s a bit full of herself, isn’t she?
あの子はちょっとわがままよね。 (Ano ko wa chotto wagamama yo ne)
12. 微妙 (Bimyou) – Dicey, Iffy, So-So
Finding an English word that sums up bimyou is…well, bimyou. It’s a word used to describe something that is sort of lukewarm, iffy, or subtle. The official translation of 微妙 is “subtle, complex.” It’s used for all kinds of situations and is personally one of my favorite Japanese words.
Because of its vague nature, 微妙 can be used whenever you’re unsure about something. If someone asks you how that new restaurant was, or how your first date went last night, you can answer with 微妙, if you can’t decide if it was good or bad.
1. These colors are subtly different.
この色味には微妙な違いがある。 (Kono iromi ni wa bimyou na chigai ga aru)
2. That movie is so-so.
あの映画は微妙ですね。 (Ano eiga wa bimyou desu ne)
13. 便利 (Benri) – Convenient, Useful
Hopefully, this article has been “benri” for you! The word 便利 is used for all sorts of things to describe a sense of reliability and usefulness. If there were one word to describe how tourists feel about Tokyo’s modern, clean accessibility, this would be it. For example, Japan’s convenience stores are incredibly 便利 since they are everywhere, and many are open 24/7.
1. Smartphones are really convenient.
スマートフォンはとても便利です。 (Sumaatofon wa totemo benri desu)
Thanks for reading!
Thank you for reading this article about useful Japanese words. I hope it was helpful! Are there any other handy Japanese words you know that weren’t on the list? Please feel free to add them in the comments!