You’ve just got a job and are moving to Japan, but you don’t know really know that much of the language! Does this sound like you? Here is some essential Japanese for expats, (especially if you’re going to teach English as an ALT!)

You might be living in Japan but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be fluent in a year without trying. I’ve met someone who lived and worked in Japan for 17 years and still couldn’t speak Japanese beyond ordering a beer!!!

Here is some essential Japanese you need to become fluent fast!


3 Top Things You Need to Do (in Japan)

  1. Speak Japanese as much as possible.
  2. Make as many mistakes as possible.
  3. Ask as many questions as possible.

1. Speak Japanese as much as possible.

This is probably a given, but the more you speak Japanese the better you’ll get! You can get to a level where you’re comfortably having a conversation within 3-6 months this way!

I’ve met some people who have lived in Japan for a long time and couldn’t hold a conversation just because they didn’t use the language. This was because they had a lot of English speaking friends they only hung out with, because they never left the house, and/or because they didn’t feel the need to learn!

If you want to get fluent in Japanese you need to meet as many people as possible! Go hang out with work people, go to language exchange groups or meet ups ( is great for these!).

Another tip is to listen to native Japanese people. Listen to how they form sentences, ask questions, how their body language and tone is. Try to make mental notes and copy these so you can get the accent and mannerism down.

Japanese people will also often paraphrase your incorrect Japanese rather than pointing out where you went wrong. Once you listen to that (rather than just nod and smile) you can incorporate those corrections into your own speaking.


NOTE: Friends of mine in JET pointed out that often you’re discouraged to speak Japanese at work if you’re an English teacher. This is to encourage students to learn English and if they find out you can speak Japanese they won’t try to speak English. In these situations try and invite fellow teachers out after work, or make friends outside of school through volunteer programs and/or clubs, so you’re not missing out!

Essential Japanese for Expats

2. Make as many mistakes as possible.

A lot of the time people are too afraid to speak another language because they’re too scared. This is a HUGE problem in Japan. Japanese people study English for 10+ years but cannot speak it because they’re too scared of making mistakes!

Fear of talking means you don’t talk. Not talking means you don’t get any better. That doesn’t help you, your language, or your confidence.

You need to take the opportunity to put yourself out there. Even if you’re not a naturally outgoing person, you need to try to make conversation with others.

The more mistakes you make the faster you’ll learn!

Sometimes people point out when you’ve made a mistake (or they will paraphrase you), so confirm with them afterwards if you said something right, or if they understood you. (Which I talk about below.)


3. Ask as many questions as possible.

It’s not just a matter of making conversations but asking as many questions about various topics. The more variety the more Japanese you’ll learn.

As a beginner you can start with the basics. When having a conversation with someone ask them about them. Name, age, where in Japan they’re from. Ask about their family. Ask about their school life. Ask about what kind of movies they like.

But it’s also important to ask how to say things. This is the key to gaining Japanese fast…



Questions You Need to Learn

One of the most useful Japanese questions you can learn is:

Nihongo de nan to iimasu ka? – How do you say this in Japanese?

This can be accompanied by pointing, hand gestures, and pictures. Gesturing is really useful when communicating in between two different languages. So it helps a lot to wave your arms around and gesture to get what you need!

This question can often be followed by:

Tatoeba… – For example…

And then you try to describe or give an example for what you want to know.


[situation] to iu no wa nan desu ka? – What’s it called when…?

Sometimes just asking “how do you say this” doesn’t always work. The best way is often asking for the word based on the definition.

This is particularly useful because you will often forget how to say a word! So to keep the conversation going it’s often easier to describe what you want to say.


Don’t switch back to English! If you’re stuck on a word or sentence don’t re-say it in English. Speaking in English will just get you in the habit of using it and will hold you back.

 Essential Japanese for Expats

Master The Essential Basics

You DO NOT need to know 10,000 vocabulary and 2000 kanji to be fluent in Japanese!!

All you need to know to get a good grasp of the language is 1000 common words and the basic grammar.


So how do you do this?

There are lots of ways you can get the core basics of Japanese.

Genki I and II – These are very famous textbooks used a lot by Japanese teachers. If you are about to move to Japan but haven’t studied these I strongly suggest you get them and work through as much as you can with a teacher. – This is a great website for reasonably priced teachers via skype.

Memrise – This is a fantastic program for studying Japanese! It’s a free, spaced repetition flashcard program that you can use on the computer and on your mobile phone.


Essential Japanese for ExpatsKatakana and Hiragana

The Japanese alphabet is something you really need to know before you go to Japan!

I suggest learning the alphabets through vocabulary which is why I make these two Memrise courses:

Hiragana Through Vocabulary
Katakana Through Vocbaulary

There is also the book Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for Beginners: First Steps to Mastering the Japanese Writing System which is highly recommended by a lot of people.


1000 Vocabulary

This is roughly the equivalent of JLPT N4 (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). You can find a lot of free materials online for beginner Japanese and looking up resources for the JLPT N5 and N4 is a great way to get a good balance of beginner’s vocabulary, grammar and kanji.

JLPT N5 Vocabulary & Kanji – Teaches you about 800 vocabulary and 103 kanji in roughly 2 months!
JLPT N4 Vocabulary – An additional 700 vocabulary in 2 months.


Basic Grammar

Basic grammar is a little more difficult because it’s often hard to practice if you’re not studying with a teacher. BUT it is very easy to use.

Beginner’s Japanese grammar is like a math’s problem. You have a formula such as “2 x 3 = 6” and the formula changes depending on the numbers. The symbols which are used in very specific ways. Similarly, in Japanese you have particles which are used in specific ways, and it’s the words around them which change the sentence.

I explained this more on my website Japanese Talk Online, where I showed how to make very basic sentences. It’s so easy to make all kinds of sentences when you know how the sentences are structured.

If you want to learn more grammar I suggest:

Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese Grammar – complete free guide on beginners grammar.
Beginners Grammar 1 – Memrise course for practicing grammar.
Beginners Grammar 2



If you’re moving to Japan for work and don’t know anything, you don’t need to know everything to become fluent in Japanese!

You should try and learn hiragana and katakana, and as much vocabulary and grammar as you can before you go.

But once you’re out there you’ll pick it up incredibly quickly as long as you talk as much as you can. Talk with as many different people as possible. And really push yourself to make mistakes, ask questions, and learn from people around you.

がんばってください!(Ganbatte kudasai!)

UPDATE: I re-wrote this article for Business in Japan

Essential Japanese for Expats
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