You’re planning to move to Japan and starting a new life and job overseas. Now what? The process of uprooting everything and settling down somewhere unfamiliar can feel overwhelming. Unless your Japanese is already fluent or conversational, there’s a good chance you’re lacking some key grammar and vocabulary. Even if you speak zero Japanese, learning a few basics can make all the difference in your first weeks of work. I use these phrases frequently in my role as an assistant language teacher, but they can be used by anyone.
When you arrive to work in the morning, greetings or あいさつ (aisatsu) are very important. It’s good to start the day by greeting your coworkers and superiors with an enthusiastic おはようございます(Ohayōgozaimasu). For total newbies, it’s also helpful to be able to say you don’t speak the language. The easiest way to express this is すみません。日本語(にほんご）が分（わ）かりません (Sumimasen. Nihongo ga wakarimasen). It means “I’m sorry. I don’t understand Japanese.” You’ll also see a lot of bowing in Japan. Don’t be afraid to tilt your head forward and smile when greeting the person who sits next to you. A deeper bow is more polite for your managers or superiors. Tofugu has a great article on this topic if you’d like to read more! In fact, their entire blog is incredibly useful for anyone interested in Japan or living there.
The level of English your co-workers will speak varies greatly. I teach at five elementary schools and only a few teachers are confident enough in their English to speak with me. The vast majority of our interactions take place in Japanese. While I haven’t taken any formal placement exams such as the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), I took language courses in university and gained some practical experience while studying abroad. However, I still am not the most confident in my abilities.
Fortunately, my teachers know to speak slowly with me and write the furigana (reading) above the Kanji or Chinese characters. If you’re like most new learners and are having difficulties reading something, you can simply ask “すみません。漢字(かんじ)はちょっと難 (むずか)しいです。ふりがなを書 (かい)てもらえませんか(Sumimasen. Kanji wa chotto muzukashiidesu. Furigana wo kaite moraemasenka?) It translates roughly to: Excuse me. This Kanji is a little difficult. Could you please write the reading for me? This phrase has saved my life so many times, and I can even use the experience to help me remember tricky Kanji characters. But if everyone seems busy, I should also mention Google Translate lets you take photos of Kanji—you can trace them with your finger if you prefer—and generates a translation that is usually correct. Try not to rely on translating software too much though. I find the translations hilariously inaccurate the longer or more complicated a sentence becomes.
When you finish for the day, it’s important to be polite and express gratitude to your co-workers and overseers before heading home. Always remember to say お先(さき)に失礼(しつれい)します(Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu). This expression is an apology and means something similar to “I’m sorry for leaving before you.” It shows that you recognize the hard work of your colleagues. It may feel awkward at first, but everyone who works in Japan says this just before leaving. You will often hear おつかれさまでした (Otsukaresama deshita) in reply. It means good work! You can say this when your colleagues leave before you and you want to acknowledge their efforts as well.
So now you’ve been in Japan for some time and feel adjusted in your role. You’re always on time or early and maybe even stay after hours to finish up any remaining tasks. Personally, I always get to work ten or fifteen minutes early so I can settle in and mentally prepare myself for the day. However, I seldom stay longer than five minutes after work because I am not paid overtime and my supervisors practically shoo me out the door once my shift is finished. But after months of working diligently, I finally caught the dreaded flu or インフルエンザ（infuruenza). So how the heck are you supposed to tell your employer you’re sick and ask for the day or several days off? Easy! As soon as you know you’re too ill to come to work, call or email your supervisor. 申し訳(もうしわけ)ありません。調子(ちょうし)が悪(わる)いので、今日(きょう)はお休(やす)みしてもいいでしょうか (Moushiwake arimasen. Choushi ga waruinode, kyou wa oyasumishitemoii deshouka?) The first sentence is a very polite form of sumimasen. You use it when apologizing to superiors or customers. The rest of the sentence is roughly translated as “Since I am in bad health, is it alright for me to take the day off?”
If you have the flu, you can say インフルエンザをかかってしまいました(Infuruenza wo kakatte shimaimashita). But be careful! Japanese people take the flu very seriously, so make sure you go to a clinic and have a diagnosis before using this expression. Fortunately, if you have health insurance in Japan getting treatment is cheap and easy. There are also plenty of resources to find English-speaking doctors. If you’re in the Tokyo area, here is a list to get you started.
I hope this article helps anyone preparing to work in Japan. Don’t worry too much about making mistakes because that’s how we learn! People understand Japanese is not your native tongue and that your home country likely has a very different culture. But those around you will notice and appreciate your efforts. 頑張ってね！