Vocabulary for Traveling to Japan and The Golden Word "Sumimasen"
When traveling to Japan, it’s important to learn some basic phrases to help you get around in the country. Although Japan is highly developed, with an extremely efficient train system and electronics and gadgets that rival any other country, English is not widely spoken. Furthermore Japan is a very homogeneous country, with upwards of around 95 to 96% of the population with Japanese as their native language. For all these reasons and more it helps to learn the basics of Japanese, what we call “Travel Japanese”, before you go.
The golden word that everyone needs to know who travels to Japan is “excuse me.” In Japanese, the word is sumimasen. In Japanese, every two letters forms a syllable, with some exceptions. For more in depth discussion of pronunciation, please see our Hiragana page:
To help you with pronunciation of Japanese without formal Hiragana alphabet training, you’ll have to first break it up into syllables: (SU – MI – MA – SEN). Then, the words sound like SUE – ME – MA (as in mama) – SEN (as in sentence). Make sure when pronouncing Japanese you make it all one sound, and flat.
This word is used in multiple situations:
- In the subway, when someone’s in your way and you’re trying to get by, say SUMIMASEN
- In the restaurant, when you’re trying to get your waiter’s attention, you can literally raise your voice (like psst camarero in Spanish) and say SUMIMASEN
- When you’re walking on the street and you’ve bumped into someone, you can say “SUMIMASEN”
- When no one’s stopping to help you on the street and you’re lost, to get someone’s attention you can say “SUMIMASEN”
As you can see, SUMIMASEN is the golden word of travel Japanese. If you learn how to use it appropriately it will enhance your travel experience by bringing a smile to the strangers you meet, and get you out of any sticky situations where you feel like you might have offended someone.
When traveling to Japan, it will enhance your experience to know some key phrases. SUMIMASEN is the golden world of travel Japanese, and any guidebook or textbook that doesn’t teach you this phrase is not teaching you Japanese properly. Language acquisition is not complete without acquiring some cultural knowledge, and as you’ve seen by learning your first key phrase in Japanese the most important word is “excuse me.” To communicate effectively in Japan you must be polite!