This article originally featured in the December 2020 issue of Connect.

Sarah Baughn (Ishikawa)

According to the government of the United States of America, the Japanese language is categorized as a “Category IV—SuperHard” language. In that category, it stands out from the other languages with a little asterisk indicating that it’s even more difficult than the others.

This is all to say that for English speakers, Japanese takes a long time to learn. If you’re coming to Japan in the next few months and find yourself filled with the fear that you won’t understand anything, I am here to confirm that no, no you won’t understand anything.

What you do with that knowledge is up to you! You can try self-studying Japanese, which I highly recommend if you have any interest in it, or you can punt and learn just these few select phrases and try and coast by as best you can.

Here’s a list of useful school-related words for Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) who are just starting out:

People and Places

Knowing who is who and where you need to be is very valuable information!
校長先生 / こうちょうせんせい / kōchō sensei – school principal
教頭先生 / きょうとうせんせい / kyōtō sensei – vice principal
担任の先生 / たんにんのせんせい / tan’nin no sensei – homeroom teacher
職員室 / しょくいんしつ / shokuinshitsu – staff room
事務所 / じむしょ / jimusho – office
教室 / きょうしつ / kyōshitsu – classroom

Classroom Language

Without learning too hard into Japanese in the classroom, here are a few things to say to your kids when, inevitably, they are rowdy and you have to pretend you know what’s going on and are a valuable authority figure:
止めて下さい / やめてください / yamete kudasai – please stop
静かにして下さい / しずかにしてください / shizukanishite kudasai – please be quiet
聞いて下さい / きいてください / kiite kudasai – please listen
座って下さい / すわってください / suwatte kudasai – please sit down


Called あいさつ (aisatsu) in Japanese, this group of phrases require some situational explanations. I have included a smiley face to indicate the tone that the phrase will be said in, but the meaning is a bit more direct.

  • おはようございます / ohayō gozaimasu – Good morning.
    As you enter your school and the staff room, say this. Also, the first time you see someone every day, you should say this, it’s polite. It means good morning, but it is common for this to be said throughout the school day if someone is just arriving at school for the first time.
  • 先に失礼します / おさきにしつれいします / osakinishitsurei shimasu –
    Pardon me, I’m leaving now.
    Say this at the end of the workday when you’re leaving the office! Directly translated, it means “Sorry to be rude,” but the situational translation is more “I’m leaving, goodbye! Do not ask me to do anything else today. 😊”
  • お疲れ様でした / おつかれさまでした / otsukaresama deshita –
    Thank you for your hard work.
    This is the appropriate response to someone else saying “Osaki ni shitsureshimasu” when they leave the office. Directly translated, it means “You look tired,” but the situational translation is more aligned with “Good job, you worked hard!”
  • よろしくお願いします / よろしくおねがいします / yoroshiku onegaishimasu –
    I look forward to working with you.
    This phrase is used often and has a ton of different meanings. Say it at the end of your self-introduction to mean “Please treat me kindly.” After that, I most often hear it after doing the greeting at the beginning of class. Or immediately after being asked to do something. If your coworker talks about doing something and then says “yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” just assume that they’re telling you “You Must Do This. 😊” I also hear it from students when asked to grade or give advice on their English directly.

Asking, Giving and Receiving

Being overly polite is always a good default if you’re unsure when asking questions. Teachers at your school/schools are likely to be very busy so politely asking if they have time to talk to you will get you some brownie points.

  • 今お時間は大丈夫ですか / いまおじかんはだいじょうぶですか / ima ojikan
    daijōbudesuka – Do you have a moment?
    A good way to ask if someone has the time to talk to you, more directly translated: “Is your time okay now?”
  • お仕事中に失礼します / おしごとちゅうしつれいします / oshigotochū
    shitsureishimasu – Sorry for interrupting your work.
  • これを頂いてもいいですか / これをいただいてもいいですか / kore wo itadaite
    moiidesuka – Is it okay for me to have this?
    This is a polite thing to say when getting a gift or receiving omiyage (gifts) if you’re not sure.
  • いただきます / itadakimasu
    If you plan on eating that little snack you just received straight away, this is another little polite thing to say. Generally said before partaking in a meal, so also good if you are in an elementary or junior high school where you will be eating 給食 / きゅうしょく / kyūshoku (school lunches) with the students.

Another thing to keep in mind is that every school and person you meet will use the language differently. If you make a mistake or misunderstand, just apologize. In Japan, I’ve found that it’s better to apologize for anything if there’s even the slightest possible chance that you maybe could have caused some difficulty. For example, if you’re late to work, then you should apologize and say why you made the mistake and why it won’t happen again instead of blaming traffic. This feels unnatural to a lot of people! But I think it helps to keep in mind. It also means that some apologies are said to fit into this social expectation instead of always being entirely genuine. Gotta keep that social harmony!

Taking Things Beyond the Basics

So, you want to delve further into Japanese? Self-studying Japanese is a difficult mountain to climb. Combined with the numerous obstacles of kanji, grammar and verbs that conjugate based on politeness level, Japanese takes a time and effort that not many people are willing to put in.

I will say that learning Japanese is genuinely one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a language though, and will fill you with confidence if you want to learn literally anything else after it. For ALTs, learning Japanese while your students learn English will also give you a weird ability to relate to your students. I usually joke about how difficult Japanese is with my students when they complain about how difficult English is. This can lead to some pretty cool conversations.

Over the years, many people (especially on the internet) have found ways to fast-track the Japanese learning experience. It still takes a long time, of course, but it’s possible to self-study in ways that people have never been able to before. There’s a ton of wonderful articles on the internet about learning Japanese, but here’s a simplified list of steps and resources you can use to help.

Step one: Learn hiragana. It’s the basis of the language, and learning the sounds of Japanese is so helpful for learning the other alphabets. A lot of signs and names will have furigana (characters to show how kanji is read) that are written in hiragana. There are many apps (seriously, just Google “hiragana learning app”).

Step two: Learn katakana. Katakana is used for loan words, from French to German, English and Portuguese. If you can read hiragana, then move on to katakana. A ton of food items in grocery stores are written in katakana, so it’s super useful.

THEN, you can start looking at grammar and vocabulary and kanji.

Studying Resources

Here is a list of resources (you have to pay for) to study with:

  1. Genki textbook series: Though better-suited for classroom use, it’s a beginner
    textbook series that’ll help walk you through the basics in a good way. Get it with
    the workbook!
  2. WaniKani: A popular web-based kanji learning service that takes you from the
    basics all the way to barely used kanji (learn hiragana and katakana first though!).
    You have to pay a subscription fee for this on either a monthly, yearly or one-time
    lifetime basis.
  3. Bun Pro: Japanese grammar resource and review site. The resources for each
    individual grammar point can be beneficial, but it’s a bit overwhelming if you’re
    starting with minimal Japanese.
  4. Kitsun/Memrise/Tori/literally any flashcard service for vocabulary: There are so
    many of these. Find one you think is interesting and just try it out! I like Kitsun, but
    I’ve heard good things about all of them.
  5. Italki: You can sign up for online lessons with a ton of different Japanese tutors if you
    want some help figuring out what to study.

And a special section for the “I don’t want to spend any money” dude.

There are several free resources across the internet, but it’s a daunting task to pull them all together to make a coherent Japanese learning experience. If you think your time is better spent doing that then paying for services, then here’s some recs for you.

  1. Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide: It’s free and covers a lot of grammar! I use it as a resource
    to check grammar points occasionally.
  2. Japanese Test 4 You: A great free website that introduces JLPT grammar of all
    levels and offers lots of mock tests for practice.
  3. Japanese Ammo: This YouTube channel has a lot of good explanations and grammar
    for a lot of different levels.
  4. Anki: Anki is the free flashcard app that has a ton of different customization options.

I find that intimidating personally, but a lot of people use it for flashcards.

This information comes from someone who’s self-studied, as well as from a few other ALTs with a higher level of Japanese understanding. I’ve tried a variety of methods to learn the language and I’m prepping to take Japanese Language Proficiency Test at level N3. It is not an end-all-be-all source, but hopefully, it’ll help other people who came to Japan with “none Japanese and left English” to get a few basic phrases and cultural context in their repertoire.


Featured photo by Mike Tinnion

Sarah is a second-year JET from the USA now living on the tip of the beautiful Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa. She is eagerly awaiting the day she can once again travel across the country collecting goshuin, in the meantime, she’s gearing up to take on the JLPT at N3.