Part of language learning includes learning nuances. English is full of nuances, and even for a native speaker it can be difficult to tell the difference between two words that appear to mean the same thing, but are used very differently. I ran into this problem a lot when I taught English. Native speakers of a language are able to understand nuances through their intuition.
What Does That Mean: Japanese Phrases That Can’t Be Translated
However, when you learn a language, this is one of the trickiest things to pick up. As you learn, you don’t really have an intuition to rely on, so it’s important to pay attention and understand the deeper meaning of some of the phrases you learn.
Cultural differences add to this, meaning that when you learn Japanese, there are a lot of things that don’t translate directly. Obviously, if you were to directly translate anything from Japanese to English, it wouldn’t make much sense just because of grammar. But there are several Japanese phrases that are very common and very difficult to relay in English.
I won’t be able to cover everything (and I doubt you would want to read that, because it would be a full length novel), but let’s go over a few key phrases that you will probably want to know.
We’re going to start here with probably the most important phrase you could ever learn in Japanese. I’m not kidding. This one is really important. Get this one down, and you’ll be golden.
The phrase “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (よろしくお願いします) is generally used when first meeting someone. There are, of course, phrases for typical English greetings. You can say “Good day” (konnichi wa) and “It’s nice to meet you” (hajimemashite), but there’s not an English equivalent for this.
The direct translation does little to help an English speaker understand what this phrase means. “Onegaishimasu” is a super fancy (read: humble polite) version of the verb “negau” (願う), which means “to request.” So what are you requesting? Maybe the yoroshiku part will shed some light on this? It doesn’t. “Yoroshiku” is the adverb form of the adjective “yoroshii” (宜しい). This is the more formal version of the super common word “ii” (いい) which just means “good.” So if you tack that all together, you get something along the lines of “Goodly I humbly request.” Which would make a lot of sense, except it doesn’t.
So what does this mean? Why is this phrase so important? Don’t worry. That’s what I’ll tell you next.
The basic feeling of this phrase when used as a greeting is something like “Please treat me well,” or “I hope our future relationship goes well.” You use it as a way to tell someone when you first meet them that you trust them to treat you like a person and not be mean to you. It’s a pretty nice sentiment, and it is essential that you say it when you meet people, especially in formal situations. You will hear it a lot. Often, when someone says it to you, you will want to repeat it back.
Although it is a common greeting, there is another use of this phrase. I had a lot of Japanese coworkers who would use this when asking someone to do something for them. In that situation, it takes on more of a “I’m trusting you to do this” vibe.
This version of the phrase is definitely on the formal side. If you’re looking to be less formal, you can drop the end and just say “Yoroshiku.” You can use this in situations like meeting a friend of a friend or talking to someone who is most certainly below you on the social totem pole. But make sure you don’t say that to your boss. Remember to only use plain Japanese when the situation calls for it.
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Kuuki wo Yomu
This next phrase is less of a phrase that people use regularly, and more of an important social thing to keep in mind. Though, you will hear the phrase around, so it’s good to know what it means.
“Kuuki wo yomu” (空気を読む) directly translates to “to read the air.” We kind of have a similar idea to this in English, but it’s not quite the same. “Reading the room” in English means looking at a social situation and deciding what to do based on how people are reacting. In a lot of English-speaking cultures, this is a personality trait. Some people are really good at it, and some people just aren’t.
In Japan, it’s really important to be good at this. The Japanese language focuses so much on context that you will really need to be socially aware in order to not make people uncomfortable. Many Japanese people won’t tell you if something makes them uncomfortable or annoyed, so it’s good to “read the air” and notice it yourself.
Going in depth about the importance of “reading the air” would probably take an entire article itself, so I’ll just leave you with this suggestion: Learn how to do it. It will make conversations with Japanese people a lot less awkward, which is nice when you’re clearly a foreigner and they already feel awkward around you. It’ll help you understand Japanese culture better, and the subtleties will become a lot easier for you to see.
Shikata ga nai
This next phrase is one that kind of does translate directly into English, but not with the right meaning. The phrase “Shikata ga nai” (仕方がない) translates directly to “There is no way.” You may be tempted to think this means the same as the English “No way!” or “You’ve got to be kidding!” but it doesn’t. It wouldn’t be on this list if it did.
The feeling behind this phrase is “It can’t be helped.” It’s literally saying “There is no way” as in “There is nothing we can do to change this.” It’s less about giving up, and more about realizing the truth that whatever has happened won’t change, no matter how hard you try.
There’s some fun variations on this one, some of which are grammatically iffy. But that’s probably because this is such a common phrase, and things like that happen. “Shikata ga nai” is a pretty safe, informal version of the phrase. But you can also drop the “ga” and just say “Shikata nai” (仕方ない). This one is also informal. If you want to be formal and fancy, you can say “Shikata ga arimasen” (仕方がありません).
There’s another phrase that means pretty much the exact same thing, and that is “Shou ga nai” (しょうがない). At first I thought this was just a more colloquial version of the first phrase (because I always saw it in just hiragana), but it turns out it actually had some kind of funky kanji (仕様がない) so it literally does have the same meaning, for all you kanji buffs out there. (For you non-kanji buffs, 方 and 様 both refer to a person. Kind of.) The one thing about this version is that you can’t drop the “ga” like you could with the first. It sounds weird.
So this next one also has a direct English translation, and it actually does mean the same thing. The tricky thing here is the use. The word “Natsukashii” (懐かしい) means “nostalgic.” Now, I want you to count the number of times you have described something as “nostalgic” in the last ten years. I’m willing to bet that the number you got probably fits on your hands. If it doesn’t, we have very different speaking styles.
The point here is that we don’t use the word “nostalgic” nearly as often as Japanese people use the word “natsukashii.” I think this is mostly a cultural difference, but you’re going to hear it a lot as you continue to learn Japanese. In some ways, I think this replaces the English verb “to miss.” You know, the sentimental kind of miss. When you see something that reminds you of an old friend or maybe your hometown, you might think “Oh, I miss that.” But in Japanese you would think “Natsukashii.”
Now that we have a lot of common phrases finished, let’s end this with some slang! That’s right. Japanese slang. You’ll really be able to impress your friends now.
In my opinion, “yabai” (やばい) is the most useful word in the Japanese language. Why? Because it can mean pretty much anything. The dictionary defines it as “dangerous, risky; awful, terrible, crap; terrific, amazing, cool.” You can see why this one doesn’t translate well into English.
You can use “yabai” in pretty much any situation that you come across (Note: Informal situation. INFORMAL. It’s slang, guys). If you go to class and realize you forgot to do your homework? Yabai. If you’re at a restaurant and the ramen is the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted? Yabai oishii. If your friend is doing parkour and looks like he’s about to slip? Yabai! You see a really good looking guy on the street? Yabai…
Anything can be yabai. So as you practice and learn more Japanese, try to see if you notice anyone saying this. That will give you a good idea of how to use it.
But just remember, this is slang. This word is so informal, it doesn’t even have kanji. I’ve also seen it written in katakana (ヤバイ) so you might see that. I’ve even seen it with a mix of hiragana and katakana (ヤバい). Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb though. If a Japanese word doesn’t have kanji, maybe don’t use it when talking to your boss. Even “aru” has kanji, guys (有る).
Why Does This Matter?
I’ve said before that learning a language requires you to learn a completely different culture. And learning phrases like this and what social context to use them in is really important for Japanese.
Also, people use these phrases a lot. If you’re going to understand what they are saying, you need to put your direct translations aside. These are useful phrases that I hear Japanese people use daily, and you will too. Paying attention to stuff like this can help your Japanese become easier to listen to, and you’ll be able to express more feelings to your Japanese friends in a way that they can really understand.