The Japanese tend to be very polite - service is their highest order. When you enter a store you will be bombarded with welcomes (Irasshaimase!); when you buy something in a shop there’s a flurry of pleases and thank you’s.

The Japanese will go out of their way to answer any question you have - for example, if you ask for directions and the person you ask doesn’t know they will ask their colleagues and really try to help you. If you stand on a street corner in busy Tokyo looking lost, fumbling with a map, a Tokyoite will come up to you and help you - probably using their cell phone to look up where you need to be.

A well placed “Sumimasen” (すみません - Excuse me) opens a lot of doors. Most Japanese are afraid to speak English in public so starting a conversation with a Japanese word helps. If you ask them if they know any English this will mostly say no (いいえ - Iie) or “a little” (ちょっと - Chotto). My advice would be just not to ask if they speak English but try to converse through the little Japanese you know, some simple English words and possibly through a smartphone app.

At the very least you should know how to say sumimasen (excuse me), konichiwa (hi), onegaishimasu (please when giving something) and arigato (thank you).

Example interactions

A typical interaction at a convenience store would be:

  1. Douzo - hand the items to the cashier
  2. The cashier will tell you how much you have to pay.
  3. Onegaishimasu - hand over the money to the cashier
  4. Arigato gozaimasu - thank them

If you’re in a restaurant you’ll want to get the bill, so it will go a little bit like this:

  1. Sumimasen - get the waiter to notice you
  2. Okaikei onegaishimasu - “bill please”
  3. The waiter will tell you how much you have to pay and hand you the bill.
  4. Douzo - hand over the money
  5. Arigato gozaimasu - thank them (the gozaimashu part makes it more polite)