Ria is an avid writer who is currently teaching English in southwest Japan. She loves helping new teachers and expats get settled in.
If Japanese seems overwhelming, you're not alone - the pronunciation and grammar differences make learning the language a real challenge. Getting as much as possible under your belt is advisable before moving abroad, but if you're going on relatively short notice, you may not have much choice.
Most beginners' courses focus on introductions and conversation before introducing terms needed for living in Japan. Travel guides will have an emergency phrasebook, but that can be hard to use in a hurry. Google Translate can be helpful, but it's not an option if your phone is dead, and it sometimes mistranslates things.
Here are 20 words you should make sure to memorize in case you ever need them to communicate with police or other authorities.
Airport immigration is relatively straightforward, and if your employer gave you the proper paperwork ahead of time, you shouldn't need any of these words right away. Just give the immigration officials your Certificate of Eligibility and passport when you arrive in Japan. However, if you ever have to go and update or renew your visa, you may hear these words or see them on signs. Luckily, the forms themselves are often available in English.
In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, parts of Japan began to improve their English-language infrastructure for emergency information. NHK World's smartphone app now offers emergency alerts in English. However, many municipalities still offer little help for foreign residents.
No matter where you live in Japan, you'll want a basic plan for dealing with earthquakes. Southwest Japan in particular is prone to floods and landslides, so make sure to have a basic knowledge of safety practices and vocabulary for those.
Hopefully you'll never need to use these words, but if you do, calling 110 for police or 119 for fire or medical emergencies shouldn't be too hard. Worst case scenario, you may need to get them on the phone, tell them your address and the requested emergency service, and then get a Japanese person or Google translate to help you explain the situation when emergency personnel arrive.
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Dispatchers don't often speak English, but police departments usually have someone on hand who can help translate. You may not have time for that to happen in the case of medical emergencies though, so make sure you at least know the word for ambulance!
For non-urgent police matters, like fraud or stalking, look into whether your prefecture or city has an English-language phone number to call.
Money, Insurance and Tax Matters
Hopefully your employer will help you when you go to the yakusho to update your address and give required information for health insurance and pension, but you may occasionally receive mail pertaining to insurance and pension. Don't throw any of these out - at the very least, take a photo of them and send it to your employer to see if they apply to you. Sometimes it takes local authorities a minute to update your appropriate pension information, and you may receive a mailing or two that doesn't apply to you.
Ask you employer about how local tax payments work in your case; usually you will receive a zeikin bill in the mail in June the calendar bill after you move in, and the bill will be based on your previous calendar year's outcome. Also, watch out for tax not being included on menus when you go out to eat!
Staying Out of Trouble
You will most commonly see kinshi in phrases like "do not enter" (立ち入り禁止, tachiirikinshi), but it can be used in many situations. If you're visibly foreign, though, you may see Japanese people simply wave at you and throw their arms up in an "X" shape if you're doing something you're not supposed to.
Your home country's driver's license will not be valid in Japan without an additional International Driver's Permit. You can also get a Japanese driver's license, but the driver's test is quite challenging.
Liz Westwood from UK on January 09, 2019:
I find the use of a familiar alphabet makes Japanese much more accessible to me. This is a useful list of words.