8 Useful Japanese Words & Phrases you DON’T Learn in Class

I moved to Japan with a couple years of Japanese under my belt (after having taken a couple semesters of Japanese languages classes at 2 universities in America and one in Tokyo) and an annoyingly optimistic attitude that I would become fluent in no time.

How is that going? You ask. Well, funny that you mention it…

One of the first things I did in Japan was drop all my language classes. Traditional classes aren’t my cup of tea (which I talked about here) – mostly because it boils down to the fact that the things I’m learning I never use in real life and the things I use in real life rarely show up in class.

Which brings me to this post: 8 useful Japanese words or Japanese phrases that you won’t learn in class

1. Shaberu / しゃべる

Meaning: (v) to speak

Why you don’t learn it in class: Honestly, I have no freaking idea. It took me several weeks in Japan before I learned how to respond to the question: 日本語しゃべれますか。Before I drew a blank and was just like “uh… uh… I don’t know. What?”

What we learned instead: 話す (hanasu). The verb 話す was used whenever we talked about being able to speak a language. Common sentences we would practice would be:

  • 英語は話せますか。 (Can you speak English?)
  • 日本語はちょっと話せます。 (I can speak a bit of Japanese)
  • はい、日本語は話ますよ。 (Yes, I speak Japanese)

So imagine my surprise (and the surprise of literally every single one of my classmates) when random Japanese strangers people used the verb しゃべる instead of 話す. To date I can’t think of a single time I’ve heard the word 話す used to talk about language ability, except by non-native Japanese speakers new to Japan.

It’s so weird.

And I have no idea why all three of my language classes and independent study textbooks taught the verb 話す rather than しゃべる. It makes no sense. At all.

Here’s some examples for しゃべる:

  • 英語しゃべれる? (Can you speak English?)
  • ちょっとなら、日本語をしゃべれるよ。(I can speak a bit of Japanese)
  • 私は日本語をしゃべれます。(I can speak Japanese)

2. Umai / うまい

Meaning: Good, good at

Why this isn’t taught in class: It’s informal. And “manly.” I learned it from Ryosuke when we were dating and it drove my teacher in Japan (and later, in America) crazy every time I used it in conversation.

What we learned instead: 美味しい (oishii – good, delicious) or 上手 (jouzu – good at, skilled at)

Sentences involving food usually went like this:

  • このラーメンは美味しいですね。 (This ramen is delicious!)
  • あのレストランは全然美味しくないよ。 (That restaurant’s food isn’t very good.)
  • 豚カツは柔らかくて、美味しいです。 (Tonkatsu pork cutlets are soft and yummy.)

Keep in mind these are all really rough translations. I haven’t used です/ます form in ages so I’m a bit rusty.

And sentences involving someone’s ability or skills went something like this:

  • 田中さんは料理が上手です。 (Tanaka is great at cooking)
  • 私もあのくらい上手に料理したいです。 (I’d love to be able to cook as well as he can)

Until I learned うまい (and later うめえ, although using that is pushing it a bit, since it’s even more manly/childish). うまい is a one-size-fits all word that can be used in most situations, ranging from food to skills. And despite its’ usefulness, I have yet to meet a non-native speaker who learned it in class.

Here are some sentences using うまい:

  • タクヤ君はプロ並みにテニスはうまいな。(Takuya plays tennis like a pro.)
  • ここのラーメンは本当にうまい。(This place’s ramen is really delicious.)
  • 私はめっちゃくちゃうまいラーメン屋さんを知っているよ。(I know a really good ramen place.)

3. Ojamashimasu / おじゃまします

Meaning: “Excuse me for interrupting” (You say it when you enter someone’s house)

Why this isn’t taught in class: Uh… good question? I guess textbooks don’t think you will be going into very many people’s houses so it’s an “unnecessary phrase”… even though in actuality, I’m probably visiting a friend or family member several times a month. So. Uh.

What you learn instead: 失礼します (“Excuse me for being rude,” you say when you enter or leave a room)

So I only learned this one after I had entered about half a million Japanese houses and committed untold accidentally rude-ness (welcome to my life). A friend came over to our place for dinner one night and as she slid her shoes off at the genkon entrance area, she called out おじゃまします to Ryosuke, who was cooking in the kitchen.

As soon as she was out of earshot, I pulled my husband aside to ask “What did she say?”

“What?”

“Naoko-san, when she entered our house, she called out something.”

“She did?”

“Yeah, like 何何 します.”

“Oh! おじゃまします!  That’s what you’re supposed to say when you enter someone’s house.”

“What?? Really??”

And since then I’ve been abusing my おじゃまします privileges and making sure to announce it every time I enter someone’s house (so anywhere in the 1-10 times a month range). It’s a useful phrase.

4. Ikutsu desu ka? / いくつですか。

Means: How old are you?

What didn’t I learn this in class? Because it’s informal. Ish. Maybe? I don’t now.

Although, I didn’t learn the more formal おいくつですか either, so actually I don’t know why I didn’t learn this.

What I learned instead: 何歳ですか。(How old are you?) Except, like, no one uses that and instead, conversations go like this:

Stranger: おいくつですか。(How old are you?)

Me: 秘密です~ (It’s a secret~)

Stranger:  ええ?そなことは言わないで、教えてください。(Aw, don’t say that. Please tell me.)

I can’t remember the last time anyone (friends, family members, TV directors, freelance contacts, etc) asked my how old I was using the 何歳ですか question that Japanese textbooks seem to push. And I’m embarrassed how long it took me to figure out what いくつですか meant.

5. Dochiara kara kitan desuka? / どちらからきたんですか。

Means: Where are you from?

What I learned instead: 出身はどこですか。(Where are you from?)

6. Uso / うそ

Literal meaning: Lies!

More accepted meaning: “Really?” or “No way!” or “I can’t believe that” or “You’re kidding (lying)!”

うそ!/ うそだ! (No way!)

うそでしょ  (You’re joking, right?)

I *have* met people who learned this word in class, albeit only in sentence/verb form for “tell a lie.” But most of the time when うそ is used, it’s to jokingly counter what someone is saying (instead of a serious allegation of lying).

7. Maji?? / マジ

Meaning: Really?

マジかよ (What really? Oh man…)

マジで (Ugh, I can’t believe that!)

8. Soka / そっか

Meaning: “I see.” or “Oh yeah.”

—————————————–

While writing this, I realized this is the first time I’ve posted anything in Japanese on my blog. I try to keep this 100% English because I’m not confident in my own Japanese ability (and while some of you can read Japanese just fine, I know plenty of others can’t).

My two words are colliding. Weird.

Anyway, if you have any other useful Japanese words or phrases that you DIDN’T learn in class (but wish you had), please share in the comments section below so I can add them to the post!

About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

46 Comments on 8 Useful Japanese Words & Phrases you DON’T Learn in Class

  1. I will be using these words from now on! I think they really make my Japanese sound less memorised and more fluent. Thanks so much for this!

  2. I think that the reason they teach 話す is because it’s a very easy and basic example of a verb that ends in す and they need you to know at least one work ending in す before you can learn the ‘te-form’ conjugation, which is a basis for many other conjugation patterns and grammar forms. Obviously they could use another verb, but I guess this is the most relevant and useful word for extreme beginners.

  3. With all due respect… those words and phrases are most certainly taught in Japanese class. A quick search of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test vocabulary lists says that “shaberu” it’s “N3” vocabulary (which is a fairly low level). That is, a word you should have learned after 300 hours of classroom (not including after hours) study.

    Perhaps you dropped out too early before they could get past the beginner vocabulary.

    Regarding your opinions on learning Japanese and informal and formal speech, I wrote up some thoughts on that long ago. If you’re interested, please read my post entitled “Ten good habits for learning Japanese for life in Japan”.

    P.S. I am JLPT level 1, JKAT 4, I use Japanese for work (reading, writing, speaking, and listening; I am not in an English-language related job), I communicate with my Japanese spouse of 18 years and child of 14 years only in Japanese… and I still take Japanese lessons! (mainly to work on formal speeches, public presentations, and business debate skills). While I do not have (yet) passed the JLTCT (Japanese Language Teaching Certification Test), I have passed CLAIR courses that have taught me the fundamentals of teaching Japanese as a foreign language.

  4. Why is Maji written in Katakana ? Does it come from a foreign word ?

    • I don’t think so. I actually have no idea – that’s just how all my friends write it when we text.

    • JapanLilli // 29 May, 2016 at 4:34 am //

      No, it’s not a foreign word. It’s a short and informal form of まじめ, meaning serious, earnest. I admit, I only learned the short form in Japan. It’s sort of slang, so I guess that’s the reason why Japanese prefer to use katakana.

  5. My husband uses うまい all the time and once I tried to use it around some Japanese girls. Needless to say I was laughed out of ever using it again because as they told me “only men say that!” :/

  6. Breeze // 6 May, 2016 at 8:57 am //

    Funny thing: I haven’t taken actually classes for Japanese yet, and I’m still working on book-teaching myself, but most of those words/phrases were some of the first things I picked up watching subtitled anime.

    • Hahaha, I’m the exact opposite then. I only ever studied via class and am just now trying to get into anime/Japanese TV (since I can get a better learning experience there…?)

  7. Maybe it comes with advanced level. Sometimes classes curriculum follow the Njlpt and words and their alternatives comes along.

  8. I must have a very good teacher cause she teaches all these and more. She always stresses that the way you write and the way you speak may sometimes be different.

  9. Very cool and helpful! I’ve actually started doing ThatJapaneseManYuta’s Japanese course and oh God, there are SO many things that are completely different from what you learn in class! Specifically speaking without the -masu form!

  10. Similar to one you mentioned, I wish I’d been taught どちらの方ですか? as a way to ask where you’re from because EVERYONE asks that! We learned 何人(なにじん)ですか? which sounds waaay too direct.
    Also would have liked to learn 〜しなきゃいけない as an abbreviation of しなければいけません。

  11. Very good article. From what I’ve been told, 話す is more polite than しゃべる, so when I’m speaking to someone older/to be respectful, I use (日本語を)少し話せる。

    I thought of a couple more for your list.
    1. 食べる –> 食い To eat. (たべる、くい) taberu is what textbooks teach, conversational is kui. we can hear this in the word 立ち食い tachigui – to eat while standing.
    2. 大きい –> でか/でかい Big. ookii is what we learn, but I hear/see ‘deka’ a lot.

    When I first moved to Japan, I thought やべぇ!(yabe~) was the local dialect for やばい. Figured out that kids sometimes change “i adjectives” like this. (Fun when you’re trying to sound like a kid.)

    I feel like even good textbooks (Genki, for example) should spend more time teaching how to say things I use a ton as a foreigner living in Japan. “How do you read this? How do you say ~? What does ~ mean? I’m not good at Japanese” for example.
    やっぱり Authentic material is the best for learning language.

  12. Theresa // 3 May, 2016 at 8:00 am //

    I found that my teachers omitted most onomatopoeia. We were just supposed to pick those up while being in Japan, I guess. I still frequently hear new ones that I really don’t get, and I’ve been studying Japanese for almost 6 years now. :(

  13. Oh dear. I have been using some youtube and audio podcasts to learn some japanese, but I’m a little afraid of sounding like a textbook. I love the comments, though, as well! Very useful! I have to save this blog post.

  14. 3 years ago, “Okini” and “トイレはどこですか = toire wa doko desu ka?” were really useful phrases :)

  15. Anonymous // 3 May, 2016 at 4:56 am //

    Hi Grace,

    Unfortunately as a sansei whose family has been in the USA for over 100 years, I didn’t learn the language other than a few words and expressions. So these few words were used long ago, but still spoken by the Japanese Americans. I grew up hearing “oishii” and “jouzu”.

    Back in the 70’s we had some Japanese national visitors. My father used a Japanese word that they did not understand. My father pulled out his Japanese/English dictionary and showed them the word that meant “kitty corner across the street”. It was an archaic expression that they had not heard.

    Its interesting to see how language evolves or is preserved in isolation.

  16. My daughter, who is in her second half of a year of study abroad in Japan, has been discovering some of these discrepancies between the formal level of the Japanese language taught in language classes, including Japanese language classes at the university she is studying at in Tokyo, and the everyday version of the language. There’s nothing better for learning another language than to be where it is the local language. In a not so odd way, just being in Japan may turn out to be the greater language learning experience for her than studying the Japanese language at a university in Japan. My mother, a post WW II immigrant from Russia via Austria, was fluent in Russian and German when she came here after several years of working as a nurse at a hospital in Salzburg. She taught herself English by listening to the radio, watching TV, reading newspapers and talking with neighbors who were willing to put up with a foreigner speaking broken English. By the time I was in high school, she was fluent in English and had only a trace of a foreign accent (a curious mixture of Russian and German accents). There’s probably no better way to learn another language than to be where one has to learn it, and learn it in the manner it is actually spoken by most people on a daily basis.

  17. Emily Curtis // 3 May, 2016 at 12:12 am //

    Yappari. Sugoi /sugeeeee!
    And men’s vs. Women’s forms (I.e. women don’t say ‘ja nai ka?’)

  18. Toussaint // 2 May, 2016 at 11:22 pm //

    This is great! Thank you for sharing!

  19. Thanks for the great article! So is it “ikusu desu ka” or “ikutsu desu ka”?

  20. This is awesome!! I only spent three months in Japan and the number of things I didn’t understand was way too high to really pick out things that were specifically not taught in class. At that time I hadn’t even learned casual form0.0

    It would be awesome if you could include the hiragana and romanji readings next time!

  21. What is the definition of the word fluent? This is what this word means to me:
    When you are able to speak and think on the language you have learnt without problems understanding the language you speak.
    When there is a word you do not know and you can ask in the language the meaning of the word. When you can use other words to say what you want even when you do not know a specific word.
    In this way it is with me in English German, Danish and Swedish.
    In English and German I use this even when I am not Proficiency either in English or in German.

    • Eric Janson // 2 May, 2016 at 11:51 pm //

      LOL! A friend of mine once said that you are fluent in a language if you can express this thought: “If only I had understood what the outcome might have been, I would never have made that choice!!!”

  22. Wow, it’s as if you were trying to compile a list of the words I learned while being in Japan (after 3 years of classes…). For everyone studying Japanese: Learn these! Grace is 100% right. They are sooo common and yet never taught.

    I would add a few more into of my own list:
    すごい = Wow; awesome; cool
    ok, everyone who watched a single anime in Japanese knows this already but I have yet to see it in class. It might be the single most used word by girls. Can be used like ‘very’ too (すごくかわいい = incredibly cute)
    イケメン = cool/good-looking guy (peace of trivia: seems to be often used for tall foreign men)
    キモい = short for 気持ちが悪. Basically: gross; yuck (Think of touching an octopus)
    A Japanese friend swears Japanese girls can basically hold whole conversations only using かわいい・キモい・すごい (No, he’s not good with girls, funny you ask)
    ~って = short for 言って; this gave me a hard time, as it is so versatile. It’s often used to give a topic.
    Graceって、すごいでしょ? means something like: (Speaking of) Grace, isn’t she awesome?
    イケメンって、何? = What does ikemen mean? (lit.: (when you say) ikemen, what’s that?)
    ~って言うこと = something like … (I haven’t completely figured this one out yet)
    ~っぽい = -ish (e.g. 子供っぽい = childish)
    [Vて]る・[Vて]た = short for [Vて]いる・[Vて]いた with いる = います (to be); it means to be doing sth. to have been doing sth.
    食べてる = I’m eating
    忘れてた = I had forgotten (lit.: I have been forgetting)

    Oh, one last thing: しゃべる is definitely NOT a Tokyo-only thing or youth slang (as some teachers claimed). I was in Osaka for months and talked (more or less) with old oji-sans there who used this.

    • 4 more words:
      面倒くさい = troublesome, a bother, pain in the ***
      I don’t know how impolite/informal this is, but men use it a lot
      かす = scum, you suck (or sth similar, basically an insult); this is probably the most impolite word anybody ever used in front of me, the people being called this were really offended. Use at own risk. (I wouldn’t.)
      かっこいい = cool, stylish
      うるさい = oh hush; shut up; be silent (lit.: you’re loud) – used a lot as a (joking) answer to something you don’t want to hear
      え?また間違ったの?ーうるさい! = What? You did it wrong again? — Get lost. (lit.: shut up)

  23. Richard // 2 May, 2016 at 6:32 pm //

    Thanks for an interesting post. Having lived there for two years and being married to a Japanese woman I had learned these words, expressions, etc….except for “maji.” Is it slang/short for the word “majime” which means serious?

    Two words you did not mention: “kah-kui” which means ‘cool” and “kah-ku-warui” which means “not cool” or “awful.” These were slang terms that were used when I lived in Japan. But that was many, many years ago…..1969-71. Maybe these are not used anymore?!?

  24. なるほど = Oh I see (useful because it’s not informal or polite like そっか vs. そうですか so you can use it with anyone)
    了解 (りょうかい)= Got it.
    楽しみ = Looking forward to it

    しゃべる is definitely the weirdest omission. And it makes you look like such a fool for the first like 3 months in Japan because you fail at the first checkpoint question of “do you speak Japanese?” I even asked my Japanese teacher here about that once and he was thoroughly shocked to hear me report that people use “しゃべる” and insisted that “話す” was more common! He finally just said maybe “しゃべる” is a Tokyo thing, but if you’re hearing it in Osaka too I’d say that’s not the case…

  25. Perla Camacho // 2 May, 2016 at 2:43 pm //

    しゃべる was the first colloquial/slang word I learned outside of Japanese class. Luckily I learned it at my university’s conversation table while taking my first semester of Japanese . Actually all of these words I learned from my Japanese friends who came to the conversation table…but none in my classes.Really wish they would introduce these words/phrases in classes. They might not be considered “proper” Japanese but they’re so practical and help you sound more fluent!

    I just thought of another one I learned from a friend:
    ベラベラ

    Ex: 日本語はベラベラじゃない。
    I’m not fluent in Japanese.

    • Perla Camacho // 2 May, 2016 at 2:44 pm //

      Shouldn’t have typed this with my glasses off. I meant: ペラペラ(^o^)
      日本語はペラペラじゃない。

  26. Reading Japanese… I can sort-of recognize “Godzilla” (or “Gojira”?) in Japanese (ゴジラ) from watching those movies 20,000,000 times as a kid. And that is it.

  27. Thank you for sharing these phrases. I’ve slowly been trying trying to build a self-study regimen for myself but there are some things that just cannot be learned from a textbook!

  28. Anonymous // 2 May, 2016 at 12:15 pm //

    I watched a lot of anime before comming to Japan, so I knew things like `shaberu`,`uso`and `maji`, but things like `oikutsu desu ka` surprised me as well, cause I was like `how many what?` Another phrase that I didn`t understand at first was `(nihon ha) dono gurai desu ka?` cause I was like `dono gurai` what? `dono gurai suki?`.

    ps: you have several typos- 4. ikutsu, or ikutu not ikusu, thats just いくす; you missed one ん in そんな(こと言わないで) 5. DochiRa kara 8.Sokka not soka, cause there`s a little っ

  29. I’m currently in my second year learning Japanese at the University -in Chile-. I have a Japanese teacher and he does teach us useful words and phrases (though I didn’t know some of the ones you mentioned, so thanks for sharing this!).
    But yeah, most textbooks will teach us things we are not going to use in real life, but I think this will happen for any foreign language we try to learn.

  30. That’s very interesting. Thank you for compiling that list for us!

    I’m surprised to find that I’ve actually learned a lot of these in class, even though I’ve sadly never progressed very far. I did learn “Umai”, but was taught not to use it. We were quite often taught a “male only” version of a word that we were to understand but not use. Pretty sure we learnd 2, 3, 5, 6 and 8. I know 7, but may have picked that up elsewhere…

    So, you made me bow to my former teachers in acknowledgement of the (as it seems) outstanding job they did. Since I’ve never gotten anywhere near fluency, my risk of having a conversation in Japanese without looking like a fool is minimal anyway, but it’s nice to know that my teachers actually tried to teach us real Japanese.

  31. Yes! So true! I feel like Japanese classes are sometimes not worth it once you get past a certain point because people in Japan don’t speak the Japanese you learn at school/University!

    Your list above is spot on though! Thanks Grace!

    http://www.seachangeokinawa.blogspot.com

  32. This is very useful, thanks!

    I’ve taken two years of college Japanese and then found a native private tutor and was astounded how different “classroom Japanese” is. It makes me question why I even paid for the classes now that I am having to undo and fix “bad habits”. What further confuses me is that all my college teachers came from Japan.

    I’m finding that from the classes I took, there is not a lot of teaching on how to say something in multiple ways. It’s like only knowing the word “see” and not learning about “observe”, “witness”, or any other variation.

    I am learning more and more that going to Japan and spending a good amount of time there is the best thing you can do for yourself if you want to become good at Japanese.

  33. Lol! Seriously they don’t teach you that stuff in classes? I’m self taught and I knew all of the words/phrases above apart from number 4. It’s actually really basic and if they don’t teach that stuff in classes then might as well watch anime to learn Japanese x.x… Awesome post though, word usage and all examples are helpful. You’re great as always ^^

  34. Ariana Rodriguez // 2 May, 2016 at 10:46 am //

    Thanks for sharing with us! I noticed my buddies would say a few of these, esp the last ones, but sometimes they would scold me for being “manly”. Not that i am very ladylike to begin with.

    I hate how textbook language is so different than real speak. I had to take spanish in High School as a requirement, despite being fluent. I had a hard time because it was much too formal with words and phrases that were never used! So Japanese textbooks must be no different.

  35. Brilliant – thank you – my feeling is that most text books teach “gaijin” Japanese – You may be able to be understood…. but you sound….odd.

  36. Kyra C.E // 2 May, 2016 at 10:08 am //

    Hi grace! Just read it your blog! The word that you said above there if you watch anime they use it really a lot hihihi(*^ω^*) I also face the same thing overhere at Malaysia.. the different is I learn by myself since my place didn’t offer place to study japanese✧(*•̀ᴗ•́*)و ̑̑✧ so basically I watch a lot of anime and using a dictionary hahaha(*´∇`*) its quite hard for the firstime because I still learning hiragana and katakana (≧∇≦*) I had no idea at all about the word. But now I really happy because I can talk a bit\(^o^)/ eventhough I never talk other people with japanese language yet?? its hard to find a person who we can talk in Japanese language. But I won’t give up! Wish we could meet and learn new thing!! Hihihi(≧∇≦*) maido grace-san!!

  37. S. J. Pajonas (spajonas) // 2 May, 2016 at 9:52 am //

    Very cool! I love learning more colloquial Japanese! Uso was one I’ve heard a lot but shaberu? Why don’t we learn that?! Crazy.

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