How to ask for directions in Japan 案内
A Koban in the city of Saitama.
Lost in translation
When traveling, it can be difficult to ask for directions, especially if you don't know the places, customs or traditions of the host country, which are often different from ours. If there's language barrier too, it can be even trickier! This is often the case in Japan.
It may be due to their early involvement in world affairs, or because of their rapid economic development post-war, but many people think that the Japanese have an excellent grasp on the English language. Sorry to disappoint you, but unfortunately this isn't the case, and it maybe harder than you expect to find someone who speaks English well!
Despite some vocabulary offered by the Americans upon their arrival in Japan, and incorporated in their own language, the average Japaneseperson's grasp of English is generally poor.
Never mind! When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Is there any better proof of love and respect for the people of the country you are visiting than to learn the basics of their language?
Come on, it's not very complicated. Just a few words to remember, you can do it. You'll be amazed at the progress you've made in Japanese after reading this article!
What do you need to ask for directions? We must first of all get the person's attention. For this, the most often used term, "excuse me", in Japanese is sumimasen (すみません).
Suppose now that the place we want to reach is the train station. Station in Japanese is eki (駅).
Now for a short grammar lesson. In Japanese, a sentence is constructed as follows: subject - object - verb. So it is at the end of the phrase that we will ask "where is that located?" - And not at the beginning of the sentence such as in English. In Japanese: doko desu ka (どこですか).
Finally, the last element used is wa (は) to mark our subject (in this case the station. Still following?).
Now all that's left to do is make our sentence!
"Excuse me", "station" wa "where is"?
Which gives: sumimasen, eki wa doko desu ka? (すみません、駅はどこですか。)
That's it, you've mastered Japanese! (well almost…)
Here are a few words of vocabulary that will be useful:
Right: migi 右
Left: hidari 左
In front: mae 前
Behind: ushiro 後ろ
Straight: Massugu まっすぐ
Mail: yubinkyoku 郵便局
Police station: Koban 交番
Department store: depaato デパ ート
Supermarket: konbini コンビニ
Metro / train = Chikatetsu / densha 地下鉄 / 電車
When reading maps, you'll probably be used to having North positioned at the top. This may seem logical, but in Japan, we realize that that is not necessarily the case. Indeed, in Japan the map is oriented relative to your position when reading it. So what is at the top of the map is what will be in front of you. And why not? It's confusing at first, but not too complicated to decipher!
Also take note of distances! The Japanese have the annoying tendency to disregard dimensions on their maps. One centimeter can be 100 meters, then suddenly 300 meters on the same map...
In fact, were you aware that in Japan the streets generally don't have names? That sometimes makes it rather difficult... But don't worry, Japan is the land of impeccable service, and police officers located in small local buildings (koban, 交番) will be happy to help.
Oh, and one final useful vocabulary word that will be very appreciated: arigatou (thank you)!