If you haven’t realised by now, the Japanese language places particular emphasis on formality and the correct use of language based on a given situation. For example, in the company of friends or family, it is fine to use informal or casual language. However, in the presence of your boss or senior manager, in a professional environment, it is probably more common to speak in a more formal or humble form of Japanese.
As a result, we have compiled a collection of polite and humble phrases (in no specific order) that you cannot only learn to improve your communication but to also help you use polite language more effectively. Furthermore, we aim to help you understand how appropriate it is to use each phrase in different situations.
Top 12 Most Common (Polite) Japanese Phrases
1. Itadakimasu いただきます – as a Japanese customary phrase, it is usually said before eating a meal. Essentially, it is a general phrase to mean I humbly accept or receive this food or dish. It originates from the word ‘Itadaku’, which is taken from Japanese Buddhism, and its basic premise is to show respect and give thanks for all living things. It is also sometimes compared to prayers or grace said before a meal.
2. Gochisousama (deshita) ごちそうさま (でした) – it is customary to say this phrase at the end of a meal or drink. It can be translated to mean ‘thank you for the delicious meal or drink’. The expression is commonly used in both restaurants and when eating at a friends or family member’s place. Essentially, you are expressing your gratitude for both their effort in making the food and the delicious taste (no matter how amazing or horrible it is).
3. Irrashaimase いらっしゃいませ – is a phrase you will continue to hear every time you enter a Japanese store, department store, restaurant, izakaya (Japanese style bar), bar and more. It is a humbling phrase used to welcome customers into your store. Directly translated, it can mean either ‘please come in’ or ‘welcome to my store’.
4. Hajimemashite はじめまして – this is a very polite phrase that you use for the first time you meet someone. Literally translated it means the ‘first time’, but more commonly can be considered as a formal greeting meaning ‘how do you do?’, especially useful when meeting people in a professional setting.
5. Yoroshiku onegai shimasu/itashimasu (more formal) よろしく おねがい します/いたします – is an expression that is particularly difficult to translate, as the versatility of this phrase is very broad. In simple terms, you should think of it as another phrase to use in your initial greeting or self-introduction, and can simply be translated as ‘nice to meet you’ or ‘please be kind to me’. In less formal situations it is more common for friends and family to use just ‘よろしく or Yorishiku’, which has the exact same meaning. It is more common to use the ‘itashimasu or いたします’ form in highly professional or honorific scenarios. We will continue to explore the further uses of this phrase in later lessons.
6. Ojamashimasu おじゃまします – this is a phrase which is customary to use upon initially entering someone’s place of residence for the first time. It could be either someone’s home or apartment. Directly translated it means ‘please excuse my intrusion’ when entering someone’s home.
7. Otsukaresama (desu/deshita) おつかれさま (です/でした) – is a common phrase, used especially at the end of work or school. Particularly, from your boss as you leave the office, or as you greet your friends or family after work. The actual phrase may change slightly in nuance, depending on the situation and how it is used. The most common literal translations are both ‘you must be tired’ or ‘thank you for your hard work’.
8. Omedetou Gozaimasu おめでとう ございます – is a general phrase that means ‘congratulations’, and is usually used for birthdays, weddings and other such important events. It is also common to just say ‘Omedetou’ between friends, especially when sending birthday greetings or wishes via messages or Social Networking.
9. (Doumo) Arigatou Gozaimasu (どうも) ありがとう ございます – this is a formal way of showing gratitude and when translated means ‘Thank you’. By adding ‘Doumo or どうも’ at the start it elevates the formality of the expression to ‘Thank you very much’.
10. Osewa ni narimashita おせわになりました – this phrase is commonly used as a way to demonstrate the utmost appreciation or gratitude. When translated directly it means ‘thank you for taking care of me’ or ‘thank you for everything’, and is a common expression used in emails and when speaking to clients.
11. Moushiwake gozaimasen もうしわけございません – can be considered one of the most polite apologies in the Japanese language. It is used mainly in extreme or very formal situations when you wish to express your deepest apologies or regret.
12. Sumimasen すみません – this is a very general phrase that can be used as an apology, it can also be used to say excuse me or to get attention from staff in a store or restaurant. It can be considered one of the more commonly used and versatile expressions in the Japanese language.
You may notice our reference to the use of ‘です/でした or desu/deshita’, with the main difference identifying the different tense. ‘Desu’ is used for the present tense, whereas ‘Deshita’ is used to express the past tense.