Kanji for Tourists

Your trip to Europe or South America was a breeze. Even if you didn’t speak the local language, for the most part you could read the alphabet. However, things a different in Japan.

In researching your trip to Japan, you’ve probably encountered someone somewhere claiming that Japanese is the most difficult language to learn and that Japanese has the most complicated writing system on earth.

the japanese flag

I don’t want to scare you off by giving my opinion on those claims, but I do want to reassure you that if you come to Japan — now more than ever before — you’re not going to have a hard time with the language. In the build up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which may or may not happen at this point), Tokyo and other major cities have made great efforts to make signage accessible to tourists.

That said, the best parts of Japan are off the beaten track. If you want to enjoy a really nice onsen (natural hot spring), you’re gonna have to go to the countryside. The farther you get away from the big cities, the more tradition things get. Actually, if you go to a traditional restaurant in downtown Tokyo, sometimes you may find the bathrooms don’t have English or non-alphabetic ideograms.

To ensure you use the correct restroom and the correct public bath, you gonna have to learn the kanji (Chinese characters) for “men” and “women.” But don’t worry. I’ll have you memorizing these characters in no time. And just to prove how simple it is, I’ll teach one full Japanese that you’ll see everywhere and can even use in your travels when you meet locals.

kanji for tourists - otoko - men


man, men

Now, you may be saying “How the heck am I going to remember that? It doesn’t look like a man!” Well, if you break down into parts, the top part 田 is a rice paddy. Rice paddies take time to build and cultivate. They represent a stable food source and income. The bottom part is 力power, but it also looks a little bit like 刀 katana (sword). Think of it as a powerful samurai running with his swords to protect his rice paddies. The paddy is a big square head. The running legs/sword is the power. This is “man.

kanji for tourists - onna - woman


woman, women

Again, you’re probably like “I’ll never remember this.” But if you print out my flashcards and look at this character a lot, you’ll become familiar with it soon. And, it does look like a woman. Trust me. Imagine that it’s a woman sitting cross-legged holding a baby in her arms. The top line is her thin head. The middle section is the baby in the arms. The crossed legs make up the bottom part.

OK, let’s try an actual Japanese word spelled out in full. Ready?

kanji for tourists - nihon - japan

日本 Japan


Again, I’m sure you’re thinking “that’s impossible to remember!” But it’s not. Let’s look at the origin of each character, shall we?

First we have the character ni:

Second, we have the character hon:

Together the characters 日本 Nihon mean “sun origin,” or more poetically, “the land of the rising sun.” Easy, right?

So while you’re in Nihon, you’ll meet a lot of Nihon-jin — Japanese people.
They will be speaking Nihon-go — the Japanese language.
And if you travel with me, you’ll definitely drink some Nihon-shu — Japanese alcohol (sake).

I just learned 3 Japanese words and 4 #Japanese characters. So ready for my trip!

A Piece of Cake, Right?

If you book a guide, 90% of this is taken care of for you. And sure, you can just ignore all of this if you want to. But I think intellectually curious travelers really want to know more about the Japanese language and Japanese culture. I hope you see that there’s no need to be intimidated by the language barrier or the writing system in Japan.

This article is part of an ongoing series teaching Japanese Survival Phrases for Tourists. If you’d like to alerted when I publish new articles, now you can follow JapanThis.Tours. Updates only come once a month.

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