I often receive questions from nervous people who are preparing to take a trip or relocate to Japan regarding language. The questions usually can be boiled down to will I be completely lost because I don't speak Japanese. I always answer this question as I do with all other questions I receive, as truthfully as possible and explain that for the most part Japanese people do their best to accommodate for those who do not speak Japanese. Unfortunately this doesn't mean that you won't find yourself in one of the awkward situations where both parties are trying to figure out what the other is saying. There are a few ways to remedy this but the most realistic and reasonable for the world traveler or relocating family is to have the proper tools at your disposal in order to assist in sticky situations.
Throughout my time here in Japan I have gone through many of these "tools". Most of these tools have sucked, and that's putting it lightly. Who wants to carry around a book full of phrases which only work if you find yourself in that very particular situation? Then there is the complete uselessness of carrying around a Japanese to English dictionary. I mean who has the time to flip through hundreds of pages looking for the word toilet? Finally
I found the Lonely Planet Phrasebooks - Japanese. This pocket sized phrase book is the best tool that you can have when coming to Japan (or any of the countries that the book covers the language of for that matter). First and foremost as I mentioned is the size. When I say pocket sized I literally mean you could fit this into your back pocket. This makes it incredibly easy to put into a purse or day bag without taking up too much precious space. Then there is the content. The book is divided up into 7 sections. Each section is color coded which makes flipping through to find what you need quick and easy. Once you flip to the section you are looking for bold topics divide up the phrases so you can again quickly find what you are looking for. When you finally find what you are looking for the book divides up the phrase into three sections: English, Japanese and Phonetic. This allows you to look for what you are trying to say, make an attempt at saying it and if all else fails hand the book to the person, point to what you are trying to say and have them read it. As if this is not good enough each of the headers and categories are also in Japanese so if someone who speaks Japanese is trying to unsuccessfully communicate with you they can also use the book.
The biggest draw to this book, however, is that it has real life practical phrases which you might need to know on any given day rather than in a particular situation. What kinds of phrases? Here are some as an example:
DVD & Video: Does this have an English-language preference?
Senior & Disabled Travelers: What services do you have for people with a disability?
Outdoors: Can I go through here?
Health: Could I see a female doctor?
There are also many other words which assist you with understanding responses as well as formulating your own phrases appropriate for your own situation with a "fill in the blank" type format. Another helpful section is the "Listen For" section which offers some phrases that you may hear after asking your question and/or making your statement. Finally cultural tips assist to tie up any loose ends.
I purchased my book new in 2008 for about $9.00US and have kept it with me ever since. I understand that there are more updated versions which I imaging only improve on an already great book. If you're looking for a useful tool for your trip to Japan I would definitely recommend picking up this book.