Japanese Phrase Book Review

Man using Japanese phrasebook

Photo by JoeBenjamin on Flickr

A well put together phrase book can be a life saver for any traveller. While getting to know a few key words and expressions in Japanese is always recommended, before long you’ll find yourself venturing far outside your comfort zone, and that’s where a good Japanese phrasebook is worth its weight in gold.

I’m always on the look out for new and interesting Japanese phrasebooks. Last year a Japanese friend gave us a really unique Point-and-Speak Japanese Phrasebook that Stacey really liked to carry around with her. I would typically head out the door with either my Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook or my Berlitz Japanese Phrase Book & Dictionary.

Here’s my run down of these two phrasebooks.

Note: Please remember that while phrasebooks stay pretty similar through the years, they do add and remove features from time to time. So some of these features could be different or improved in current printings.

Berlitz Japanese Phrase Book & Dictionary

Berlitz Japanese Phrase Book & Dictionary

The Berlitz Japanese Phrase Book & Dictionary was the first phrasebook I ever bought. It had solid reviews on Amazon so I was pretty certain it was going to work well. Here are some pros and cons about this particular phrasebook.

Pros

  • Compact and Light: The Berlitz phrasebook is one of the slimmest and compact phrasebooks I’ve found. It slips easily into a jacket pocket and you’ll hardly know it’s there. The Lonely Planet book, by comparison, is thicker but a bit smaller corner to corner. Not a big deal, and certainly not something that would make me avoid the Lonely Planet phrasebook.
  • Menu Reader: Berlitz includes a very helpful and rather unique menu reader section (at least it does in the 2003 version that I have). This section lists food and drink broken down into various headings like Meat, Vegetables, Classic Dishes and so on. Along with the English names you’ll have the equivalent written in Japanese alongside it. This makes it easy to compare what you see on a Japanese menu to what the food actually is. Really helpful in overcoming some of the fear you may get when you’re handed a menu completely in Japanese.
  • Japanese to English Glossary: Similar to the Menu Reader, the Japanese to English Glossary list common kanji that you’re likely to run across. So words like information or women’s toilets will be listed here for easy reference. As a side note, you do not what to get information and women’s toilets mixed up.
  • Parts of the body: While no one looks forward to getting sick or injured while travelling, Berlitz has you covered if you do. A comprehensive and detailed list of parts of the body are listed along with many phrases for dealing with your health. Stacey and I particularly liked using the phrase “My…is hurt”.
  • Cons

  • Navigation: While the Berlitz Japanese Phrase Book has brightly color coded sections, I found it somewhat difficult to find which sections I wanted. The version we bought had images and colors to represent each section. So the section for sightseeing would have a illustration of a camera in the top corner of the pages, while the travel section would have an illustration of luggage. While I’m sure you could get used to it, it slowed you down a bit while you tried to decipher which image represented which section.
  • No Japanese to English Dictionary: One of the most glaring oversights with the Berlitz phrasebook is its lack of a Japanese to English Dictionary. While the English to Japanese Dictionary section is very helpful, it would be nice to be able to go the other way as well. So, for example, you could give the book to a Japanese person and have them point out the word for you.
  • Strange Japanese Sections: While I don’t know if this is a feature that current Berlitz books have, our copy (2003) had strange Japanese conversation sections sprinkled throughout the book. These little sections are a back and forth conversation in Japanese written out in Western alphabet romaji. While this could be an interesting feature, absolutely no English translation is given to what the conversations actually are. I hope they drop this in future editions.
  • Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook

    Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook

    I picked up a copy of the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook in a second-hand book store shortly before our last trip. And I’m glad I did. While have two different phrasebooks may seem like a waste, it allowed us to both carry one and use the different features from each.

    Here’s are some pros and cons of Lonely Planet’s Japanse Phrasebook.

    Pros

  • Simple Navigation: I found the Lonely Planet book to be very easy to navigate. Sections are color coded and section headings are listed along the right-hand edge of the page. Thumbing forward and backward through the book was simple and finding the right phrases was rarely difficult.
  • Local Talk and Listen For…: A really helpful feature was the inclusion on more casual conversation suggestions in the Local Talk boxes or responses to listen for in the Listen For… areas. These sections allowed you to bring more color or subtle variety into your conversation as well as prepare you for what a Japanese person may respond with to your questions. Incredibly helpful.
  • Japanese to English Dictionary: Lonely Planet includes a ultra-handy Japanese to English dictionary along with their English to Japanese one. It doesn’t add many pages, but I consider it a must for any decent Japanese phrasebook.
  • Great Selection of Phrases: This book had a wealth of great phrase selection, many that you won’t find in most Japanese phrasebooks. While you may never need to ask a Japanese person what their opinion is on indigenous issues, it’s nice to know the book will help you say it. Now you just need to spend several years learning Japanese so you can understand their response to these rather detailed questions :)
  • Cons

  • Borderline Appropriate Conversation: One of my biggest beefs with Lonely Planet guides in general is that they seem to focus on the young and carefree backpacker and night-life loving traveller. While some may appreciate information on how to pick up a date or other more risqué and sexually charged phrases, I found it all rather stupid for a travel phrasebook. This extends to rather rude phrases like how to tell your hairdresser “I should have never let you near me!”, something that I would love to see the face of the hairdresser you tried to use that on.
  • Culinary Reader: While the book has an amazing Culinary Reader with tons of useful information on the foods you’re likely to encounter in Japan, it only goes from romanized Japanese into English and Japanese. While this isn’t a major issue, it does make it difficult to hunt around for what you see on a menu to what you’ll find in the book. Probably your best option is to ask your waiter what something is and then trying to locate it by the word they give you. Not ideal.
  • Conclusions

    Although I found both phrase books very handy, if I was only going to choose one, I go with the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook. While some of the drugs and sex phrase selections were absolutely ridiculous, there were many other detailed conversation options which I have yet to find in other phrase books.

    If you have a favorite Japanese phrasebook or would like to tell us your experiences with using a phrase guide, please leave a comment!

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