Japanese (日本語 nihongo) is spoken in Japan, and essentially nowhere else other than South Korea and China, where some use it as a second language. The language is strongly influenced by Chinese though the two are unrelated; Japanese may be distantly related to Korean, although the written form uses a combination of Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji characters which were all derived from Chinese characters.
Japanese is not a tonal language like Chinese or Thai, and is comparatively easy to pronounce. The vowels are pronounced virtually identical to the "Italian way" and there are very few consonants that do not exist in English. All syllables are to be pronounced equal in length. Long vowels take the length of two syllables. Combinations like kya are treated like one syllable and are the only occurrence of sliding vowels, all other syllables are to be pronounced rather separately.
Also avoid placing too much emphasis on particular words or syllables. Although Japanese does have a form of stress and intonation, it is significantly flatter than English. Word stress is much more subtle and neglecting it at this point should not interfere with meaning. Trying to keep your intonation flat will make your attempts to speak Japanese more comprehensible to local listeners. When asking questions, you can raise the tone at the end, as in English.
Japanese has only five basic vowels, but the distinction between short and long vowels is often important. The sounds below are first given in romanized Japanese, then hiragana and finally katakana.
The short vowels are:
a, あ, ア
like 'a' in "palm"
i, い, イ
like 'i' in "marine"
u, う, ウ
like 'oo' in "hoop", but short (best described as the sound said without rounded lips)
e, え, エ
like 'e' in "set"
o, お, オ
like 'o' in "rope", but less round
Note that "u" is often weak at the end of syllables. In particular, the common endings desu and masu are usually pronounced as des and mas respectively. Also, the kana "do" and "to" are sometimes pronounced with a weak "o".
The long vowels are generally the same sound as the short vowels, only held approximate 60% longer. The long vowels, marked with a macron in this phrasebook, are:
ā, ああ, アー
like 'a' in "father"
ii, いい, イー
like 'ee' in "cheese"
u, うう, ウー
like 'oo' in "hoop"
ei, えい, エー
like the 'ay' in "pay"
ō, おう, オー
stretch out the 'o' in "soap"
All descriptions above are approximations, it's best to practice with a native speaker.
With the solitary exception of "n" (ん・ン), consonants in Japanese are always followed by a vowel to form a syllable. Consonants and vowels are not freely combinable as in English, see table on the right for all possible syllables and note irregularities like し shi or ふ fu. Certain syllables can be marked with diacritics, which alters the pronunciation of the consonant part. The list below first gives the consonant part of the syllable in romanized Japanese, then the Japanese syllables that the sound occurs in first in Hiragana, then Katakana.
k in かきくけこ・カキクケコ
like 'k' in "king"
g in がぎぐげご・ガギグゲゴ
like 'g' in "go"
s in さすせそ・サスセソ
like 's' in "sit"
z in ざずぜぞ・ザズゼゾ
like 'z' in "haze"
t in たてと・タテト
like 't' in "top"
d in だでど・ダデド
like 'd' in "dog"
n in なにぬねの・ナニヌネノ
like 'n' in "nice"
h in はひへほ・ハヒヘホ
like 'h' in "help"
p in ぱぴぷぺぽ・パピプペポ
like 'p' in "pig"
b in ばびぶべぼ・バビブベボ
like 'b' in "bed"
m in まみむめも・マミムメモ
like 'm' in "mother"
y in やゆよ・ヤユヨ
like 'y' in "yard"
r in らりるれろ・ラリルレロ
no equivalent in English, a sound between 'l', 'r' and 'd', but close to a very soft 'r'
w in わ・ワ
like 'w' in "wall"
sh in し・シ
like 'sh' in "sheep"
j in じ・ジ
like 'j' in "jar"
ch in ち・チ
like 'ch' in "touch"
ts in つ・ツ
like 'ts' in "hot soup"
f in ふ・フ
like 'f' in "food"
n, ん, ン
short 'n', slides towards 'm' in some cases
っ・ッ (small tsu)
glottal stop; the following consonant is prepared, held and stopped for the duration of one syllable. For example, にっぽん nippon is pronounced "nip-(pause)-pon". (Note that the double consonants nn, mm, which are not written with っ, do not have this pause.)
Katakana chart, with hiragana and Roman letters below each kana character
Katakana are used to write foreign and loanwords and are hence a good choice for travellers to learn. The katakana set of characters encompasses exactly the same sounds as hiragana; they only look different. The table on the left only reproduces the basic character set and diacritics (カ → ガ). Combinations (キャ) apply just as for hiragana. One additional sound though is ヴ vu and combinations like ヴェ ve based on it, accommodating additional foreign sounds. Every once in a while you may spot additional ingenious combinations or use of diacritics.
Since Japanese doesn't very well accommodate rapid successions of consonants, the katakana transcription can often only approximate the actual pronunciation of a foreign word. While some words like café (カフェ kafe) can be represented quite gracefully, other words like beer (ビール bīru) or rent-a-car (レンタカー rentakā) seem slightly strange to the native English speaker. Nonetheless, many English expressions and concepts are used in everyday life, as are a number of German, French, Dutch and Portugese loanwords. Oftentimes the exact meaning of a word has changed in Japanese (de: Arbeit → アルバイト arubaito is used only for part-time work) or a completely new meaning was invented (ワンマンカー wanmankā → "one-man car", trains and buses without an inspector, only one driver), but you can usually at least guess at the meaning.
To identify a katakana word, it's usually helpful to repeat it out loud a few times and to leave out superfluous vocals, especially the 'u' in ス su and 'o' in ト to. That way ライス raisu quickly becomes "rice" and チケット chiketto becomes "ticket". Don't try too hard though, as sometimes original Japanese words are written in katakana as well, similar to the use of uppercase or italic letters in English. In addition, some words were not derived from English but from other languages such as German, French or Dutch.
Japanese sentence structure is very similar to that of Korean, so speakers of Korean will find many aspects of Japanese grammar familiar.
At its core, Japanese grammar is pretty simple, though sentence structures differ greatly from English. For instance, Japanese uses postpositions instead of prepositions (Japan in and not in Japan). It has no gender, declensions or plurals. Nouns never conjugate while adjectives follow a generally standardised conjugation pattern. However, verbs have extensive conjugation patterns and much of Japanese lessons for foreign language learners is about getting these conjugations right. Verbs and adjectives also conjugate by politeness level though, and in a rather peculiar way.
Japanese is a so called agglutinative language, meaning several morphemes which have purely grammatical functions are glued to the end of a word stem to express the grammatical function. The more the intended meaning differs from the basic form of the word, the more morphemes are glued together.
Japanese verb and adjective conjugation
stem 見 mi
basic form 見る miru, "to see"
polite basic form 見ます mimasu, "to see" (pol.)
negative form 見ない minai, "to not see"
pol. neg. form 見ません mimasen, "to not see" (pol.)
past tense 見た mita, "seen"
pol. past tense 見ました mimashita, "seen" (pol.)
neg. past tense 見なかった minakatta, "not seen"
pol. neg. past tense 見ませんでした mimasendeshita, "not seen" (pol.)
possibility 見える mieru, "can see"
pol. possibility 見えます miemasu, "can see" (pol.)
neg. possibility 見えない mienai, "can not see"
stem 赤 aka
adjective 赤い akai, "red"
negative form 赤くない akakunai, "not red"
neg. past tense 赤くなかった akakunakatta, "was not red"
The hiragana syllables は ha, へ he and を wo are pronounced as wa, e and o respectively when used as a particle.
Japanese grammar generally employs a subject-object-verb order, but is very modular and flexible since the grammatical meaning of a word is expressed by the morphemes glued to its end and special marker particles. The two most important particles are the topic marker は wa and the object marker を o.
I saw the movie.
Watashi-wa eiga-o mimashita.
I-[topic] movie-[object] seen.
It becomes a little more complicated if both objects and subjects are mixed within a sentence and the subject marker が ga is thrown in.
Students of the language can spend years wrapping their heads around the difference between the topic of a sentence (marked by は wa) and the subject of a sentence (marked by が ga). However, as a beginner, you can fairly safely always use は wa to mark the person doing the action and get your message across.
これは、りんごです。 Kore wa, ringo desu ("This [is] apple.")
それは、赤いです。 Sore wa, akai desu ("That [is] red.").
The word です desu here is not a verb, it's a polite copula (linking word), which can be omitted in colloquial speech or replaced with other copulas including でした deshita (polite past), でしょう deshō (polite suggestion) or だ da (plain). The topic indicated by は wa is also optional and is often implied by context:
あなたはだれですか？ Anata wa dare desu ka? ("Who [are] you?")
山田です。 Yamada desu. ("[I am] Yamada.")
これは何ですか？ Kore wa nan desu ka? ("What [is] this?")
りんごです。 Ringo desu. ("[This is] an apple.")
それは何色ですか？ Sore wa nani-iro desu ka? ("What color [is] that?")
赤いです。 Akai desu. ("[That is] red.")
The two verbs いる iru > imasu and ある aru > arimasu express the physical presence of a person or an object respectively. To say "A is located in B", use the pattern A ga B ni imasu/arimasu:
山田さんがここにいます。 Yamada-san ga koko ni imasu. ("Mr. Yamada is [physically located] here.")
本が棚にありますか？ Hon ga tana ni arimasu ka? ("Is there a book on the shelf?")
はい、あります。 Hai, arimasu. ("Yes, [the book] is [on the shelf].")
As long as you're not 100% sure what you're doing you should always refer to yourself as 私 watashi and address others by their last name + さん（san）. If you feel adventurous, here are a number of ways to address people.
私 watashi, watakushi
the most common polite form for "I", lit. "private"
informal feminine version of watashi
dialect form of watashi, lit "(my) house", usually used to refer to one's family or home
boyish and more informal
male speak (rude)
most common form for "you", not too direct
more direct, used only by females, tends to be insulting
more direct, mostly from a man to a woman
very direct and informal, used only by males
very rude, used only by males
More a cultural than a grammatical problem is the problem of addressing somebody. Even though there exist a multitude of words with the meaning "you", it is generally avoided to address somebody directly. The closest equivalent to "you" is あなた anata, but it's only used among friends or equals. It is usually preferred to address somebody by name, title or status, applying appropriate honorifics.
Note that in Japan, it is generally rude to address people by first name, and last names are almost always used instead. The exception to this rule are young children, and friends you are very close to. When names are written in Japanese, they always follow the Eastern name order (like Chinese and Korean names), with the last name always written before the first name, which is contrary to common practice in English-speaking countries. This means that someone known as Taro Yamada in English will have his name written as 山田太郎 (yamada tarō) in Japanese.
The most basic honorific, about equivalent to Mister or Miss (no distiction between the two in Japanese). 山田さん Yamada-san: Mister Yamada
Politer than -san, used to address people ranking higher on the social ladder. It is also used by shop assistants to address customers.
Usually used to address young children. Also used to address (usually female) close friends.
Used to address male close friends.
"Mister customer", used by hotel or shop owners to address you.
The way to address the owner of a shop, though not the part-time workers.
お兄さん onī-san, お姉さん onē-san
Literally brother and sister respectively, is used to address young people who you're having a hard time finding a better honorific for.
お爺さん ojī-san, お婆さん obā-san
"Gramps" and "granny", very popular to address old people. Cuter when used with -chan.
The boss of the company.
Means something like "on your side" and is used when absolutely no better honorific can be found.
There are also several different words for "I", with 私 watashi being the most commonly used. Grammatically it's often unnecessary to use the words "you" or "I" as the intended meaning is obvious from context, so they should generally be avoided. Sometimes people will also call themselves by their own name. When doing so they must not add any additional honorifics though; one only does this when addressing others.
There's no specific form for "we" or the plural "you". To address groups of people you add the plural particle たち -tachi to somebody within the group or the group designator.
lit. "the group around myself", meaning "we"
a less formal way of saying "we"
"the group around you", plural "you"
"a group of children", meaning "the children"
"the group around Yamada-san", everybody you'd associate with Mr. Yamada, based on context
Reading and writing Japanese are advanced skills which take years of work to gain much real proficiency. Japanese themselves use three different writing systems of various complexity, two of which (hiragana and katakana) are syllabic and relatively easy to learn with 50 characters each.
The clincher is the set of Chinese characters known as kanji, roughly 2,000 of which are in daily use while many more exist. Kanji originated as pictures, where each character originally represented a meaning, idea or concept, not a sound as in English. Even though kanji have since evolved dramatically and many have long since jettisoned any connection to the original concept, the meaning of some simple kanji can still be easily guessed at (see below).
One difficulty in reading Japanese lies often in the fact that a kanji can have several different pronunciations. The kanji 人 for example has the meaning of a person, and by itself it may be pronounced hito. The kanji 大 means big (imagine a person with outstretched arms) and can be pronounced as dai or ō. Together they form the word 大人 otona, "adult" (lit. big person). In the word 外国人 gaikokujin ("foreigner", lit. outside country person) the same kanji 人 is pronounced jin. These pronunciations exist because a single kanji may be used to write one or more different words, or parts of words. These "readings" are normally categorized as either Sino-Japanese (音読み onyomi); a Japanese approximation of the Chinese pronunciation of the character at the time it was introduced to Japanese, or native Japanese (訓読み kunyomi); based on the pronunciation of a native Japanese word. Generally, kanji are read with their native Japanese reading when on their own (eg. 話, hanashi) and with Sino-Japanese readings when part of compound words (eg. 電話, denwa), though there are many exceptions.
While knowing Chinese will give one a huge advantage in tackling kanji, and someone who knows Chinese would generally be able to guess the meanings of new kanji with about 70% accuracy, one should still be careful. While most characters have similar meanings in both Japanese and Chinese, there are a few which have drastically different meanings. For example, the word 手紙 "hand paper" means "toilet paper" (shouzhi) in China, but "letter" (tegami) in Japan.
Kanji are mixed with hiragana and katakana in everyday writing for historical reasons. Japan adopted the Chinese hanzi system, but found it difficult to impossible to express sound-based Japanese grammatical inflections with the meaning-based Chinese characters. Hence the sound-based hiragana characters have been invented and tacked onto the end of hanzi/kanji characters. The katakana system was invented to express foreign and loan words. There are also several competing systems for rendering Japanese in the Latin alphabet, although the Hepburn romanization system is the most common and is used on Wikitravel as well. Do not be surprised if you see these words romanized differently elsewhere.
Also note that there are many homophones in Japanese, i.e. words with different meanings that have the same prononciation (like "there", "they're" and "their"). This can be confusing even to native speakers, to the extent that words have to be explained with an alternative reading or need to be drawn. These words may also employ a pitch-accent system to distinguish them, which speakers of non-tonal languages may have difficulty learning to understand.
What part of "no" don't you understand?
The Japanese are famously reluctant to say the word "no", and in fact the language's closest equivalent, いいえ iie, is largely limited to denying compliments you have received. ("Your Japanese is excellent! "Iie, it is very bad!"). But there are numerous other ways of expressing "no", so here are a few to watch out for.
いいです。 結構です。 Ii desu. Kekkō desu.
"It's good/excellent." Used when you don't want more beer, don't want your bentō lunch microwaved, and generally are happy to keep things as they are. Accompany with teeth-sucking and handwaving to be sure to get your point across - both of these expressions may be interpreted as positive responses if you don't include enough nonverbal indications to the contrary.
ちょっと難しいです･･･ Chotto muzukashii desu...
Literally "it's a little difficult", but in practice "it's completely impossible." Often just abbreviated to sucking in air through teeth, saying "chotto" and looking pained. Take the hint.
申し訳ないですが･･･ Mōshiwakenai desuga...
"This is inexcusable but..." But no. Used by sales clerks and such to tell you that you cannot do or have something.
ダメです。 Dame desu.
"It's no good." Used by equals and superiors to tell you that you cannot do or have something. The Kansai equivalent is akan.
"It is different." What they really mean is "you're wrong". The casual form chigau and the Kansai contraction chau are also much used.
Leave me alone.
Don't touch me!
I'll call the police.
警察をよぶよ！。 Keisatsu o yobu yo!
動くな! 泥棒！ Ugokuna! Dorobō!
I need your help.
手伝ってください。 Tetsudatte kudasai.
It's an emergency.
緊急です。 Kinkyū desu.
道を迷っています。 Michi o mayotte imasu.
I lost my bag.
鞄をなくしました。 Kaban o nakushimashita.
I dropped my wallet.
財布をおとしました。 Saifu o otoshimashita.
病気です。 Byōki desu.
I don't feel well.
具合がわるいです。 Guai ga warui desu.
I've been injured.
けがをしました。 Kega o shimashita.
Please call a doctor.
医者を呼んでください。 Isha o yonde kudasai.
Can I use your phone?
電話を使わせていただけますか？ Denwa o tsukawasete itadakemasu ka?
While Arabic (Western) numerals are employed for most uses in Japan, you will occasionally still spot Japanese numerals at eg. markets and the menus of fancy restaurants. The characters used are nearly identical to Chinese numerals, and like Chinese, Japanese uses groups of 4 digits, not 3. "One million" is thus 百万 (hyaku-man), literally "hundred ten-thousands".
There are both Japanese and Chinese readings for most numbers, but presented below are the more commonly used Chinese readings. Note that, due to superstition (shi also means "death"), 4 and 7 typically use the Japanese readings yon and nana instead.
Down for the count
When counting objects, Japanese uses special counter words. For example, "two bottles of beer" is ビール２本 biiru nihon, where ni is "two" and -hon means "bottles". Unlike in English, where counter words are often optional or non-existent, in Japanese they're mandatory whenever you count something (e.g. 車２台 kuruma ni-dai, two cars; 台 dai counts machines). Alas, the list of possible counters is vast, but some useful ones include:
small roundish objects (apples, sweets)
人 -nin , 名様 -meisama (polite)
匹 -hiki, -biki, -piki
flat objects (papers, tickets)
long objects (bottles, pens)
本 -hon, -bon, -pon
杯 -hai, -bai, -pai
nights of a stay
泊 -haku, -paku
Note how many counters change form depending on the previous number: one, two, three glasses are ippai, nihai, sanbai respectively. There are also a few exceptions: one person and two people are hitori and futari. 20 years old is usually pronounced hatachi. You'll still be understood if you get these wrong though.
For numbers from one to nine, an old counting system is often used which applies to virtually any object you may want to count, without the need to attach a specific counter:
It is always a good idea to use a specific counter whenever possible, but using the generic numbers above is often equally acceptable. This system is rarely used anymore for numbers greater than nine.
Clock times are formed as Chinese numeral plus 時 ji, for example, goji 5時 for five o'clock. The exception is four o'clock which is pronounced yoji (四時) instead of shiji. You will be understood if you simply substitute gozen 午前 for "AM" and gogo 午後 for PM, although other time qualifiers like 朝 asa for morning and 夜 yoru for night may be more natural. The 24-hour clock is also commonly used in official contexts such as train schedules. TV schedules occasionally use a modified 24-hour clock, with late night showtimes counted from the previous day, e.g. Monday at 26:00 indicates Tuesday at 2:00 AM.
Confusingly, the Japanese words for "N days" (long) and "Nth day" are the same, so eg. 二日 futsuka means both "two days" and "the second day of the month". (See #Days of the Month for the full list.) You can tag on -間 kan at the end, eg. futsukakan 2日間, to clarify that you mean "two days long". The exception is 一日, which is read ichinichi to mean "one day/all day", but tsuitachi to mean "first day".
Dates are written in year/month/day (day of week) format, with markers:
Note that Imperial era years, based on the name and duration of the current Emperor's reign, are also frequently used. 2010 in the Gregorian calendar corresponds to Heisei 22 (平成22年), which may be abbreviated as "H22". Dates like "22/03/24" (March 24, Heisei 22) are also occasionally seen.
O, honorable prefix!
Nearly any Japanese word can be prefixed with the respectful tags o- (お) or go- (ご or 御), often translated with the unwieldy four-syllable word "honorable". A few you might expect — o-tōsan (お父さん) is "honorable father", and a few you might not — o-shiri (お尻) is "honorable buttocks". Most of the time, they're used to emphasize that the speaker is referring to the listener, so if someone enquires if after your honorable health (お元気 o-genki) it's proper to strip off the honorific and reply that you are merely genki. However, for some words like gohan (ご飯) "rice" and ocha (お茶) "tea", the prefix is inseparable and should always be used. In this phrasebook, the prefix is separated with a hyphen if it's optional (o-kane), and joined to the word if it's mandatory (oisha).
In Japanese, it's always important to use less respectful terms for your own family and more respectful terms for another's family. Note also that the words for older/younger brother/sister are different.
In Japan, you can legally be incarcerated for twenty-three (23) days before you are charged, but you do have the right to see a lawyer after the first 48 hours of detention. Note that if you sign a confession, you will be convicted.
I haven't done anything (wrong).
何も(悪いこと)していません。(Nani mo (warui koto) shiteimasen.)
It was a misunderstanding.
誤解でした。 (Gokai deshita.)
Where are you taking me?
どこへ連れて行くのですか？ (Doko e tsurete yukuno desu ka?)
Am I under arrest?
私は逮捕されてるのですか？ (Watashi wa taiho sareteruno desu ka?)
I am a citizen of ____.
____ の国民です。 (____ no kokumin desu.)
I want to meet with the ____ embassy.
____ 大使館と会わせて下さい。 (____ taishikan to awasete kudasai.)
I want to meet with a lawyer.
弁護士と会わせて下さい。(Bengoshi to awasete kudasai.)
Can it be settled with a fine?
罰金で済みますか？ (Bakkin de sumimasu ka?) Note: You can say this to a traffic cop, but bribery is highly unlikely to work in Japan.
Japanese makes extensive use of honorific language (敬語 keigo) when talking to people of higher status. Keigo is famously difficult to master and even Japanese salespeople often need to take special courses to learn to speak correctly, but it is very commonly used in situations like salespeople talking to customers and train announcements, so even passive familiarity with the most common keigo verbs and constructs can be very handy.
When talking to someone of higher status than yourself, it is important to use a respectful form (尊敬語 sonkeigo) when talking about the other person. Generally, this follows the pattern お～になる(o ~ ni naru), where ～ represents the stem of the basic polite form: eg. to read, 読む(yomu), basic polite form 読みます(yomimasu) becomes お読みになる(o-yomi-ni-naru). The naru at the end follows the normal conjugation patterns for naru, most commonly becoming narimasu (present) or narimashita (past). The main exceptions are listed below:
To see: 見る becomes ご覧になる (goran-ni-naru).
To eat/drink: 食べる/飲む becomes 召し上がる (meshi-agaru).
To come/go/be at a place: 来る/行く/いる becomes いらっしゃる (irassharu). (basic polite form いらっしゃいます irasshaimasu and not いらっしゃります)
To know: 知る becomes ご存知だ (gozonji-da).
To give (to yourself): くれる becomes 下さる (kudasaru). (basic polite form 下さいます kudasaimasu and not 下さります)
To do: する becomes なさる (nasaru). (basic polite form なさいます nasaimasu and not なさります)
To say: 言う becomes おっしゃる (ossharu) (basic polite form おっしゃいます osshaimasu and not おっしゃります)
When talking about yourself to someone of higher status than you, it is important to put yourself down by using a humble form (謙遜語 kensongo). Generally this follows the pattern お～する (o ~ suru), where ～ reprents the stem of the basic polite form: eg. to borrow, 借りる(kariru), basic polite form 借ります (karimasu) becomes お借りする (o-kari-suru). The suru at the end follows the usual conjugation pattern of suru, most commonly becoming shimasu (present) or shimashita (past); for an extra helping of humility, the verb 致す itasu > 致します itashimasu can be substituted. The main exceptions are listed below:
To see: 見る becomes 拝見する (haiken-suru).
To come/go: 来る/行く becomes 参る (mairu).
To eat/drink/receive: 食べる/飲む/もらう becomes いただく (itadaku)
The third type of keigo is called simply "polite language", or teineigo (丁寧語). Whereas respectful and humble language refer to the subject (you and I), teineigo is used to simply imply respect to the listener. An example:
りんごをご覧になりますか？ Ringo wo goran ni narimasuka?
Can you see the apple? (respectful)
りんごを拝見します。 Ringo wo haiken shimasu.
I see the apple. (humble)
彼もりんごを見ます。 Kare mo ringo wo mimasu.
He also sees the apple. (polite)
In fact, the desu copula and the -masu form taught to beginning students of Japanese are both examples of teineigo. A few verbs and adjectives have special teineigo forms:
aru (ある) → gozaru (ござる、御座る) (basic polite form ございます (gozaimasu) and not ござります)
Country and territory names in Japanese are generally borrowed from their English names and written in katakana. The names of languages are generally formed by adding 語 (go) to the end of the country name. Some of the main exceptions are as follows:
WWWJDIC — English-Japanese-English dictionary including sentence translation, kanji lookup and place/personal name dictionary
Tae Kim's Guide to Japanese Grammar — Comprehensive online/printable grammar guide building up from casual Japanese using first principles (as opposed to working sideways from polite phrasebook Japanese)
Remembering the Kanji 1 by James W. Heisig (1977) — Extremely well-known book detailing just the meanings of most kanji and mnemonics to assist with retaining those meanings. Follow-up texts cover Chinese onyomi readings and all that again for less common naming kanji.
This is a guide phrasebook. It covers all the major topics for traveling without resorting to English. But please Plunge forward and help us make it a star!