Whether it’s a romantic engagement or dinner with friends or colleagues, making an appointment (約束, yakusoku) is a vital part of everyday language in Japan as much as anywhere else. The grammar involved isn’t too taxing, though the vocabulary extends as far as your interests. Meeting for coffee (コーヒー, kōhī) might be easy enough, but swot up on suitable expressions if your companion’s hobbies include something more outlandish.
The main particles at play when organizing a schedule are ni (に) and de (で). Ni has several meanings, but we’re concerned with two in particular.
First, ni can indicate the time of an event. For example, eiga wa jyūji ni hajimarimasu (映画は十時に始まります, the film starts at 10 o’clock). Time references relative to the present, such as kyō (今日, today), ashita (明日, tomorrow) and kinō (昨日, yesterday), are not preceded by ni. For example, kyō eiga wo mini ikimasu (今日映画を見に行きます, Today I’ll go watch a film). Also exempt are expressions that define regular intervals, such as mainichi (毎日, every day) or the word for “when” (いつ, itsu). When referring to an approximate time, use goro ni (ごろに) or gurai ni (ぐらいに): Eiga wa jyūji gurai ni hajimarimasu (映画は十時くらいに始まります, The film starts at about 10 o’clock).
Second, ni can indicate the goal of movement. For example, in the phrase eigakan ni ikitai (映画館に行きたい, I want to go to the cinema), ni marks the place to which you are headed. For variety, this second usage of ni is pretty much interchangeable with the particle e (へ), so the sentence “I’ll go to the cinema at 10 o’clock” can be expressed as either Jyūji ni eigakan ni ikimasu (十時に映画館に行きます) or Jyūji ni eigakan e ikimasu (十時に映画館へ行きます).
Very basically, de indicates where the event takes place: Eigakan de eiga wo mimasu (映画館で映画を見ます, I’ll watch a film at the cinema). The particle wo (を) here indicates the direct object, which in this case is eiga (映画, film).
Next, whether arranging a dēto (デート, date) or making an appointment with a new friend or a business acquaintance, you can start by asking, “Shumi wa nan desuka?” (『趣味は何ですか』, “What are your interests?”) or “Shokuji wa nani wo tabetai desuka?” (『食事は何を食べたいですか』, “What do you fancy for dinner?”). He or she may reply, “Bijutsukanshō ga suki desu” (『美術鑑賞が好きです』, “I like art”) or “Tai ryōri ga tabetai desu” (『タイ料理が食べたいです』, “I’d like to eat Thai food”). A natural reply would be “Dewa, nichiyō bi ni bijutsukan e isshoni ikimashō” (『では、日曜日に美術館に一緒に行きましょう』, “OK, so let’s go to an art museum on Sunday”) or “Dewa, Tai ryōri wo isshoni tebeni ikimashō” (『では、タイ料理を一緒に食べに行きましょう』, “In that case, let’s go eat Thai food”).
The suffix mashō (ましょう, let’s) is a friendly invitation, but if you want to make it clear you have a stronger desire, you can instead use masenka (ませんか, won’t you?): “Dewa, nichiyōbi ni bijutsukan e isshoni ikimasenka” (『では、日曜日に美術館に一緒に行きませんか』, “Would you like to go to an art gallery with me on Sunday?”).
Similarly, learn to read the signs. If your counterpart replies, “Nichiyōbi wa chotto . . .” (『日曜日はちょっと . . . 』, “Sunday’s a bit [difficult] ..”), it may be a hint that they’re not interested.
It pays to be prepared in Japan, so call ahead to make a reservation. A common dialogue with a restaurant would go:
“Sumimasen, doyōbi ni yoyaku wo onegaishimasu” (『すみません、土曜日に予約をお願いします』, “Excuse me, I’d like to make a reservation for Saturday please”). “Hai, kashikomarimashita. Nanji goro ga yoroshii deshōka?” (『はい、かしこまりました。何時ごろがよろしいでしょうか』, “I see. At about what time?”). “Shichiji ni” (『七時に』, “At 7 o’clock”). “Nan mei sama ni narimasuka?” (『何名様になりますか』, “For how many people?”). “Ni mei de onegaishimasu. Soshite, moyori no eki wa dochira desuka?” (『二名でお願いします。最寄りの駅はどちらですか』, “For two people please. Which is the nearest station?”). “Tamachi eki nishi guchi ni narimasu” (『田町駅西口になります。お待ちしております』, “The west exit at Tamachi. Right, we’ll be waiting for you”).
At the restaurant, you might ask the waiter: “What do you recommend?” (『おすすめは何ですか』, “Osusume wa nandesuka?”) or tell your companion to order away (『好きなものを頼んでください』, “Sukina mono wo tanonde kudasai”).
Was it a successful date? A friendly parting salutation would be “Mata chikai uchi ni oaishimashō” (『また近い内にお会いしましょう』, “Let’s do it again soon”). If you’re not ready for the night to end, you might ask, “Nikenme ni ikimashōka?” (『二件目にいきましょうか』, “Shall we go somewhere else?”). Then again, if it went particularly well, you might be beyond words at this stage anyway …