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Greetings are important to many cultures in many languages, but Japan has its own unique set of greetings and rules to go with it. Some of the usage and meanings may be different from what you’re used to, but it’s best to learn what to say at each occasion to master Japanese etiquette.
Don’t worry, we’ll take you through the basics of Japanese greetings.
The word aisatsu (挨拶) means “greeting” in Japanese, however, it’s more than just “hello.”
In many western cultures, greetings are saying hello, smiling or a slight nod to people you know. In Japan though, aisatsu is very important and is taught from early childhood. For example, it’s not uncommon for school kids to greet every passing student of a higher grade in a sign of respect. Also important in the workplace, greetings can create a positive working environment and promote communication between coworkers.
Another interesting thing to note is that handshaking is not as common and bowing is much more prevalent as a custom.
Because of the importance of greetings in the Japanese culture, it should be one of the first things you learn when learning Japanese, in addition to characters.
Let’s learn some of the most common and important greetings in Japanese!
This roughly translates to “good morning,” and is used typically in the morning hours until before noon. The word “morning” is not included in the phrase, however, the base word is hayai (早い), which means “early.”
You can leave out the gozaimasu for close friends and family for a more casual greeting, but use the full phrase to greet those outside of your circle of acquaintances and those more senior than you. In some businesses, it’s customary to say ohayō gozaimasu at any hour, even in the evening, when you are first clocking in or greeting someone for the first time that day.
Probably the most well-known Japanese greeting, konnichiwa roughly translates as “hello,” and can be used at any hour, though most commonly used during the day time between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Literally meaning “today,” or more originally, “the sun,” it makes sense to use it while the sun is up.
Konnichiwa can be used in just about every situation with anyone. Among friends, you may use more casual greetings such as “hey” or “yo,” similar to English greetings, however, the more casual greetings should only be used with family and friends you are close to. To be on the safe side, use konnichiwa — can’t go wrong with that!
After around 6 p.m. or sunset, you can use konbanwa, which roughly translates to “good evening,” but literally means “tonight.” In contrast to konnichiwa, konbanwa sounds more formal, and most people don’t use it with their close acquaintances.
This literally means something close to “please rest,” or “have a good rest,” but is used to mean “good night.”
Contrary to popular image, sayōnara is not used that often either, literally meaning “if it is so.” Even rarer these days is gokigenyō, meaning “farewell,” which used to be used together with sayōnara until around the Edo period, to mean “if it is so, farewell,” as a complete greeting. Around the Meiji period, men started to drop the latter and say sayōnara only, while women would respond, gokigenyō. Around the Showa period, many women also started preferring sayōnara, and gokigenyō is not as commonly used today.
Among friends, more commonly heard are bye-bye (バイバイ), jaane (じゃあね), dewa (では) or mata ne (またね). Mata ne (またね) simply means “see you (again),” so to say “see you tomorrow” or “see you next week,” you can say, mata ashita (また明日) or mata raishū (また来週).
The Japanese have greetings specific for when someone leaves the house or office, which may be a new concept to English-speakers. The person who leaves says, ittekimasu, literally “I’ll go and come back,” whereas the person staying says itterasshai, literally “please go and come back.” These are used daily but only at the home or office or somewhere the people are based, since it only makes sense when they will go and come back.
There is also a similar exchange when returning home or to the office. The returning person says, tadaima or tadaima modorimashita, literally “I have come back now.” The person welcoming him/her back says, okaeri, or okaerinasai, to mean “welcome back.
There is one particular greeting used only on the phone. The origin lies in the verb mōsu (申す), a polite form used for oneself of the verb iu (言う), “to say.” You will often hear moshimoshi on the phone at the beginning of a conversation, to make sure both parties can hear the line.
However, a more polite way to answer the phone today is hai (はい) or “yes,” followed by your name or your company and your name, when you are taking business calls.
Similar to in-person meetings, a business caller will most often say, osewa ni natte orimasu (お世話になっております) to show appreciation for the relationship.
This is probably the most commonly used greeting in the workplace, but is quite difficult to translate. The origin verb tsukareru (疲れる) means “to get tired.” It’s generally used as a sign of recognition for hard work and mutual support and is thus usually said after work.
One of the first greetings you hear or see at the airport in Japan may be yōkoso, to mean “welcome.”
In stores and restaurants, on the other hand, customers are greeted by an enthusiastic irasshaimase, which is a welcome that usually does not expect a response.
Etiquette and manners are very valued in Japanese society and culture. Whether you’re a tourist, student or worker, one of the first steps to living in Japan is to familiarize yourself with language and culture. Now that you’ve learned some of the basic greetings in Japan, be sure to use these at various occasions in Japan!
For more information about Japanese language and culture, keep following our Go! Go! Nihon blog.
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