Greetings are all about breaking down barriers

What Japanese language courses don’t teach you! A literal look at some common Japanese greetings

You pick up your hand luggage, get off the plane and prepare to try out some of the elementary Japanese that you studied back home. Ever since deciding that Japan was where you wanted to go, you’ve been learning Japanese.

You pick up your hand luggage, get off the plane and prepare to try out some of the elementary Japanese that you studied back home. Ever since deciding that Japan was where you wanted to go, you’ve been learning Japanese. You’ve memorized a lot of words and expressions that you think will be useful. Introductions, buying/ordering food and drink, travelling, social situations, etc. – the course you took was pretty comprehensive.

Now, you’re all set to meet the rep who’s going to take you to your new apartment, and you think you’ve got some handy phrases ready for when you meet the boss – though you’re not sure how you’ll handle the degrees of politeness. At least you know how to introduce yourself and greet people, and that’s good enough at this stage, isn’t it?

They say that language or languages are like the ‘window’ from which their speakers see the world and that they reflect the culture behind them. Greetings are all about breaking down barriers, but there’s a big difference in nuance between, for example, the English “good morning” and the Japanese “ohayo gozaimasu”. While it wouldn’t make sense or be ‘study-efficient’ to learn the literal meaning of every Japanese phrase encountered, it might help if you are aware that even the most basic Japanese expressions can come from an entirely different place to their English ‘equivalents’.

Good morning – Ohayo Gozaimasu

When the Japanese worker walks into the office early in the morning, the first thing he or she and all their co-workers will say is: Ohayo gozaimasu. In an office environment, this is a collective greeting to everyone in the vicinity. Quite unlike “good morning”, however, which wishes the other party “a good morning”, it expresses appreciation for “working hard from early in the day”.

Nice to meet you – Hajimemashite

You stretch out your hand and say, “Nice to meet you”. Your new Japanese colleague offers a light handshake. They’d probably have preferred to perform a very slight bow for first-time meetings and left it at that. I mean, when they introduced themselves to you, all they said was: “It’s the first time”!

A literal translation might go something like this:

Speaker A: It’s the first time. (I’m) …

Speaker B: It’s the first time. (I’m)…

Speaker A: Please be good to me.

Speaker B: Please be good to me too.

Hello / Good afternoon – Konnichi wa.

The literal meaning of this is closer to “How are you?” as it’s actually an abbreviation of “How are you feeling today?” which was used with friends or acquaintances you’d bump into for the first time that day. That’s probably why some of us get strange looks when we use it to say ‘hi’ in the office to somebody we were speaking to five minutes ago!

Hello …thank you…goodbye? – Otsukaresamadesu

Although company culture can vary, some things remain consistent — such as the Japanese phrase “o-tsukare-sama desu”. One of the headaches for Japanese translators of internal staff emails since the dawn of the internet age, this phrase is unsurpassed in versatility of usage, and in its lack of equivalent expressions in other languages. This expression, which encapsulates so much of Japanese culture in just a few words, is a perfect example of the different windows in which the Japanese and English languages operate.

The basic tenet is that “otsukaresamadesu” shows appreciation for the other person’s hard work. In practice, however, it can be used when passing by a colleague/fellow team member in the office corridor, after disturbing someone at their desk to ask a question, to say goodbye at the end of the day, to start an email to a coworker… the list goes on. Translators from Japanese to English and other languages continue to scratch their heads and wonder at what to put in its place.

Good evening – Konban wa

As you may have noticed, “Konban wa” has exactly the same structure as “Konnichi wa” and its literal meaning is probably the closest that any Japanese expression can get to English. Like the English “good evening”, the Japanese equivalent literally praises the day and is thought to be a contraction of “This is a good evening”.

Please be good to me…yours sincerely… best regards… – Yoroshiku onegaishimasu

Another normal, formal and business expression with absolutely no equivalent in English, it is also used in daily social situations. Like “Otsukaresamadesu”, it’s much easier to learn how it’s used when you’re immersed in a Japanese-speaking environment. It means “Please be good to me” but also acts as the equivalent Japanese expression for “Regards/Sincerely” at the end of emails or letters. It’s primarily used in situations where the other person is going to do you a favor or perform a service of some kind, but both parties say it.

Steven Ritchie