Saying hello in Japanese is easy to learn, and helpful when visiting the country and greeting local people. Although much Japanese vocabulary and writing is influenced by Chinese, Japanese is actually a lot easier to learn because it is not a tonal language like Mandarin.
Japanese pronunciation is fairly straightforward, and many words are “Japanized” versions of Western words. Knowing and using a few words and phrases in Japanese goes a long way towards showing respect for and interest in the local culture, and warms the hearts of locals.
In addition, knowing the right way to bow to a Japanese person is important, since the act conveys confidence. Even if you're not entirely confident in your bowing abilities, not returning someone's bow can be considered highly disrespectful.
In this article, we will get you started on the basics of Japanese language, both verbal and nonverbal.
Honorifics in Japanese
The culture in Japan is deeply rooted in honorific tradition and hierarchy, based on age, social status, family relations and one’s personal situation, and this has a significant impact on everyday communication.
Japanese greetings use varying levels of formality, depending on the amount of respect you wish to show the person you are communicating with. In more formal conversation, entirely different words are used. If, however, using the correct honorific when greeting someone seems a bit too complicated or intimidating, don't worry, there is an easy default.
In daily conversation, levels of politeness are simply a matter of the length of verb endings. Adding "-san" to the end of a first or last name for someone from either gender is a way of showing respect and courtesy. An extremely versatile suffix, it is pretty much the equivalent of "Mr." or "Mrs./Ms." in English.
Greetings, along with the etiquette of bowing, are all part of a complex system of “giving face”. Embarrassing someone, even accidentally, in a way that causes them to "lose face", is considered a serious social faux pas, and something visitors to Japan should try to avoid.
Saying hello in Japanese
Konnichiwa (pronounced: "kon-nee-chee-wah") is the most basic way to say hello in Japanese.
Although the phrase is most often heard in the afternoon, konnichiwa is a respectful-yet-generic way to say hello to anyone, whether it be a good friend or an acquaintance.
While it is absolutely okay to use konnichiwa as a basic greeting, it is important to keep in mind that Japanese people usually use different greetings based on the time of day. Furthermore, special occasions such as birthdays have their particular set of greetings.
Say hello to kimono girls
Here are some different ways to say hello in Japanese, depending on the time of day:
Good morning: Ohayou gozaimasu (pronounced: "oh-hi-oh goh-zai-mas"). This is a formal greeting with a high level of courtesy.
This greeting can be shortened by just saying Ohayou (sounds like the U.S. state of Ohio). Do keep in mind, though, that this shortened form is rather informal, often reserved for a casual setting.
Good afternoon: Konnichiwa. Though it’s now a colloquial way of saying hello and can be used at any time of day, it actually means “good afternoon”.
Good evening: Konbanwa (pronounced: "kon-bahn-wah"). After dinner, Japanese will greet each other with this phrase.
Good night: Oyasumi nasai (pronounced: "oy-yah-sue-mee nah-sigh"). This phrase can be shortened to Oyasumi. It’s used as a way of saying “good night”.
Something to bear in mind is that even though standard Japanese is used and understood throughout Japan, people from different regions in the country – even from the Tokyo and Osaka-Kyoto areas, for example – have different accents, and rural accents can be very strong.
With this in mind, don't expect all the words you have learned to sound exactly the same in different parts of Japan!
Other Greetings in Japanese
Now that we've covered different ways of saying hello in Japan according to the time of day, here are some other useful everyday Japanese phrases. Beginning with a hello, you can now graduate to interacting with local residents.
How are you?
O-genki desu ka? (pronounced: "oh-gain-kee des-kah") is the most polite way of asking, "How are you?" The "u" at the end of desu is silent.
To reply in a polite manner that you are doing fine, use Watashi wa genki desu (pronounced: "wah-tah-shee wah gain-kee des"). You could even just say Genki desu (pronounced: "gain-kee des"). An enthusiastic 'thank you' to either greeting is always a good idea!
These replies could even be followed up by asking Anatawa? (pronounced: "ahn-nah-taw-wah") which means "and you?"
Greeting each other when gathering
There are a few informal ways of asking someone how they are doing. These are:
What's up? Nannika atta (pronounced: "nah-nee-kah-tah")
What's new? Kawatta koto aru (pronounced: "ka-wah-tah koto ar-ew")
How is everything? Dou shiteru (pronounced: "doh-stair-ew")
Although there are several different ways to say "thank you" to express gratitude in Japanese, Domo arigatou (pronounced: "doh-moh ah-ree-gah-toh) is a fairly standard yet casual way to say "thank you."
It is best used when expressing gratitude to friends or family members, but it shouldn’t be used in formal situations, or with someone who is in a position of authority.
Other variations of “thank you” include:
Thanks: Arigatou (pronounced: "ah-ree-gah-toh"). This is a casual way of saying "thank you" and is best used with friends and family members.
Thank you very much: Arigatou gozaimasu (pronounced: "ah-ree-gah-toh goh-zah-ee-mas"). This is the best phrase to use if you want to express heartfelt gratitude to someone with a higher status, including teachers and family elders, and strangers or acquaintances who appear older or higher in rank than you.
There are a few ways to say “please”. When asking for something you know you are entitled to, kudasai (pronounced: "koo-dah-sigh") is the usual request word in Japanese. It’s used when asking someone to give something or do something for you. Kudasai follows the object and the particle o, for example, Mizu o kudasai, means “water, please”.
Please (more formal): Onegai shimass (pronounced: "Oh-nay-guy shee-mas") is more polite and honorific. It’s used when you are asking for a favor in a more formal manner. When you are directing a request to a superior or making a request for some practical service, you use Onegai shimass.
For example, when taking a taxi to Kyoto Station, you would say “Kyoto eki made onegai shimass”, meaning “Kyoto Station, please”.
Please (receiving): A common way to receive something is by using the word douzo (pronounced: "Doh-zoh"). Hai douzo, meaning “yes, please”, is used in replying to an offer.
There are different phrases for saying goodbye in different situations. Sayonara (pronounced: "Sy-oh-nar-ah") is the most common. It is used when bidding farewell to someone you will not see for a long time. When your friend is leaving for a vacation, you can wave and say “Sayonara”.
Other ways of saying “goodbye” include:
Sayonara when bidding farewell
See you later: Dewa mata (pronounced: "Day-wa Mah-tah"). This is casual, often used informally.
See you tomorrow: Mata ashita (pronounced: "Mah-tah Ash-eh-tah"). This can be used for someone you will see the following day.
Sumimasen (pronounced: "su-mi-ma-sen") is one word that can be used to say both "excuse me" or even "I'm sorry."
The phrase is especially useful at restaurants when you're trying to get a staff member's attention, or at crowded subway stations and markets.
Shitsurei Shimasu (pronounced: "Shit-soo-ray Shee-mas") is a formal expression often used when leaving in the middle of a gathering or a meeting. When you are leaving before others, you say “osakini, shitsurei shimasu”, meaning “excuse me, I’m going to leave”.
Now that you have some of the basic greetings in Japanese down, you'll want to get familiar with how to say "cheers" for when you meet friends for a drink. Although Japanese drinking etiquette has its own set of greetings, Kanpai (pronounced: "gahn-pie") is the most common way of saying cheers.
Bowing in Japan
Although saying hello in Japanese can be straightforward, knowing the rules behind bowing properly in Japan is something most foreigners find intimidating.
If you do find yourself in a formal setting where bows are being exchanged, don't panic! First and foremost, do keep in mind that Japanese people don't really expect visitors to have a thorough understanding of the intricacies behind bowing correctly. That being said, they do appreciate it if you demonstrate some cultural knowledge.
To show respect, it is important to acknowledge and respond to someone's bow.
How to bow in Japan
Men typically bow with their arms straight, hands by their sides along their legs, and fingers straight. Women typically bow with their hands clasped in front of them. It is important to keep the back straight and bend at the waist with your eyes downward.
The longer and deeper the bow, the more respect you are conveying. If you think the person you are bowing to is of higher status than yourself, bow deeper and longer. If unsure, simply maintain your bow slightly longer than the one you received.
A casual bow consists of bending at an approximate angle of 15 degrees at the waist. A bow to strangers would be around 30 degrees, while a very formal bow (to show apology or utmost respect) requires bending to around 45 degrees, by which time you are looking down directly at your shoes.
It's also important to note that maintaining eye-contact while bowing is a serious no-no in Japanese culture. Maintaining eye-contact can be seen as an act of mistrust or aggression.
In formal settings, bows may be exchanged over and over again. In such a situation, each consecutive bow should be quicker and less deep than the last, until both parties are satisfied with the amount of respect that has been shown.
After all bows have been exchanged, you may be given a business card. Do receive the card with both hands, hold it at the corners, read it carefully, and treat it with respect. Shoving someone's business card peremptorily into your back pocket is considered highly rude.
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