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Although much of the Japanese vocabulary and writing system is influenced by Chinese, Japanese is actually a lot easier to learn because it is not a tonal language like Mandarin.
Knowing a few words and phrases in Japanese will go a long way towards helping travelers show their respect and interest in local culture while also warming 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.
The culture in Japan is deeply rooted in honorific traditions and hierarchies depending on age, social status, and relations, 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.
These greetings, including the etiquette of bowing, are all part of a complex system of “face”. Embarrassing someone, even accidentally, in a way that causes them to "lose face" is considered a serious social faux pas, and something travelers should try to avoid when visiting Japan.
If using the correct honorific when greeting someone seems a bit too complicated or intimidating, don't worry, there is an easy default. 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.
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.
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 greeting can be shortened by just saying Ohayou (sounds like the U.S. state of Ohio). Do keep in mind, though, that this is a rather informal morning greeting.
Good afternoon: Konnichiwa
Good evening: Konbanwa (pronounced: "kon-bahn-wah")
Good night: Oyasumi nasai (pronounced: "oy-yah-sue-mee nah-sigh")
Something important to keep in mind is that even though Japanese is not a tonal language, people from different regions in the country have different accents. So don't expect some of the words you may have learned to sound exactly the same in different parts of Japan!
Now that we've covered the different ways to say hello in Japan depending on the time of day, here are some other useful everyday Japanese phrases.
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?"
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."
This expression is best used when expressing gratitude to friends, but it shouldn’t be used with someone who is in a position of authority, or in formal situations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Japan boasts a unique culture, unparalleled anywhere on the planet. At Asia Highlights, we take special care in making sure every tiny detail of your trip is expertly taken care of by us so you can experience a truly memorable journey to Japan.
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