Japanese Greetings

May 23, 2021

Japanese people like to use particular greetings as they are a great means to express politeness, good wishes or thanks, but in a more nuanced manner than Westerners are used to. There are some culture specific principles that govern the use of greeting expressions in Japan. It is worth to know them so as to avoid choosing an inappropriate phrase when greeting someone.

Daytime Greetings

おはよう Ohayō [lit. it’s early] Good morning

This greeting phrase is used in the early morning, usually until 11 a.m and no later.

おはようございます Ohayō gozaimasu [lit. it’s early] Good morning

Adding ございます gozaimasu makes the greeting formal and polite, and it should be used when you greet your boss or teacher, for example, or someone you don’t know very well. 

こんにちは。 Konnichi wa [lit. this day] Good afternoon

This phrase is usually used after 11 a.m., and therefore, it is translated sometimes as ‘good morning’ and ‘good afternoon’. In some cases, it can also be translated as ‘Hello’. In Japanese language there is no good equivalent for ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’. But ’Konnichi wa’ can be understood in this way in some situations, even though it is not a true equivalent. Also, it’s good to remember to say it as ko-n-ni-chi-wa, not ko-ni-chi-wa, and when writing it, use は(ha) as here it is read as ‘wa’. 

Evening greetings

こんばんは。 Konban wa [lit. this evening] Good evening.
おやすみなさい。 Oyasumi nasai [lit. rest] Good night

Both phrases are used at evening occasions.

Saying さようなら Sayōnara  Goodbye

さようなら Sayōnara [lit. if the situation is as such] Goodbye is a well-known greeting. However, it’s not often used in daily life. It is used at the occasion of leaving as a farewell greeting between students and teachers, or to someone you will not see for a long time or perhaps never meet again. If you want to say ‘goodbye’ to someone you meet on many occasions, it is common to say:

失礼します Shitsuree shimasu in formal situations, or
じゃあ、また Jaa, mata in casual situations.

Saying ‘How are you?’

In English culture, people often say ‘How are you?’ when greeting each other. The Japanese equivalent for this is the phrase いかがですか (ikaga desu ka), but this expression is used when someone is actually concerned about the health of the other person.

Similarly, the phrase お元気ですか Ogenki desu ka ‘Are you well?’/'How have you been?’ is used after not having seen each other for some time. It can also be used when there is concern about how the other person has been.

Rather saying お元気ですか Ogenki desu ka, Japanese people greet each other by using daily or evening greetings expressions mentioned above, and then one person is likely to follow up with some comments on the weather, such as:

いい天気ですね ii tenki desu ne ‘Nice weather, isn’t it.'

In such a case, the response should be: そうですね。Sō desu ne. ‘Yes, that’s right.’

What you need to know about greetings:

Japanese people do not treat greeting expressions as an incidental language habit. Rather, the context of social encounter or the level of acquaintance play an important role in choosing the appropriate form of greeting.  For example, こんばんは ‘Konban wa’ or こんにちは ‘Konnichi wa’ as forms of formal greetings are not used among family members. おはよう  ‘Ohayō’ or おはようございます  ‘Ohayō gozaimasu’ are used instead.

Also, at the workplace co-workers often say あ、どうも ‘A, dōmo’, and simultaneously nod to acknowledge each other when meeting. Generally, どうも (dōmo) or ども (domo), which literally means ‘thank you; thanks’, is used very often as a greeting expression by all not only to acknowledge, but also to thank each other, regardless of the time of day. The choice of greeting is specific and well thought of to suit the situation and the person you are meeting. 

Advice on how to respond to greetings:

  • Respond with the same greeting expression that you are greeted with first. 
  • Bow, as this shows your politeness and attitude toward the interlocutor.
  • After that you can engage in small talk on the weather.
  • Avoid eye contact as it is often recognised in Japan as a sign of aggression and confrontation.

I hope this helps you in understanding the use of Japanese greetings expressions, manners and their unique significance in socialising. If you have any questions, do contact me through Japco Education.

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