"Greetings in Japanese; A Primer, A Story, A Moral"
By Kit [13 May 1999]

Hi there, everybody! Geeky beginning, right? Well, the article actually starts here, and the focus is on greetings. Salutations of one sort or another come naturally to most of us the world over. But in Japan, formalized greetings acknowledge a social structure full of responsibilities and complex hierarchies. Therefore, preschool children are generally exempt from the process, as are a fair number of foreigners for whom the language of greetings can be daunting, never mind the conversations that might follow. But once your child enters any kind of Japanese school, from nursery on up, both you and junior will be required to join in the most basic forms of greetings.

Without further ado, here are the basic "go-aisatsu," or "honorable greetings."

Ohaiyo gozaimasu (Oh-high-yoh go-zahee-mah-su) = Good morning. *This greeting is used by most people until about 10 a.m.; the exception is for people who start work late in the day, such as entertainers, who will greet each other with this phrase even at midnight.
Konnichi wa (Kon-nee-chee-wah) = Hello. *You could translate this as "good afternoon," but it can be used hours before noon rolls around. Remember that if you use Ohaiyo gozaimasu too late in the day, people will think that you have just rolled out of bed and perhaps wonder why.
Konban wa (Kon-bahn-wah) = Good evening.
Sayonara (Sah-yo-nah-rah) = Goodbye.

Got all that? Now, you may be wondering, why go to all the trouble to learn these phrases, especially if you plan to send junior to an international school? Well, here's the fun part of the article.


My son, Leo, has been attending a Japanese nursery school much of his life (he's three). He mastered the basic greetings very quickly, but seemed to think they were only required at nursery school. Finally he got the idea, with some maternal prodding, that greetings could and should be offered at other places, too. In my thinking, shop owners, postal clerks, building caretakers, etc. are hard-working people who deserve a kind word or two, but they rarely get even a basic "hello" from customers, and hardly a peep from little children. Leo knows that a greeting is required, and he's generous with his vocal volume.

I think this explains, in part, why my son has become a bit of a celebrity in my area. Leo greets just about anyone these days. This includes large groups of women walking home from work, people out walking their dogs, delivery truck people, people trying to talk on pay phones, drunks on the street corner, etc. First he says (somewhat ludicrously) "goaisatsu!" or, "The honorable greeting!" Then, he formally bows and (usually) fits the greeting to the time of day. A lot of people find this astonishing. More than a few praise Leo, and some even give him gifts for this performance. To date, he's gotten free disposable cameras, baked potatoes, helium balloons, two suits of brand new traditional Japanese clothing, three boxes of Ritz crackers, bath toys, picture stamps, photographs of himself, a squirt gun, and buckets of candy. You can see why Leo is sold on the process!

As for me, I feel safer living in a neighborhood full of people who know Leo. On one memorable occasion, Leo was not on his best behavior in the checkout line in a local grocery store. The clerk looked annoyed, but another customer recognized my son, greeted him, and told the clerk what a nice boy Leo usually is. This simple act of kindness mellowed everyone, Leo included. What a huge payoff, I thought, for a few words and a quick bow. I suspect that for every person who might seem to take it for granted, there are ten people who will be touched that you greet them. So, even if the language intimidates you, give these phrases a shot. Until next time, sayonara. Send gifts c/o Cornelia!

Kit Pancoast Nagamura first arrived in Japan in 1982 on a fellowship from Brown University and I.B.M. Back in the U.S., she took her Ph.D. in literature and won various teaching and writing awards, but always hoped to see Japan again. Settled here since 1991, she now lives in Tokyo with her husband and one son. Kodansha has just published her third book written in Japanese. Writing for her is like breathing for the rest of us. When you meet her, the red hair and sparkling blue eyes promise a quick wit. You will not be disappointed.

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