Greeting others is a fundamental way to establish respect and positive connections. In Japan, where social etiquette holds great importance, how you say “hello” can greatly impact your interactions with others. Knowing the proper greetings and using them correctly is key to making a good impression and demonstrating respect.
This comprehensive guide on how to say hello in Japanese will delve into the significance of greetings in Japanese society, highlight the differences between casual and formal greetings, and provide you with a variety of common greetings used in daily life. Whether you are traveling or simply looking to enhance your understanding of the language and culture, this article is a must-read for anyone interested in the intricate art of social etiquette in Japan.
The cultural background of greetings in Japanese
The cultural background of greetings in Japanese is rooted in the country’s rich history and traditions. From early times, Japan has had a hierarchical society, where society highly valued respect for elders and those in positions of authority. The Japanese reflected this respect in the way people greeted each other, with formal greetings reserved for elders, superiors, and those of higher status. The traditional bow, for example, is a deeply ingrained aspect of Japanese etiquette, and the individuals’ relative social status determines the bow’s depth and duration.
In addition to reflecting social hierarchy, greetings in Japanese culture also express warmth and respect. The phrase “yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” for example, is commonly used as a polite way of asking for someone’s help or cooperation and is often used in business settings. Similarly, the phrase “ohayou gozaimasu,” used to greet someone in the morning, is not just a simple “hello” but also conveys a sense of care and concern for the other person’s well-being.
Greetings in Japanese culture are also influenced by religious beliefs, notably Buddhism, which has shaped the values of humility, respect, and peaceful coexistence. Hence, greetings should always be polite and humble; be sure to avoid any behavior that might be considered aggressive or confrontational.
Politeness and formality in Japanese
Politeness and formality play a crucial role in the Japanese language and culture, and they are demonstrated in many aspects of daily life. Understanding the different levels of formality in the Japanese language can help you build stronger relationships and communicate more effectively in different situations. In Japan, politeness is expressed through language and is influenced by several factors such as age, social status, and the relationship between the speaker and the listener.
The three primary levels of formality in Japanese are “teineigo,” “kudaketa nihongo,” and “keigo.” This section will delve into each formality level and examine the typical situations in which they are used. Whether you’re meeting someone for the first time, interacting with colleagues in a professional setting, or speaking with friends and family, being aware of the different levels of politeness and formality in Japanese is essential to ensure smooth and effective communication.
Teineigo (polite language)
Teineigo is the standard and most commonly used level of politeness in Japan. This level is appropriate in most everyday situations, such as talking to a co-worker, a neighbor, or someone you don’t know well. The key to using teineigo is to use polite and neutral language; avoid any expressions that might be considered overly casual or disrespectful.
Kudaketa nihongo (casual language)
Kudaketa nihongo, or casual language, is used with close friends and family. This informal language can include casual expressions, colloquialisms, and contractions. Using kudaketa nihongo with children or people significantly younger than you is also very common.
Keigo (honorific language)
Keigo, or honorific language, is the most polite and formal level. It is reserved for formal settings such as business meetings, job interviews, and conversations with elders or people in positions of authority. Keigo includes honorific expressions and specific verb conjugations indicating respect for the addressed person.
Using the appropriate level of formality in Japanese greetings and conversations demonstrates respect for the other person and helps to build strong relationships.
Teineigo – Polite greetings in Japanese
When it comes to polite greetings in Japanese, there are several options to choose from. The most common is “こんにちは” (konnichiwa). This greeting can be used in various formal situations including business meetings and other professional environments.
Here are some other greetings that fall under the “teineigo” level of formality:
“こんにちは” (Konnichiwa) – Hello / Good afternoon
“こんにちは” is one of the most common greetings in Japan, and you can use it in both formal and informal settings. It’s most appropriate to use in the daytime as it means “good afternoon.”
“おはようございます” (Ohayou gozaimasu) – Good morning
This greeting is commonly used in the morning, especially in professional settings. Since it is so polite and formal, it is a good option for greeting colleagues, supervisors, and clients.
“こんばんは” (Konbanwa) – Good evening
“Konbanwa” is another popular greeting used in the evening. Like “ohayou gozaimasu,” it is very polite and, therefore, a good choice for greeting others in professional settings or more formal social situations.
“いい天気ですね” (Ii tenki desu ne) – Nice weather, isn’t it?
[iː teŋ.ki de.sɯ ne]
“Ii tenki desu ne” is a polite way to start a conversation. You can use it to ask about or comment on the weather. This greeting is appropriate in both professional and social settings and can be used with acquaintances and colleagues.
“どうも”（doumo) – How do you do?
“どうも” is a more formal way of saying “how do you do?” in Japanese. It is ideal for job interviews, business meetings, or when greeting someone you have not seen in a long time.
“いかがお過ごしですか？”（Ikaga o sugoshi desu ka) – How have you been?
[i.ka.ɡa o.sɯ.ɡo.ɕi de.sɯ ka]
“いかがお過ごしですか？” is a more formal way of asking how someone has been. It is typically used in business and professional settings but also works when speaking to someone older or in higher social standing.
“ご無沙汰です” （Go busata desu) – We haven’t spoken in a while
“ご無沙汰です” is a polite way of acknowledging that you have not seen or spoken to someone for a long time. It is common in formal settings such as business or professional gatherings or when talking to someone older or in higher social standing.
Kudaketa nihongo – Casual greetings in Japanese
While it’s essential to know how to greet someone politely in Japanese, sometimes you just want to say “hey!” or “what’s up?” Using a casual greeting in the proper context can often be seen as a sign of friendliness and approachability. Here are some common informal greetings in Japanese that you can use to break the ice and start casual conversations.
“ハロー” (Haroo) – Hello
The word “ハロー”（haroo）is a borrowed English word in Japanese and means “hello.” It’s a casual greeting that’s easy to remember and can be used in various situations. In fact, if you look even remotely foreign, Japanese children might even shout “ハロー” at you, assuming you speak English.
“どうよ？” (Dou yo) – How’s it going?
The phrase “どうよ”（dou yo）is a colloquial abbreviation of “どうですか” (dou desu ka). This phrase is a casual greeting among friends that means “how are things?” or “how’s it going?” It’s commonly used in passing or over the phone.
“ヤッホ” (Yahoo) – Yoohoo / Hiya
The greeting “ヤッホー” (yahoo) is a cute and friendly way to say “hello” among young people in Japan. Some Japanese might consider this greeting to sound a bit feminine, as many high school girls use it with their friends. It has a similar feel to the English slang words “Yoohoo!” or “Hiya!”
“おう！” (Ou) – Hey!
The greeting “おう” (ou) is another informal way of saying “hey!” generally among young men in Japan. It’s often used among high school sports teams or groups of male friends. It’s a simple, easy-to-remember greeting best suited for casual situations.
“おっす / うっす / ちーっす” (Ossu/ussu/chiissu) – Yo
[o̞ss / uss / tiːssu]
The greetings “おっす” (ossu), “うっす” (ussu), or “ちーっす” (chiissu) are informal greetings used strictly by men. These are actually more sounds than real words and are often accompanied by a nod or a high five between friends.
“最近どう？” (Saikin dou) – How’s it been?
The phrase “最近どう” (saikin dou) is an informal version of “いかがお過ごしですか” (ikaga o sugoshi desu ka). It’s a way to ask a friend or an acquaintance, “how’s it been?” or “how have you been?” This greeting can be used among friends, in passing, or over the phone. While informal and not strictly casual, it’s still important to use this phrase only with people you know well.
Keigo – Honorific and most formal greetings in Japanese
In contrast to the casual and polite greetings we’ve looked at so far, there’s also a range of formal and honorific greetings in Japanese used in specific situations. These greetings, collectively known as “keigo” (敬語), use specific verb forms and vocabulary to show respect and humility to the addressed person. In this section, we’ll look at some of the most formal and honorific greetings in Japanese and when to use them.
“ごきげんよう” (Gokigenyou) – Good day / Hello
“ごきげんよう” (gokigenyou) is ideal for during the day. It’s a polite and respectful greeting for any professional business setting, such as when meeting with a client or a superior.
“いらっしゃいませ” (Irasshaimase) – Welcome (to a store or restaurant)
This phrase is commonly used in shops, restaurants, and other service-oriented businesses to greet customers. It is a formal and polite way to welcome someone.
“失礼します” (shitsurei shimasu) – Excuse me / I’m sorry
When you need to interrupt someone in a formal setting, such as in a business meeting or when meeting with someone of higher status, you can use “失礼します” (shitsurei shimasu). This way, you show respect and humility when interrupting someone. It’s also the ideal phrase when entering a room.
“お元気ですか” (ogenki desu ka) – How are you?
When you want to ask about someone’s well-being in a very polite way, say “お元気ですか” (ogenki desu ka). This phrase is often used in a professional business setting, such as when meeting with a client or a superior.
“ごめんください” (gomen kudasai) – May I come in?
This phrase is used to ask permission to enter a room or a building in a formal or professional setting such as in a business meeting or when visiting someone’s home.
“お先に失礼します” (Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu) – Sorry to leave before you do
[osa.ki ni ɕi.tsɯ.ɾeː ɕi.ma.sɯ]
If you’re leaving work before your colleagues, it’s considered polite to say “osaki ni shitsurei shimasu” (お先に失礼します). This phrase translates to “excuse me for leaving before you,” and is meant to show respect for your co-workers’ hard work and dedication. With this phrase, you acknowledge their efforts and show that you’re not taking their work for granted. It’s a common phrase used in Japanese workplaces to maintain a respectful and harmonious work environment.
The Japanese bow
Bowing, or “ojigi,” is a fundamental part of Japanese culture steeped in history and tradition. From a young age, children in Japan learn the different types of bows and when they should use them. Unlike in the western world, bowing is used to show respect, gratitude, remorse, or appreciation. Depending on the situation, it can be a slight nod of the head or a deep bend at the waist. It is also not limited to social situations but is an essential aspect of business culture.
Knowing how to bow correctly is considered a defining quality of adulthood. It is so ingrained in the culture that people often bow when speaking on the phone, even when the other person cannot see them. Some Japanese companies will even take the extra effort to train their employees how to bow in business settings. Therefore, if you’re planning on visiting or working in Japan, it’s essential to understand the different types of bows and the proper etiquette for each. By doing so, you’ll show respect and cultural understanding, which can go a long way in building relationships in both personal and professional settings.
When is it appropriate to bow in Japanese culture?
Bowing is not only a way of greeting someone but also a fundamental part of Japanese culture. Bowing is used in various social interactions, and the intensity of the bow varies based on the level of respect or formality of the situation. It is quite common to bow when:
- Greeting someone
- Saying goodbye
- Starting or ending a meeting, class, or ceremony
- Expressing gratitude (saying thanks)
- Congratulating someone
- Asking for something
- Worshipping someone or something
- Showing sympathy
- Showing appreciation
- Initiating a formal ceremony
- Entering or leaving a martial arts dojo
- Receiving a gift or offering one to someone else
- Expressing condolences for someone’s loss
- Congratulating someone on an achievement or special occasion
- Showing respect to someone in a position of authority or seniority
- Expressing remorse or asking for forgiveness
- Acknowledging someone’s efforts or hard work
- Showing respect to the dead during a funeral or memorial service
- Showing respect to a deity at a shrine or temple.
The three main types of Japanese bows
In the Japanese business world, there are three main types of bows that you might encounter: eshaku, keirei, and saikeirei. Knowing how to perform each of these bows correctly is essential to showing respect and knowledge in a business context. Proper posture is crucial for each type of ojigi. Make sure your back is straight, and the lower part of your body remains vertical and firmly planted. You should synchronize the movement of your bow with your breathing and stay in the bowed position for one normal exhale before returning to your original stance. Here’s a breakdown of each type of Japanese bow:
The eshaku bow is usually performed between people of the same status or when formalities are less important, such as when meeting someone by chance in a shop. To perform an eshaku, you should aim to drop your upper torso about 15 degrees and look to the ground around three meters in front of your feet.
The keirei is the most common type of bow in Japanese business settings. It is used when greeting clients, entering meetings, or interacting with superiors at work. To perform a keirei, dip your torso around 30 degrees and look at the ground around one meter in front of your feet.
The saikeirei bow shows the utmost respect to the other person and is used in situations like greeting important people, apologizing, or asking for big favors. For a proper saikeirei, aim to dip your body between 45-70 degrees. Because this bow signifies more importance than the others, you are expected to stay in the bowed position for a relatively long time to show sincerity and respect.
It’s also important to note that men should keep their hands on both sides of the legs during all types of bow. For women, one hand is often placed on top of the other in the center of their bodies and below their abdomen.
Bowing vs. shaking hands
Although bowing is considered the norm, there are instances when Japanese people will offer to shake hands instead. In a show of respect between cultures, it is also possible to see both bowing and shaking hands.
However, handshakes in Japan are generally rare and hold greater significance than in the west. A handshake symbolizes strong a relationship and is, at least in the business world, reserved for large deals and high-profile mergers. So, if you find yourself in a business meeting or formal setting in Japan, it is best to wait for someone else to initiate a handshake. When in doubt, you can also bow instead. Unlike some western cultures, Japanese culture is not known for being touchy-feely, so it’s best to avoid hugging and high-fiving in a work environment.
Japanese phone etiquette
Communicating over the phone can be a challenging task, especially when doing so in a foreign language. Unlike face-to-face conversations where you can use your body language and facial expressions to communicate, phone calls solely depend on your verbal skills. The task becomes even more daunting as you need to remember specific phrases when conversing over the phone. If you’re planning to visit or work in Japan, you must be familiar with these customs to make a good impression and show respect for the culture.
How to answer the phone in Japanese
Here are some common greetings when answering the phone or calling someone in Japan:
“もしもし” (Moshi moshi) – Hello
“Moshi moshi” is the typical greeting used when answering the phone in Japan, and it translates to something like “hello” or “excuse me.” The word comes from the verb “mōsu,” which means “to say.” When people first started using telephones in Japan, they would call an operator and say “moshi,” which meant “I’m about to say something.” The caller would repeat this at least once because connections were often bad, and it was hard to hear what the other person was saying. Over time, the repetition of “moshi” became a standard telephone greeting, used to confirm that the connection had been established and to greet the other person on the line.
“はい” (Hai) – Yes
This is a simple yet polite way of answering the phone. It’s similar to saying “yes” or “hello” in English and is often used in business or formal settings. However, you can also use it in casual settings among friends.
“はい、___です。” (Hai, ___ desu.) – Yes, this is ___.
[hai, ___ desɯ]
As mentioned before, when answering the phone in Japan, the most common way to pick up is to say “はい” (hai), which is equivalent to saying “hello” or “yes” in English. After that, you should state who you are by saying “です” ( desu), where you fill in the blank with your name. In Japanese, you should use the polite predicate “-です” (-desu) at the end of your name. It is also customary to use your family name rather than only your first name when answering the phone in Japan.
“はい、___でございます。” (Hai, ___ de gozaimasu.) – Yes, this is ___.
[hai, ___ de gozaimasɯ]
Although this phrase also translates to “Yes, this is ___”, this version is much more polite and often used in business contexts, such as when answering a company phone.
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