Having spent no more than a few weeks in Japan in my lifetime, I usually hesitate to speak too much about Japanese culture because I have so much to learn and so little to teach. However, the topic I have selected this time – 挨拶 – is something I feel I have enough experience with to make writing a worthwhile post possible.
挨拶 (aisatsu) is roughly translated as “greetings” or “salutations”, but if you just look at the English translation you miss the depth of this concept and it’s tight connection to Japanese society.
So what really is ant aisatsu? Dictionary Goo lists eight different meanings for this word, but lets focus on the main one which I’ll excerpt here along with my rough translation into English:
A phrase or mannerism which is exchanged as term of respect at various times such as meeting or parting with someone.
This meaning seems to line up with our English concept of “greeting”, such as “hello” or “goodbye”, and it’s true that to a certain extent there are similarities between Japanese and western greetings.
Rather than the definition of what a “greeting” is, what’s more important it’s emphasis and consistency within Japanese society, where respect and politeness is very highly regarded. For example, children are taught over and over again how important aisatsu is, and if you skim a bunch of children’s books you’ll likely find proof of that. Also, if you’ve visited Japan you may been surprised by how eager employees are to great you with the typical “irasshaimase” greeting, oftentimes simultaneously and with a loud, clear voice. Personally that was one thing that caught me off guard during my trips there.
For me, Japanese greetings are more than just an arbitrary custom, but are rather an important gesture which signals to another person you are acknowledging, even respecting, their presence, and are open to communicating with them now and in the future. In some ways it reminds me of aizuchi in the sense that it helps maintain human relations and interaction (see my post here on that).
Common aisatsu include こんにちは (“konnichiwa” => “hello”), and さようなら (“sayounara” => “goodbye”), as well as the workplace phrase お疲れさま (“otsukaresama”). The formal bow (お辞儀) is also considered a Japanese greeting. And let’s not forget the extremely important いただきます (“itadakimasu”) and ごちそうさまでした (“gochisousama deshita”) phrases which are used when starting and completing a meal.
Though many Japanese people will give allowances towards foreigners learning Japanese, it’s a good idea to learn correct aistasu and use them at their proper place and time, especially if you are living in Japan. It will help you interact more naturally with the Japanese people.