If you pick up a Japanese textbook, for example the popular Genki series, you’ll find a chart of “aisatsu” (挨拶). This is a list of formalized expressions that are used in daily life and include things like:
- こんにちは (konnichi wa)
- おはようございます (ohayou gozaimasu)
- こんばんは (konban wa)
- はじめまして (hajimemashite)
- いらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase)
- よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku onegaishimasu)
Fortunately for an English speaker, many of these have close parallels (such as こんばんは and “good evening”) and the term “greetings” roughly captures the concept of 挨拶.
While students can memorize these and apply many of them in real situations, there is an important cultural difference––or should I say emphasis that I feel the Japanese have with respect to these types of words. It’s easy to forget this since the word “greetings” has a light, casual connotation to it.
When learning cultural traditions from another country, sometimes I feel that I must follow such traditions just because that is “how things are” in the country. While it is true becoming a “fluent” citizen in any country requires mastering many of formal traditions (both linguistically and culturally), I think it’s important to not just follow rules arbitrarily, but to also understand why they are there.
In Japan, children are taught about the importance of aisatsu from a young age. An example of this is the distance learning series “Shimajiro” (which I reviewed several years ago here), which has some sections that emphasize greetings, as well as manners, which are tightly related. One expression you may hear adults of teachers saying to children is ”挨拶をしっかりしなさい” (aisatsu wo shikkari shinasai). This is a little tricky to translate naturally, but roughly means something like “Do your greetings properly”.
I feel that aisatsu have a special place in Japanese culture not only because they tend to adhere to them as a people, but because they are explicit about the value of aisatsu in society. Just looking at material available on the Internet, there are many articles about this topic. Here is one example, and another.
There are different ways to describe the function of aisatsu, but based on my experience I would say they serve the purpose of acknowledging another person (or people) and showing that you want to start (or continue) a positive relationship with them. The second article I linked above uses the phrase “わたしはあなたに心を開くよ” (watashi wa anata ni kokoro wo hiraku yo), which literally means “I open my heart to you!”
The other article I quoted goes as far as saying “人間関係は挨拶から” (“Human relationships [begin] from greetings”), which a sentiment I have seen expressed in other forums. Another way to think of aisatsu is that they allow you to customize your own first impression (第一印象), instead of leaving it to the winds of chance.
Taking a step back and thinking about the country where I was raised, the U.S., I think there are some people who strongly value aisatsu, some who are wishy-washy, and others who don’t care at all. While I don’t remember if I was explicitly taught the importance of these as a child, I do try to say “hello” to neighbors on the street and similar situations. (Perhaps I started doing this more since learning Japanese, however). I noticed I am also sensitive to whether people greet me, or respond to my greetings.
To give a concrete example of how aisatsu matter to me, when I go into a store (in the US) I generally expect the clerk(s) to greet me in some manner. If I’m ignored, I’ll wonder if the store really wants my business and I think I’ll be more likely to leave without buying anything. I heard there were even business studies about this phonoememon––though I don’t want to imply that the this is all done for money, that is very far from the case. In Japan, the expression irasshaimase is used to welcome a customer, and in my experience nearly all stores use this phrase consistently, often with several employees saying it (sometimes simultaneously) with a clear and energetic voice.
Similarly, if I see a coworker at the office I try to say hello unless they are on the phone or talking with a group. If they don’t respond back, I might think they were upset with me. I feel that our innate uncertainties about other people (“What do they think of me?”, “Do they want to be my friend?”, “Am I disliked for some reason?” etc.) are why these explicit tokens of friendliness––whether they are genuine or not––are so important in the context of family, friend, and business relationships.
Even though Japan seems to give a strong emphasis to the importance of aisatsu, I feel that more or less this form of social lubrication can work in any culture. Surely there are important variations between each culture/country around the world. For example, I think in western cultures (at least in the US) there is more of an emphasis on eye contact, whereas that has been less important in Japan traditionally. There are other obvious differences, like the practice of bowing in Japan and handshaking in the west, though I think the latter is becoming more common in Japanese business relationships. Of course Japanese has the commonly-used phrase yoroshiku onegaishimasu (and variations), which is arguably one of the more challenging phrases for westerners to understand. When I spent a day observing an elementary school in Tokyo a few months ago, I got to experience many Japanese greetings at work in real life, particularly yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
Regardless where you live, I challenge you to think about how you use greetings in your daily life. How important are aisatsu to you? Is there anything you want to change about how you use them in daily life?