The origin of the common phrase “ohayou gozaimasu” (meaning “good morning”)

By | June 15, 2023

When learning a foreign language, students will often memorize basic everyday greetings such as “konnichi wa” (“good afternoon”), “oyasumi nasai” (good night), and “ohayou gozaimasu” (“good morning”). But often students will not understand what these phrases literally mean, or where they originated from. In this post I want to take a look at the last of these, “ohayou gozaimasu”, which is often written in hiragana as おはようございます, or sometimes with a mix of kanji and hiragana as お早うございます.

Actually, seeing the kanji “早” gives us an initial hint to where the expression comes from. This kanji means “early”, and is normally used in words like 早い (hayai) which is an i-adjective that means “early”. However it is a little unclear where the “お” (o) came from, and the why it is “hayou” instead of “hayai”.

There are actually several different theories as to the origin of this phrase (reference), but one of the most common is that it came from the world of Kabuki, a classical form of Japanese theater that is still performed today. It is said that おはようございます is a shortening of the phrase お早いお着きでございます (ohayai otsuki de gozaimasu).

This phrase itself is a bit complex so let’s go over the parts:

  • お (o): polite prefix for the subsequent word
  • 早い (hayai): early (i-adj)
  • お (o): polite prefix for the subsequent word
  • 着き (tskui): form of 着く(tsuku), meaning “to arrive”
  • でございます (de gozaimasu): a classical verb that isn’t used that commonly in modern everyday Japanese that is equivalent to “desu” or “dearu” (meaning “is”, “are”, etc.).

So literally this long phrase means something like “It is (a) early arrival.”

To understand this a bit better, Kabuki involves a lot of preparation for makeup and other things, and Kabuki performers had to come many hours ahead of time to the venue in order to prepare. So the theory is that “ohayai otsuki de gozaimasu” was said to certain Kabuki performers since they had likely come much earlier in the day.

The shortening おはようございます (ohayou gozaimasu) doesn’t really literally make sense on it’s own (even when considering that “gozaimasu” means “arimasu” (to exist)), and can only be understood as a shortening of the longer phrase “お早いお着きでございます”.

I wanted to give a few other comments about “ohayou gozaimasu” while we are talking about this phrase. First, as you might guess from the polite “o” and the polite “masu” ending, this is a polite phrase that can be safely said to superiors or elders. The more casual “ohayou” should be used primarily with those you are very familiar with (or a lower status level), however.

Also, fundamentally “ohayou gozaimasu” is used in the morning, and as a rule you can safely use it until around 10 a.m. After that, “konnichi wa” (or another greeting) would be more appropriate.

Finally, greetings like this (called “aisatsu” in Japanese) can be viewed to have a higher importance than they do in countries like in the U.S. For example they can have the nuance of building or maintaining a healthy relationship with another person. For more info on this, check out this article.

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