Every interaction starts with a greeting.
Be it a simple nod or a classic “hello,” we’re all culturally conditioned to acknowledge others one way or another.
It makes perfect sense, of course, as humans are social beings. Manners and cultural formalities can change from culture to culture, but you’ll always feel the need to say “hi” in some shape or form before you start talking to someone.
On a subconscious level, greeting someone with a “hello” conveys the message that you’re not a threat and that you come in peace. Besides, since a greeting is how many conversations begin, knowing how to properly greet someone is perhaps your most vital tool when adapting to a new culture or learning a new language.
This is why — whether you’re traveling to Japan for a limited period or considering living there permanently — the one thing you must learn is how to say hello properly.
As Japan is quite big on the culture of respect and there are different formality levels that change the language you use depending on the occasion, there are also many forms of greetings you can use that’ll come in handy in a variety of different settings.
I’ll teach you how to master the art of greeting someone in Japanese in the workplace or in social settings in this comprehensive guide.
I’ll talk about the most common phrases, like ohayou and konbanwa, and explain what they mean. I’ll also explain some gestures and mannerisms that may accompany or replace greetings in certain scenarios.
So, let’s jump right in.
The Importance of Greetings in Japan: Aisatsu
In case you didn't know, Japan has a rich culture of respect. You have various ways to express something depending on who you’re speaking to and where you are, and this is why the act of greeting someone is of great importance to the Japanese people.
From a very young age, children in Japan learn how to greet people in various ways, with the most important of the bunch being addressing people who are older than you. Collectively, these greetings or formal expressions are called Aisatsu (挨拶) in Japanese, which is a huge component of the culture of politeness and respect.
If you want to become a functioning part of the society in Japan, learning the ins and outs of aisatsu is crucial. Although this way of thinking may sound cold and distant at first, there’s actually a good reason why aisatsu is so important to the Japanese.
The idea is quite simple. In a society where acknowledging others is incredibly important, greeting phrases or gestures not only serve as a way to draw attention to yourself before you speak but also play a big role in defining the statuses of all attending parties in a conversation.
Besides, as I explained in my post on how to say sorry in Japanese, the concept of social harmony, which is called Wa, is extremely important to the Japanese people. This concept of harmony dictates the way people talk and behave, and it even affects the way people say simple things like “no” or “thank you,” which I also have comprehensive guides on.
Of course, just like in many Western cultures, sometimes small gestures often accompany or flat-out replace the act of greeting someone. However, I’m not talking about the good old handshake here. Let me explain.
The Physical Act of Greeting in Japan: Bowing
As a foreigner in Japan, when you greet someone, especially in a formal setting like the workplace, your first instinct might be to go in for a handshake. However, you should know that shaking hands is quite rare in Japan, and it’s pretty much non-existent in the traditional Japanese culture.
As you may know, instead of shaking hands, Japanese people simply bow to each other to acknowledge one another and show respect. Bowing, better known as Ojigi (お辞儀), in Japan has quite an extensive use, but it can be used in a variety of other situations in addition to greeting someone, namely:
Initiating a formal ceremony,
Entering and leaving a dojo (a place to practice martial arts ), to name a few.
Although it’s not completely known how bowing as a gesture came about historically, it’s largely believed that it originated from Buddhism-related practices around as early as the fifth century.
What we do know, however, is that the act was used by the Samurai, as they commonly practiced a certain type of Buddhism called “Zen Buddhism,” hence, the tone of respect the act carries.
Essentially, bowing means that you’re lowering yourself in a vulnerable position in front of someone, which conveys feelings of trust, respect, and friendliness all at once.
However, just as the Japanese language has different levels of formality, the act of bowing also has different levels depending on the recipient and your relationship with them.
The following are all standing bows, which, as opposed to the sitting bows, will be more useful in daily life. The latter are reserved for more traditional settings, where you sit on tatami flooring.
Let’s take a look.
The Three Degrees of Bowing
Basically, what you need to know is that there are three different types of standing bows in Japan. To perform each one, you need to bow at a certain angle.
For the most informal interactions you can think of, the safest bow is the Eshaku (会釈), or the fifteen-degree bow. Although you may not know the exact angle, you can simply lean forward a little with your upper body to perform a slight nod to perform this bow.
Eshaku is for friends and family, as it’s reserved for people who you’re in a close relationship with. You can also use this in more formal settings when greeting your peers at work but never with people who are of higher status than you, such as your managers or elders.
The second type of bowing is called Keirei (敬礼), and it’s the 30-degree bow. You’re expected to go deeper with your upper body this time, but not quite all the way. Keirei is usually reserved for people you’re meeting for the first time, and it can also be used in a business setting.
You can use keirei to greet your managers at work or people who are older than you. You’ll also see shopkeepers do the keirei when you enter a store, as that’s how they usually greet customers.
The last type of bowing is the hardest, as you’re expected to lean forward at a 45-degree angle. Saikeirei (最敬礼) is what you do when you want to apologize to someone, as it simply expresses regret and guilt.
In rarer cases, saikeirei can also be used to greet people who are of much higher status than you, according to the Japanese culture, such as government officials that occupy high-rank positions.
Basic Greetings Depending on the Time of Day: Ohayou, Konnichiwa, and More
Now, let’s start with a few simple words and phrases you can use to greet people in Japanese.
Keep in mind that the following are mostly casual phrases, but they can also be used in formal settings with a few simple modifications, which I’ll also explain.
Of course, if you’re meeting up with close friends, you can also just say “hey” just like you would in English, but learning the following will, without a doubt, help you feel more like a local.
Ohayou (おはよう) - Good Morning
This is perhaps one of the most casual ways you can greet someone in Japanese. As the root of the word hayai literally means “early,” the phrase ohayou (おはよう) actually means “good morning” and is usually used before noon.
You can also say ohayou to greet your colleagues first thing in the morning when you arrive at the office, but keep in mind that the phrase is in casual form, so you only want to say it to your peers.
If you’d like to use a more formal version of the phrase, however, you can simply say ohayou gozaimasu (おはようございます), which can also be used when talking to your seniors at work.
Even though ohayou generally means good morning, don’t be surprised if you hear it in the office at different times throughout the day. It’s common to use it in a business setting when you see someone for the first time during the day, even if it’s in the afternoon.
Konnichiwa (こんにちわ) - Good Day/Hello
If you know anything about Japanese, chances are that you’ve already heard this phrase before. Konnichiwa (こんにちわ) just might be one of the most well-known Japanese phrases outside of Japan, and it’s a very common way to greet someone during the day.
Although it’s usually translated simply as “hello,” the phrase actually means “good day.” It’s best used in the afternoon and before the evening while the sun is still up.
The kanji of the word, which is 今日は, makes this distinction clear, as the symbols literally translate to “this” (今) “day” (日), with the wa (は) at the end that grammatically points to the object of the sentence, forming the phrase “It’s today.”
Unlike ohayou, you don’t have to modify konnichiwa to use it in formal settings, as the word itself is formal enough to be used as-is.
Konbanwa (こんばんは) - Good Evening
Following ohayou and konnichiwa, konbanwa (こんばんは) is another way to say hello, but as you may have guessed, this one is reserved for the evening.
You can begin using konbanwa as soon as the sun sets, which means that this phrase is best reserved for the later hours of the day. If you’re unsure what to say as the sun’s setting but it’s still light outside, it’s best to go with konnichiwa.
Just like konnichiwa, konbanwa is also grammatically similar, with both phrases having a “kon-” at the beginning and a “-wa” at the end. The phrase literally translates to “this evening” or “tonight.”
You can use konbanwa in formal settings as well, but unlike konnichiwa, you may want to skip this phrase when speaking to close friends or family as it may sound a bit too cold and formal.
Oyasumi (おやすみ) - Good Night
Oyasumi (おやすみ) is another phrase used exclusively at night that can be used to greet someone. However, even though it means “good night,” the phrase is used differently in Japanese compared to what you may be used to in English.
While it may be accurate to say good night to your friends in English as you’re parting ways at the end of a night out, saying oyasumi wouldn’t exactly be accurate in this context. The phrase does mean “good night,” but its tone is more similar to how you say good night to your parents or partner before you go to sleep.
Of course, oyasumi is the casual form of the phrase, which is safe to use with your friends and family, but if you want to use it in a formal setting or when talking to a senior, you want to use the formal phrase oyasuminasai (おやすみなさい).
Sayonara (さようなら) - Goodbye
This one isn’t so much of a greeting but a goodbye, as the phrase sayonara (さようなら) literally means “goodbye” in English.
Despite the phrase’s popularity outside of Japan, however, sayonara has a more definite meaning, as the phrase is rarely used by Japanese people in daily life. It actually carries a tone similar to “goodbye forever.”
While it may sound correct to say sayonara when leaving a friend’s house, the phrase actually means that you don’t know when you’ll see the person again, so it may even feel rude in some cases.
Instead, you can try some of the alternative phrases that mean goodbye, which Japanese people much more frequently use. For instance, unless it’s a formal setting, you can always use bai bai, which means “bye,” or jaa ne (じゃあね) or mata ne (またね), both of which means “see you!”.
Formal Greetings to Use in a Japanese Workplace
It’s true that the greetings I’ve covered so far will help you out in many cases, even in settings that are more on the formal side. However, there are some phrases that are much more commonly used at the workplace in Japan when greeting colleagues and other professionals, and knowing these can help you integrate into the office environment a lot quicker.
So, let’s take a look.
Otsukare Sama Desu (おつかれさまです) - Thank You for Your Hard Work
This phrase is pretty unique to Japan — even attempting to properly translate it would be futile. However, otsukaresama desu (お疲れ様です) is one of the most common phrases you’ll hear in an office in Japan.
If we want to get into the specifics, the root of the phrase actually comes from the word tsukareru (疲れる), which means “to be tired” or “to get tired.” So, a more literal translation of the phrase would actually be “you must be tired from working” or “thank you for being tired from work,” but that wouldn’t make much sense in English, nor does it imply the tone of a greeting.
The best way to translate this phrase would be “thank you for your hard work,” as it’s important to acknowledge one’s work in Japanese culture. It’s often used as an opener for in-office communication, and you’ll see people leading e-mails with this phrase often.
Otsukare Sama Deshita (おつかれさまでした) - (You’ve Done a) Good Job
This phrase is similar to the tone of the previous one, but it’s in the past tense.
While otsukaresama desu can be used at the beginning of a conversation or work correspondence, otsukare sama deshita (おつかれさまでした) can be used at the end of a meeting or a work day when speaking to your colleagues.
However, keep in mind that this phrase must be used more carefully, as it implies that the work is done or that you’re done working. Even if you’re leaving, if you say this to a colleague who is still working, it may come across as rude or inconsiderate. So, if you’re unsure, you can always use the present form otsukare sama desu instead to play it safe.
Gokuro Sama Desu (ごくろうさまです) - Thank You for Your Hard Work
This phrase also means “thank you for your hard work,” and it’s used similarly to otsukare sama desu, as it’s supposed to show appreciation for someone’s hardships.
While otsukaresama implies being “tired,” gokuro sama comes from the root word “hardship,” so gokuro sama desu (ごくろうさまです) can be translated as “you seem to be having a hard time.” As it sounds unnatural as a greeting, you can yet again think of it as “thank you for your hard work.”
However, there’s a nuance you need to be careful about here, as you should only say gokuro sama desu if you’re in a senior/managing position and talking to your subordinates. Things may get a tad awkward if you happen to use this phrase when speaking to your boss, so it’s best to stick with otsukare sama desu whenever you’re in doubt.
Japanese Greetings for Specific Situations
A general greeting phrase like ohayou or konnichiwa might come in handy in many situations as they’re quite versatile. However, some situations may require more specific openers.
Here are some of the most commonly used greetings you can use in specific scenarios.
Moshi Moshi (もしもし) - “Hello” on the Phone
In English, we use the same word for greeting someone on the phone and in person, which is a simple “hello.” However, there’s a much better expression you can use in Japanese that’s specifically used for answering the phone.
A phrase you may have already heard of before, Moshi moshi (もしもし), essentially means “I’m going to speak now.” A more direct translation is “I speak, I speak,” but obviously, this only makes sense in Japanese and sounds awkward in English.
What you need to know about moshi moshi is that it’s an informal phrase, so you should only use it with friends, family, and peers. Also, you might hear it pronounced as “moshi mosh” without the final “-e” at the end in some cases as well, which is just a shortened version.
Ojamashimasu (おじゃまします) - Sorry to Interrupt/Disturb
This is a handy phrase for when you’re entering someone’s home or room or if you’re interrupting someone who’s in the middle of a task. The literal translation of Ojamashimasu (おじゃまします) is “I’m sorry to interrupt/disturb you.”
For instance, you can say this as a greeting when you enter your roommate’s room who’s in the middle of something. You can also say it before you enter someone’s apartment to show that you’re being considerate and respectful of the person’s space.
Irasshaimase (いらっしゃいませ) - Welcome
You may be wondering what “welcome” means in Japanese and if there’s a phrase similar to it. The answer is both a “yes” and a “no.” Let me explain.
While the phrase irasshaimase (いらっしゃいませ) does mean “welcome” in Japanese, it’s not quite what you may think. Irasshaimase is commonly used by street vendors, shopkeepers, and restaurant staff to invite people into an establishment, but you’ll rarely ever hear it from someone who’s having you over at their house.
A similar phrase — irasshai (いらっしゃい) — would be much more fitting for welcoming someone to your home, but it’s still not that commonly used. Instead, use this phrase only with customers if you’re working in retail. If you’re not, it’s likely that you won’t have to use it often.
Tadaima (ただいま) - I’m Home
In English, when we get back home after a long day, we like to greet our family or roommates by announcing, “I’m home!”. Tadaima (ただいま) is the exact phrase you want to use for situations such as this, but the actual translation is a bit different.
Basically, tadaima means “right now,” but it’s actually the shortened version of tadaima kaerimashita (ただいま帰りました), which literally means “I came home just now.” As it’s often the case in Japanese, the beginning of the sentence is simply dropped to make it shorter and to emphasize the important part of the message.
Must-Know Japanese Courtesy Phrases for Work
While I did cover pretty much all the different ways you can greet someone in Japanese, if you’re not well-versed in Japanese as of yet, you may benefit from learning a few more phrases that are commonly used during daily life in Japan.
As Japan’s culture is largely built upon the concepts of politeness, consideration, and not inconveniencing others, I’d like to close today’s post with a few daily phrases that you’ll benefit from if you’re looking to better integrate yourself into Japan’s daily life.
I also wrote extensively on this topic in my post on basic Japanese phrases you can use today, which you should check out once you’re done with this article if you’re learning Japanese or are simply curious.
Doumo (どうも) - Thank you
Also known as “domo,” doumo (どうも) is one of the simplest ways you can say “thank you” in Japanese. This word is also used as a greeting, as it can mean “hi” when used in the right context, so it only makes sense to include it in this post.
It’s a handy word and it’s easy to remember, but be careful not to use it in a formal setting or when speaking to someone of higher status, as it has a rather casual tone to it. If you want something more formal, you can’t go wrong with a “domo arigato gozaimasu.”
While domo is one of the easiest ways you can express gratitude in Japanese, there are many other ways to say “thanks,” depending on who you’re speaking to and the setting, so make sure to check out my post on how to say thank you in Japanese to learn more.
Sumimasen (すみません) - Excuse me
Another phrase that can be used in a variety of situations is sumimasen (すみません), and it means “excuse me” or “sorry.”
However, you can also use sumimasen to thank someone in cases where you’re causing inconvenience. Basically, as inconveniencing others is a concept that you need to be mindful of in Japanese culture, saying sumimasen acknowledges this concern and serves as a “thank you.”
Just like domo, you want to say sumimasen only in informal settings, as it’s a casual phrase. Also, it’s a very simple thank you, so make sure to use it only for small things, as saying it for more serious offenses can be rude and may sound like you’re mocking the person you’re talking to.
If you want to learn better ways to apologize, you can check out my post on how to say sorry in Japanese.
Onegaishimasu (お願いします) - Please
Last but not least, this phrase will be a strong one in your arsenal as you go about your day in Japan — onegaishimasu (お願いします) means “please.” A more literal translation, however, is something along the lines of “I ask of you to do me an honorable favor.” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it?
The Japanese tradition of being considerate to others shines once again here, as the Western word “please” falls quite short when you’re asking someone to do something for you.
You can use onegaishimasu whenever someone does something for you. The phrase is formal, so feel free to use it at work as well.