Courtesy calls
Illustration: Miso Okada

How to say goodbye like a Tokyoite

Bidding someone goodbye in Japan isn't as easy as a simple wave of the hand: there are different 'goodbyes' for different situations

Written by
Kirsty Bouwers
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Separation anxiety takes on a whole new meaning in Japan, where there are a myriad of ceremonies that should be observed if you’re looking to bid farewell without causing offence. Here’s how to tell your sayonara from your mata ne.

DON’T: USE SAYONARA

The most literal translation of ‘goodbye’ in Japanese, this is one of those words that every tourist seems to know. Want to sound like a local? Stop using it. Immediately. Rather than ‘goodbye’, sayonara is closer to ‘farewell’, and is so final and relatively unfriendly that it’s most often used to end romantic relationships.

Listen to many a J-pop love song and you’ll hear phrases such as ‘sayonara iwanaide kudasai’, or ‘please don’t say sayonara’. So unless you’re bidding farewell to a toxic significant other, there are much better options to choose from.

DO: KNOW WHEN YOU MIGHT NEXT SEE SOMEONE

Just like in English, how you say goodbye tends to be linked to how long you’re going to be apart from that person. Just popping out to the shop? A chirpy ‘ittekimasu’ (and its response, ‘itterasshai’) to whoever is around will do the trick.

Leaving a casual meeting with friends and not sure when you’ll see them next? Mata ne (see you later), ja ne (well then), or the even more casual bai bai (yes, the Japanification of bye bye) are your best bet.

If you do know when you’ll meet again, go for mata plus a date (ashita for tomorrow, or raishu for next week, etc). At a company party, you might be able to get away with a dewa, mata (‘well, later’). Having a somewhat dramatic goodbye for someone who is going far away for a very long time? Ogenki de (‘take care’). Don’t cry. You’ll see them again – eventually.

DON’T: FORGET TO LOOK BACK

While a longing look over the shoulder at a departing loved one is par for the course, in Japan it’s also the done thing in business situations – or even when exiting a restaurant. When leaving a meeting or restaurant, you’ll be expected to do a short bow before leaving, but while you walk away, the waiting staff (if a more upscale restaurant) or your work partners will likely wait outside the restaurant or meeting place, standing at duty until you’re out of sight. Acknowledge their efforts by turning around when you’re a short distance away, and repeat the bow. Instant brownie points.

DO: LEARN YOUR OFFICE EXPRESSIONS

In business circles, a casual ‘mata ne’ just isn’t going to cut it. The safest way to bid your goodbye as your colleague is leaving at the end of the workday is by saying ‘otsukaresama deshita’; the literal translation of ‘you look tired’ might sound like a bit of a diss but fear not, it’s used more as ‘thank you for your hard work’. If you’re the one leaving the office (or the office party) in advance, ‘saki ni shitsureishimasu’ (‘sorry for leaving before you’) is the way to go.

Trying to hang up the phone or get out of a conversation? Just ‘shitsureishimasu’ (roughly translates to ‘excuse me’). Whichever goodbye you opt for, don’t forget to always bow if you’re talking to someone senior, and no waving, please – we’re not that chummy.

More on Japanese etiquette

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