How to say hello like a Tokyoite

Greeting people in Japan is so much more than just saying ‘konnichiwa’ and can be fraught with complications. Xiaochen Su introduces us to the different greetings used in a variety of potentially awkward social situations

Courtesy Calls: How to say hello
Illustration: Miso Okada
By Time Out Tokyo Editors |
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Unwritten social rules abound in Japan – and can be a constant source of stress and anxiety for the uninitiated. Whether you’re in a casual or business setting, a proper greeting is essential if you want to avoid a bad first impression.

DON'T: FORGET TO BOW WHEN GREETING

Just as a firm handshake is a precursor to many conversations in Western countries, bowing is a normal part of a Japanese greeting, even among friends. It’s a symbol of deference which signifies trust and respect, even among long-time friends.

Here’s how to do it, or at least to not overdo it: when you see your friend approaching, turn to face them and bend your waist slightly forward. Briefly make eye contact as you bow and greet them verbally. Your pal, seeing you bow, should stop and do the same. The conversation formally starts thereafter.

In more formal situations, you’re going to have to lower your head a little more. The full-on 90-degree option would look bizarre around friends but will go down a treat on serious occasions, such as meeting an important business client for the first time. For entering job interviews, regular business meetings and formal social engagements like networking events, a tidy 45-degree bow will suffice. A quick bow, about the length of a quick head nod, is just the ticket. There’s no need to get carried away...

DO: KNOW THE RIGHT GREETING FOR EACH SITUATION

Konnichiwa is commonly used as a catch-all greeting by beginners, but if you want to graduate to true Tokyoite you’re going to have to learn the proper usage of different greetings in a variety of settings.

The easiest way to distinguish between different greetings is to look at the clock. In the morning, ohayo is more appropriate than konnichiwa. In the evening, you should use konbanwa (‘good evening’). Konnichiwa should be used in the afternoon, any time before sunset.

In more formal environments, merely acknowledging the time of the day is not going to impress anyone. The greeting should instead convey the social relationship and the expectations of the upcoming conversation. First time meetings should be preceded with a round of hajimemashite, an expression of gratefulness to have met. If you’re expecting to be working together in the future, you should add the term yoroshiku onegaishimasu (‘it is nice to work with you from now on’). For those who already have a business relationship, otsukaresamadesu (roughly ‘thank you for your hard work’) helps to acknowledge the mutual burden of another day on the job.

DON'T: INSULT SENIOR FIGURES WITH CARELESS GREETINGS

In the unlikely event you haven’t noticed, Japan is a very hierarchical society, with a clear demarcation of who is more junior and senior in terms of social status. Both in people’s private lives and their jobs, acknowledging and deferring to older, more experienced people is considered vital for social groups to function properly. The Japanese linguistic tool for doing so, known as ‘honorific language’ or keigo, will help you set the right note.

As a morning greeting to your classmates, ohayo is perfectly fine, but it needs to be upgraded into the more formal ohayo gozaimasu when greeting professors or superiors in the corporate hierarchy. Terms with no corresponding honorifics, like konnichiwa or konbanwa, are best avoided in formal settings. Instead, use otsukaresamadesu, a formal greeting that can be used anytime of the day. Even a deep bow without saying anything is more respectful for senior figures than a casual konnichiwa

More on Japanese etiquette

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