There are competing ideologies when it comes to the subject of how to best teach a language. Some people think it’s best to start with useful phrases to get you “out the door” right away. Others think it’s best to start with a solid grammatical foundation and work your way up, even if it’s not immediately useful.
Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I think a good place to start for a complete beginner is to learn a few basic greetings to give you some confidence in interacting with Japanese people, even if they are the only things you can say. In later lessons, it will become apparent exactly why these phrases mean what they do and why they have some of their characteristic quirks.
Many Japanese greetings come in two flavors, casual and polite. You’ll use the casual forms with close friends, family and people significantly younger than you, like children. You’ll use the polite forms with coworkers, your boss, acquaintances, teachers, and people who are significantly older than you.
Japanese people place a lot of importance on greetings and they are usually delivered enthusiastically. So really put in the effort of getting these down pat.
These are only a very tiny handful of the phrases that exist in Japanese, many of which don’t have English counterparts. The ones shown here are the ones that map closest onto English concepts and thus will be the easiest to grasp for a complete beginner. The others will be introduced later on. So without further ado….
おはよう ・ おはようございます
This first phrase means Good Morning. The shorter version, おはよう is casual while the second version おはようございます is polite. Make a little mental note for 「ございます」, in the future you will be seeing it a lot. It’s common to greet someone with this phrase if its your first time seeing them in the day, even if its not technically the morning anymore.
This phrase means Hello or Good afternoon. You can normally start using こんにちは around noon (or earlier in some cases) until the evening time. こんにちは has a few interesting properties. The first is that there is only one form, and there is no casual / polite distinction. This is probably due to the fact that こんにちは already sounds pretty stiff to begin with, so you wouldn’t really use it in casual situations anyway. In casual conversation, a simple 「おい！」to your buddy will suffice, although I’d avoid using such slang for now. Another property to pay attention to is the final は. Here it is pronounced as if it were the kana わ. So phonetically, the phrase is こんにちわ.
This phrase means Good Evening and just like こんにちは only has one form, because it is a rather formal phrase to begin with and sounds stiff when used with friends and family. Also just like こんにちは is the fact that the final は here is again pronounced as if it were the kana わ. There isn’t much left to say about こんばんは except that since its a phrase for the evening, its best to wait until roughly 7pm or so to start using it.
This phrase means Good Night and comes in casual (おやすみ) and polite (おやすみなさい) forms. Unlike the above phrases, this phrase is used for when you are saying goodbye to someone. Thus it’s not technically a “greeting” in the same sense. Nevertheless, it is covered here for completeness.
This is a standard phrase for Good Bye. Although included here for completeness, in many instances in Japan, there are much more appropriate phrases to use than this, especially in a business setting. However, among friends and acquaintances in a non-professional settings, a simple goodbye can suffice. The first form じゃまた is casual while the second form ではまた is slightly more formal. Once again, the は here is pronounced as わ. So the more formal version of the phrase is said as if it were でわまた.
You might already be familiar with this phrase as it has been widely adopted into English (Sayonara Suckers!). さようなら means farewell and is usually reserved for when you don’t think you will see the person you are talking to again for a long time. A common mistake for English speakers is to use さようなら as a casual goodbye in day to day life, leaving people confused and thinking to themselves Is he going off to war? So unless you’re about to set sail on your naval vessel for an indeterminate amount of time, you’ll want to stick to the GoodBye from above.
This phrase means Excuse me or Sorry and is extremely versatile. It is probably one of the most widely used Japanese words there is. For example, you can use it when in a restaurant to grab a waiter’s attention or to apologize when bumping into someone on the train. When in doubt, a quick すみません can come quite in handy.
Chances are you’ve heard ありがとう before, but you might not have known that it too comes in casual and polite flavors. Just like with おはよう above, it can be made polite with the extra addition of ございます. You can use ありがとう when someone does you a favor like giving you directions to the train station. Expressing gratitude is very important in Japan, so remembering to say ありがとうございます when someone does something for you is crucial.
As mentioned above, try using these phrases with your Japanese friends and acquaintances. It’s important to start speaking right away not only to get familiar with the sounds of the language in your mouth, but also to gain confidence in speaking. In the next two lessons, we will be learning some basic grammar that will explain why a lot of these words have weird exceptions.