Aisatsu is the Japanese word for “greetings." It is formed from two kanji, both of which have the same literal meaning: to come up close [to someone]. Greetings in Japan are, like anywhere else, considered polite, and preferable to not greeting, but, like most social interactions in Japan, are more ritualized than in the West.
The most common aisatsu when you meet someone are ohayo gozaimasu and konnichiwa, and when you leave someone, sayonara.
Ohayo gozaimasu (oh-ha-yoh go-zye-mahss) is loosely translated as “good morning." Between people with no significant ties with one another, that is so. However, between people who are part of the same group, it is used upon first meeting the other person that day, even if in the afternoon or evening. Literally, ohayo gozaimasu means "you are early,” a very polite form of the adjective “hayai,” i.e. "fast" or “early”. It is often shortened to the more casual "ohayo."
Konnichiwa (konn-nee-chee-wah) is translated as “good day” or “hello.” Literally it means “as for today,” which I imagine it began as shorthand for something like: “As for today, there are all sorts of things I will ask of/want from/say to you, and, conversely that you will ask of/want from/say to me; so let’s agree right now to get along with each other as well as possible.” However, it is reserved more for use with people from outside one’s group. Those within it are more likely to get ohayo gozaimasu.
Another very common aisatsu is yoroshiku onegai shimasu (yo-ro-shee-koo oh-neh-guy-shee-mahss). This corresponds most closely to the expanded definition of konnichiwa given above. It can be used in any situation when you require the cooperation or goodwill of another. If said to you, like the other aisatsu, it should be said in return.
The most common parting aisatsu is sayonara (sa-yo-nah-rah), or “goodbye.” Translated literally, it comes out as something like “if this is how it is,” which I imagine began as a tentative expression of regretful resignation to the situation which dictates a parting of the ways. Alternatively, it could be something along the lines of “if that’s it,” i.e., the “business” between the parties having been done, there is now no need to remain together. Just as with the English “goodbye,” however, it is used more with acquaintances than with friends and family, who get the more usual "sore ja" (saw-ray jah) (roughly translated, "that's it for now then"), or, abbreviated, simply "ja," or the more friendly, "ja ne" (jah neh) (the "ne" approximating "OK".)
These are just four aisatsu, but they've got serious social mileage. Learn them, use them, combine them with the right body language, i.e. a slight bow of the head, and you're already halfway to wholescale, effective communication in Japanese.
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Thursday, June 19, 2008