Saying Japan is a polite country is an understatement. I dare say the nation is the world’s most etiquette-conscious! To be considered socially accepted manner-wise within Japanese society, greetings go far beyond than just hi-byes with some as-seen-on-TV bows.
Japanese etiquette through degrees of respectfulness is expressed through your choice of honorific speech i.e. keigo, as many – especially Japanese language learners – may know already. Its something incredibly complicated even for the Japanese. (Foreigners can be excused but you will definitely be given props for trying!) In the same vein, etiquette through bodily gestures such as the seemingly straightforward bows actually mean different levels of respect at varied angles.
Basic greetings that can adequately show politeness and respect without looking too pretentious, they can help so that your Japanese stay will be made a more pleasant one. Books and websites written about keigo are found in abundance, so I won’t go into details regarding that or anything too excessive or confusing.
Japanese lesson #1 : Hello
Like many languages, first greetings will depend on the hour.
“Good day” or “Good afternoon” – the most used phrase in general. Use it like it’s free (it is!) with anyone you are in contact with.
A formal “Good evening.”
“Ogenki desu ka?” (お元気ですか)
“How are you?” which you can answer by using “Genki desu” (I’m well), replying with the same question. To closer friends, “Genki?” by itself is okay for greetings, too.
Japanese lesson #2 : Goodbye
There are different ways to bid someone goodbye, depending on their superiority, closeness to you and whether you will meet again.
Probably the most known Japanese phrase after “Konnichiwa,” but I would say it is less commonly used than some other byes as seen below, since most farewells we bid are not necessarily that formal.
“Shitsurei shimasu” (失礼します)
Loosely translated as “Please pardon (my leaving),” this formal goodbye is used for superiors or the respected, such as teachers and doctors. You will also hear people say that to customers or over the phone before hanging up.
“Otsukare sama” / “Otsukare” (お疲れ様/お疲れ)
A phrase that does not necessary mean goodbye, but can be used when excusing oneself from a work place, or to someone who has just finished doing you a favor. Its heard quite often in Japan, and I believe it is a good way to show gratitude, as etiquette even in casual occasions.
“Mata ne” (またね)
“See you again” or “(Until) next time”, like “À bientôt” in French. You can add different endings for specifying the time you expect to meet the person again. For example, “mata ashita ne” for tomorrow, or “mata raishuu” for next week. The “ne” at the end helps with expression only, bearing no specific meaning.
“Jya” / “Jya ne” (じゃあ/じゃあね)
Literally “So”, which equates to a very casual “Bye.” It’s usually used among close friends and family. You may also hear “Jya mata ne”, meaning “So, bye!”
“Genki de” / “Genki de ne“ (元気で/元気でね)
“Be well” or “Take care.” It’s the same “genki” from the question “Ogenki desu ka?”
Yes, exactly the same as English “Bye-bye.” I would say it is more commonly used throughout daily life than “sayonara,” so do not feel compelled to use a Japanese phrase when a simple English bye can do the trick!
Japanese lesson #3 : Bowing
As mentioned above, bows depends on the etiquette demanded by the context. In general, the longer and deeper your waist bends translates into a more respectful bow, so you will express such greetings to your boss, for example. But do not worry if you cannot decide how long/ deep to bow to someone – you do not want to look ridiculous by overdoing this. A light bend with head slightly lowered, held a couple of seconds, would be more than sufficient.
It is not unusual to bow and greet at the same time with strangers. In other words, lightly bowing or lowering your head to whomever you meet will do good along the way, so do not be shy!
This has been a very brief introduction on the politeness you should show when you are in Japan. That said, though foreigners are not expected to strictly follow every etiquette required among the Japanese, everyone despite his/her nationality should show gratitude anywhere, anytime. As long as you express yourself honestly, etiquette is just a custom, is it not?