Thank You in Japanese, How Can We Use It?
I can’t tell which Japanese phrase I use more often on a daily basis: “sumimasen” or “arigatou.”
As discussed in a previous article, apologizing in Japanese is more like a custom or even an etiquette rather than doing it to admit the wrongdoing, as most of us are used to thinking. Saying “arigatou,” or thank you in English, maybe more straightforward than saying sorry, but it is nonetheless an art in itself.
What is the Origin of ‘Thank you (Arigatou)’?
Let’s start by looking at the origin of the Japanese term of thank you, “arigatou” (有り難う).
The word “arigatou” is often seen written in the Japanese alphabet of hiragana (ありがとう), and many of us are probably also familiar with the longer “arigatou-gozaimasu” (ありがとうございます), which can mean “thank you very much,” if “arigatou” is the plain “thank you.” When separating the kanji that makes “arigatou,” “ari” (有り) means “to have” and “gatou” (難う) “difficult” (katai; 難い). Together the phrase would mean “(it is) difficult to have (it, so I’m thankful)”.
Thank you in Japanese – the Roots
Such concept is believed to have come from Buddhist teachings that, one should be appreciative because everything happens for a reason, and that nothing should be taken for granted (e.g. you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your parents and your ancestors). According to written records, however, “arigatou” did not come become what it means today until after the Heian period (8-12th century AD). There is an interesting rumor that “arigatou” might have been derived from “obrigado,” the Portuguese thank you, given the prominent influence of the Portuguese in early Japanese history.
Several Ways to say Thank you in Japanese
The word “arigatou” can be arranged in different ways in order to achieve the degree of the thank you desired. Starting from the least causal:
Doumo arigatou-gozaimasu (どうもありがとうございます)
The term “doumo” is literally “very,” while “gozaimasu” is the keigo of “to have” (aru; ある).
A simple “doumo” as a shortened thank you can be used very causally, for instance, when you are exiting a store that you’ve just visited.
2 Arigatou / Arigatou-Gozaimasu
Both “arigatou” and “arigatou-gozaimasu” can be used to thank someone doing something for you, e.g. to a waitress, and “doumo arigatou-gozaimasu” to thank someone for a bigger favor or when you have received a gift, for example.
3 Arigatou / Arigatou-Gozaimashita
The past tense, “arigatou-gozaimashita” (ありがとうございました), is used when you have received a service or favor, or for something that’s happened already. As with the above, adding “doumo” to the front will emphasize your appreciation further.
4 In commercial setting or polite expressions
In commercial settings, (even more) polite expressions will be added to the basic “arigatou” system to show respectfulness in higher levels:
Whilst both of the above look like apologies, they are basically interpreted as “I’m sorry to trouble you and I thank you for that.” Note that these apologetic phrases will not make much sense when applied alone, so you will often hear them combined into something like:
Sumimasen, doumo arigatou-gozaimashita
Osore-irimasu ga, makoto ni* arigatou-gozaimasu
(*Makoto ni = sincerely)
But don’t be confused or frustrated when deciding which thank you to use – the last ones listed above should be something we rarely get to use in daily life, unless you are in the customer service industry, per se (or in habit of running into serious troubles!). Expressing appreciation honestly is the key point here rather than mastering big, fancy words. So remember, never mind if an “arigatou” sounds too plain – what matters is showing your gratefulness earnestly!