Cultural Gap: Greetings

For about the last month, since classes began in Janurary, I’ve entered my school every morning and faced a line of students standing shoulder to shoulder on each landing of the main stairwell.  As students or staff pass by, they all shout in unison, eyes straight ahead.  The noise is almost deafening on some mornings, assaulting the eardrums of passersby.

What’s this, you may wonder?  Angry students protesting?  Some kind of punishment?  Punk students trying to cause a scene?

They're "punks" because their hair touches the tops of their ears. Those rebels.

They’re “punks” because their hair touches the bottoms of their ears. Those rebels.

No, it’s merely my students giving a lively morning greeting!  If you’re not familiar with Japanese, the customary greeting for the morning is おはようございます (ohayo gozaimasu), which basically means — you guessed it — “good morning!”

Greetings, called 挨拶 (aisatsu) in Japanese, are a big deal in Japan.  Before I came here, the folks at the Japanese consulate in Denver gave us a cultural briefing, in which they told us a little about the importance of greetings.  They said that sometimes the volume and frequency of one’s greetings can even dictate if they get a promotion.  If they’re stacked up against a coworker who greets ireggularly and half-heartedly, the choice for who should move up is pretty clear.

To be sure, offering a greeting is a polite and welcome thing to do in America or other Western countries.  However I’d venture a guess that if, like the students at my school, you shouted at your boss “GOOD MORNING” when you saw her every day, she would not recieve it well… whereas in my school, the teachers regularly praise and encourage the guantlet of shouted greetings.

Once a semester, the staff at my junior high school even do a greeting campaign.  They meet up early in the quad, pass out armbands to participants, and then spread out over a few block radius around the campus.  For about forty minutes, the staff stand on street corners and at bus stops to greet the students as they walk to school or get off the bus.

Another interesting thing to note about Japanese greetings is that being repetative is not at all strange.  Some mornings, I’ll walk past a slew of coworkers and basically just say “good morning” “good morning” “good morning” over and over again.  No problem!  Usually we’d want to break it up in the States, perhaps by saying something like “good morning!” “hey there.” “Mornin!” “Good morning, Bob” so as not to sound like a robot.

Of course, the repetitiveness may stem from the fact that there is no single greeting in Japanese that can be said at any time of day.  In English, you can use the word “hello” in the morning, afternoon, night, or anywhere in between.  But in Japanese, おはよう (ohayo) can only be used in the morning.  こんにちは (konnichiwa) can only be used in the afternoon.  こんばんは (konbanwa) can only be used at night.  If you say one out of place, you’ll get strange looks (once, my wife said konbanwa to a shop keeper at around 7pm, but because it was summer, the sun hadn’t set yet.  The shopkeeper giggled and told her that we should only say konbanwa after the sun had gone down.)  Thus, it’s not like I can throw in a konnichiwa with my ohayos in the morning.  I’m left with only one suitable greeting, so using it many times is okay.

There are also special greetings or phrases to be said at special occasions in Japan.  Around the New Year’s holiday, the biggest holiday in Japan, you greet people by saying あけましておめでとう (akemashite omedeto), or “happy new year” instead of the usual konnichiwa or konbanwa.  There are also set things to say before and after you eat, when wishing someone happy birthday, when checking on someone who’s ill, and when congratulating someone on their wedding.  You can read about some of those here.)

So, why are greetings such a big deal in Japan?  I asked a few of my Japanese friends to explain.

“Because it’s polite,” one of my coworkers explained.  “It can make you feel refreshed, and it restarts the new day.  [Encouraging a loud greeting is] also a way for instilling discipline in the students.”  He went on, after a few minutes of thought, to say that “Japanese people have a wall between them and unknown people.  So, they need to break the wall.  The starting point is the greeting.”

Another coworker said that the greetings cause “others to start saying something to other students.  It makes them more active and genki [spirited].”  Continuing, she said that she believes “one greeting can change your whole day.”  When I asked about the shouting, she said it’s useful because it “wakes us up.”

So, what are your experiences with Japanese greetings?  Have you found them to be annoying?  Uplifting?  Have they been important to your living and working in Japan?  Let us know in the comments!


Daniel is a second-year ALT who works at a junior high school in Kanazawa.  he enjoys coffee, riding his bike, and hanging out with his wife.

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