Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
The Japanese emphasis on greetings is among the cultural differences between Japan and the West.
In any country, people greet friends and co-workers, but the Japanese take the simple greeting a step further with this simple rule: You should always thank your friend or co-worker for anything you have benefit.
Situation 1: Thank a Japanese Coworker for a Ride Home
For example, let's say you work in Japan. Taro, a friend from work, drives you home one Friday evening when you car won't start. On Monday morning, when you see Taro at work, you would thank him for going out of his way on Friday, with something like this:
Senjitsu wa doomo shitsurei shimashita.
Thank you so much for the other day. (Literally, I was rude to you the other day.)
And Taro would likely reply:
Iie, iie, do itashimashite. Kuruma-wa daijoubu desu ka?
No, no, it was nothing. Is your car OK?
Taro may say, "it was nothing," but he would be insulted if you forgot to thank him for the ride home.
Situation 2: Thank a Japanese Friend for Chatting a Party?
Or, suppose you run into another friend, Motoko, at a party. You chat a few minutes with Motoko, and then mingle with other party guests. A few days later, you meet Motoko at a coffee shop. Your appropriate Japanese greeting is:
You: Senjitsu wa doomo.
Thank you for the other day.
Motoko: Iie, watashi no hoo koso, shitsurei itashimashita.
No, thank you. (Literally, "No, I am the one who should thank you.")
You: Paatii, totemo tanoshikatta desu ne.
The party was a lot of fun, wasn't it.
You may wonder why you need to thank Motoko--you didn't invite her, and it wasn't your party after all--you just talked to her at the party.
Japanese see it differently. Your friendship with Motoko is something that needs to be nurtured, and the greeting is a place where you can confirm and reinforce that relationship. Literally, you are thanking Motoko for taking the time to talk to you at the party. By revisiting that shared experience, you and Motoko strengthen your friendship.
Why Japanese Greet with Gratitude
The phrase "senjitsu wa doomo" or "senjitsu wa doomo shitsurei shimashita" also sets a tone for the conversation that is pleasing to Japanese sensibilities. I translate these phrases as "thank you for the other day," but that translation does not convey the sense of humility and indebtedness of the original Japanese. Doomo shitsurei shimashita means literally "I committed an impoliteness," and doomo is just a shortened form of that. (You can also say, doomo sumimasen deshita, which has a similar meaning.)
Here, there was no actual rudeness, and your friend knows that. By using these phrases to open a conversation, however, you set a humble tone that your Japanese listener is sure to appreciate. If you were to skip this greeting, and launch into a new topic, your Japanese friend might feel a little unappreciated. As a result, although your Japanese friend will never admit to that feeling, you might find your friendship failing to grow as you expect.
Your mother surely taught you to always say thank you when someone does you a favor. The same rule applies in Japan--it's just that you need to cast a wider net for what counts as a favor.
Terry Phillips travels frequently to Japan, has been involved in online Japanese schools for over five years, and currently operates www.Nihongo-Pro.com.
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