4 Basic Japanese Phrases You Are Probably Using Wrong

Basic phrases: the start of every Japanese textbook, contained in the thrilling starter conversations. While you may have to hold back your yawns, you don’t have to stress out about remembering them as these are at the heart of the most simple of conversations. How could this simplicity go wrong? Well prepare to be surprised and learn how deep the Japanese language really is.

1. 私の名前は____です (My name is ______)

It can’t get simpler than introducing yourself. How could you mess up this one? Except that no Japanese really introduces themselves like this . . . ever. Okay, one exception. They sometimes introduce themselves like this when they talk to a foreigner. It’s almost as if for fun they are playing into this mistake that foreigners often make. They did write the textbooks after all.

Fix it: ______です (My name is _____ or I’m ______ )

2. ありがとう (Thank You)

Can’t go wrong with the easiest word in the world to show gratitude. Even people not studying Japanese know this word. Let’s find out how you are using it. Ask yourself the following question:

Did you just spend money (for any simple service or good)? Did you manage to fit in an ありがとう somewhere? Did you thank the cashier at a store or your waiter at a restaurant? You’ve gone wrong. Unless something is done out of the kindness of their heart, ありがとう does not usually belong in a paid situation.

But wait, even when someone goes out of their way to be kind to you for no monetary gain (it happens), sometimes you still aren’t supposed to thank them. You are supposed to apologize to them . . . for going out of their way for showing you kindness.

Did someone just hold a door open for you? Or hold the elevator for you? You didn’t just thank them I hope as you walked through. You actually should’ve apologized to them with a すみません, not thank them with an ありがとう.

Fix: Smile with an ever so slight head nod (sometimes adding a はい depending on the situation)

3. こんにちは (Hello) 

We’ve reached the peak of beginner. The start of every conversation. Okay, some of you are clever and already know that it is technically “Good Afternoon,” and is a hello for the afternoon time. So you should be set?

Set until you walk into your company in the afternoon and start saying こんにちは to everyone. No you didn’t! This should actually be おはようございます (Good morning). Yes, I know it’s not the morning. It doesn’t matter.

See a co-worker somewhere while working? Instead of saying hello you might want to just throw in an お疲れ様です (Acknowledging their hard work).

4. さようなら (Goodbye)

We had hello, we might as well throw in a goodbye. Except that さようなら really isn’t a goodbye, but more of a farewell when you don’t expect to see someone again for an extended length of time. But wait, you are a teacher who sees your students every day? Forget what I just said and さようなら them all you want.

But even to the beginner of Japanese they learn this distinction and probably quickly pick up ではまた or じゃまた. Now you should be a pro. That is until you try one of these at your job when you leave (Don’t forget they are already pissed off at your こんにちは). You should have said a combination of お疲れ様です (same as above) and 先に失礼します (I will be rude for leaving before you). And in case you are keeping up, that means お疲れ様です is both a hello and a goodbye.

Okay, but we’re not at work anymore. Finally, you are free of your language shackles. But stop again. Did you just say goodbye on the phone to anyone but a friend/family member? Oops, that should have also been a 失礼します (I will be rude for leaving now)

Note: Even in casual situations, ではまた or じゃまた is often replaced with the more common バイバイ (as this currently seems to be the most preferred way to part ways).

Don’t blame that textbook!

Well, actually please go ahead and do so.  Use this to remind yourself how crazy and cool even basic Japanese can be. And yes, I know I’m making some generalizations here, and there are exceptions to the above. But that’s not the point here.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


4 Basic Japanese Phrases You Are Probably Using Wrong — 24 Comments

  1. Wow! I never realized I shouldn’t say thank you at the register. This is helpful! I’m going to observe people at the register on my next trip over to see how I should act.

    Thank you is the most awkward situation for me when interacting in Japanese. When someone compliments me, I don’t want to say “no” unless I mean it because I don’t like false honesty and often when I say it it, it ends up awkward. My husband says it’s okay to say thank you. What does everyone think?

    I did pick up on using すみません in place of thank you when someone holds the door, pours the tea, etc. And saying that feels natural for me.

    I really do think it’s sad that textbooks and teachers promote misuse of Japanese. In particular, 私は…です. And my friends who are only taking classes use it so much, because the teacher has made it a habit, even if the student now knows not to. Some teachers even force it so the student will learn the word I.

    • Amongst good friends, it’s okay to say ありがとう if you receive a gift. But, if your mother-in-law gives you a gift, it might be better to say どうもすいません as a way to show your respect towards her. But to make it complicated, saying 「あ、どうもすいません。ありがとう。」also works! Adding あ、in front of ありがとう is a good way to show that hesitancy they want but still get to say ありがとう.

      I think the whole point of the 私は。。。です。is for students to get used to the topic marker は and the です copula while getting a feel for the basic structure of a sentence. But yes, I do cringe when I hear foreigners use that as a means to introduce themselves. Eh, they’ll learn someday.

      • Yes, I just don’t agree with that method. I think the best way to used to the syntax is to just jump into the true language and not try to make connections to your own.

        I see, thank you! Actually, I feel quite close with my mother in law. We have a particularly close relationship. I still use keigo to show respect, but we can be honest with each other and I say thank you to her and it’s not awkward. But now I think I get it after hearing your explanation. Lately, I’ve been spending time with Japanese people at my church who aren’t close to me. And it’s not awkward at all when I say すみません or decline a compliment (usually if it’s about Japanese I reflect it back on my mother in law) so perhaps I’m starting to understand and connect with social situations. Not because I’m acting off of what I’ve heard, but because I’ve taken the time to understand why Japanese say certain things.

  2. Hehe, even in English it’d be quite odd to introduce yourself with: ‘My name is Jay’. A simple: ‘I’m Jay’ is typical. Though I can imagine introducing myself with: ‘My name is Jay’ if the person had some apparent difficulty/impairment.

  3. I know that most people don’t say thank you that often, but I’m not sure if using it with a store clerk means the word is being used it incorrectly. While most of my Japanese friends wouldn’t use it in that situation, I do have one friend that would.

    I usually say thank you most of the time even though I know its uncommon. Last week I was having a bad day and didn’t say it to the store clerk at a local convenient store. As I was walking out I heard the girls working there mention how they really like that most of the time I do say thank you.

    I’m not sure if uncommon usage necessarily means that the phrase is being used wrong. I’d be interested to hear more peoples thoughts about this.

    • That’s interesting to hear! Because I would rather say thank you, even if it’s unusual. As long as it’s not incorrect or rude, I don’t want to strip away my thankful personality just because I’m speaking in Japanese. Especially since there are a few Japanese people who say it. My husband agreed with you, it’s nice to say, people just don’t.

  4. In store situations I usually just give a quick nod and say “どうも” or “はい”. Clerks / cashiers are “lower” than you as a customer and those are usually sufficient, I think.

  5. Hold on now! I have heard so many conflicting things regarding おはようございます. 1) It’s weird to use it in the late morning, because as its meaning is literally, “it’s early,” it seems as though you believe that 10:30am is early. (If 10:30am is early, what time do you get up?) 2) おはよう(ございます) has developed in to a common greeting for when you see someone the first time that day, but in somewhat informal situations, like an after school club. More colloquial, rather than proper usage. 3) But that is now what people use when they enter the workplace, regardless of time?!
    The copious use of 私は in my Japanese class drives me crazy, too. The teachers do not insist on it, but they aren’t telling the other students not to use it, either.

  6. I most often hear 私の名前は〜です in interviews and the like when people are expressly asked to STATE their name.

    Also- whether it’s supposed to be said in paid situations or not- ありがと、あざす、etc are said quite frequently in the places I.. frequent. Maybe it’s a Kansai thing- we’re all nice to each other or something weird like that.

  7. This is a great article. As someone who’s been at it pretty hard for about a a year and a half now, little things like this can still help out quite a bit. Articles about methods and motivation are all fantastic, but sometimes a little “nuts & bolts” article can go a long way. Thanks!

  8. Oh my God, that’s why I never heard ANYONE say ありがとう when talking to the cashier. And getting these “Oh, a foreigner!” look when you do say something (I’m half Asian, so most of the time it’s not immediately obvious I’m not Japanese).
    I always thought it’s just plain rude not saying anything at all when entering/leaving a store and dealing with the cashier… In Germany for example it’s perfectly normal to greet the clerks and everything.

    • It depends on the situation, but they might be saying it if they are asking for something in addition at the counter when buying something.

      For example, you’ll often hear お願いします after a convenience store clerk asks if they want their bento to be heated.

  9. That picture of the British phone box was taken at the English themed hotel, British Hills, in Shin-Shirakawa! I worked there during my working holiday year in Japan. The memories! :O

  10. I don’t know in Tokyo, but in Osaka most of the clients (99%) say to me at least ありがとう in combini or restaurants I worked. And old guy would tend to say おおきに. A lot of women, most of them? say ありがとうございます。 When we receive something from an other company like vegetables etc… We use ありがとうございます or まいど and the reply will be the same or おおきに.
    東京弁 is not Japanese ;)

  11. Sorry, to comment on a really old blog but… what do you say at the end of a skype conversation? If the next one is not for a week, do you say さよなら?

    • じゃあ、また来週(らいしゅう)!’Well, again next week! ‘ is what I learned in my Japanese class. You can say, また明日 ‘again tomorrow.’ また月曜日, etc… It is an informal way of saying goodbye that doesn’t sound as final and longterm of a goodbye as さようなら.

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