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.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.