The importance of 'aisatsu' in Japan

By Preston Phro

For the 15 minutes or so just before work officially begins each morning, most Japanese offices are filled with shouts – or mumbles, for those who haven’t had their coffee yet – of “Ohayo gozaimasu!” While it’s hardly unusual for workers to greet each other with a “Good morning” anywhere in the world, the importance that "aisatsu," or greetings, have in Japanese society can often seem bewildering. So we decided to do some research.

Now, obviously, every country and every society has some form of greetings. You say “Hi!” to your neighbors when leaving for work, you nod politely at co-workers when passing in the hall, and you offer customers help when they enter your store. But in Japan, it can sometimes seem that greetings have been elevated to greater importance.

For example, even when leaving work, people will generally pause at the door, give a slight bow, and say good-bye, usually with a “sakini shitsurei shimasu,” literally “Excuse me for going ahead.” And when passing someone in the hall, it’s nearly impossible to slip by without at least mumbling out the trailing end of “otsukaresama desu,” which could roughly be translated as “You’ve been working hard,” though it might be closer in function to “'sup, bro?” if you happened to live in a frat house.

So, where does this use of strict, set greetings come from?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the importance of proper greetings is taught from a young age, with the proper aisatsu stressed even to kindergarten and elementary school students. One example came from a Japanese co-worker here at RocketNews24, who said that in school, he was sure to greet every passing adult or classmate in the school halls. While this might not seem at all strange at first, we do mean every adult or classmate – which could turn a trip from one classroom to another into a non-stop greeting session that would wear out even a seasoned politician.

And this wasn’t the result of a few idle remarks from teachers. Japanese schools, in addition to the standard curriculum, also have “moral education classes,” which can touch on topics ranging from racial discrimination to the importance of enthusiastic greetings! In fact, the Ibaraki Prefectural Board of Education website offers an outline for a class on enthusiastic greetings for teachers. The class isn’t designed merely to teach students to say hi, but also includes segments on how to greet others. The outline even includes a section for discussing why students should greet others with loud voices. It’s not enough, you see, to simply say good morning–you have to say it loud, proud, and really mean it.

So, as you can see, aisatsu are something that permeates the social consciousness (and we promise that will be the first and last time we use that phrase today) of Japan from a young age. Even so, we have to wonder if everyone in Japan actually thinks it’s all really that important.

Nowadays most students aren’t quite as fastidious about greeting each other, and we found one entry on Yahoo! Japan Chiebukuro, the Japanese version of Yahoo! Answers, by a frustrated high school student asking, “Aren’t people who don’t offer proper greetings trash?” The majority of the answers to this question were, as you might hope, “No!” However, most of the responses did agree that aisatsu were certainly important and that everyone ought to be greeting others in the hall.

Another Chiebukuro user posted a question asking how to simply explain to her two elementary-school-aged sons the importance of aisatsu. After an incident where her husband got angry after their children were unable to greet their grandparents over video chat, she was struggling to come up with a way to explain why greetings were important. The most popular answer was that “greetings make others feel happy, since it shows that you acknowledge them.”

In an entry on OK Wave, a question and answer site similar to Chiebukuro, a poster brought up the issue of men in their mid-to-late-20s who seemed unable to give proper greetings at part-time jobs. For the poster, this seemed unforgivable and he or she wrote that the people around the men looked down on them and felt they were incapable of dealing with others, adding that no matter how great their abilities were, they were effectively worthless without these basic skills.

One of the most interesting responses agreed, laying out three reasons for the importance greetings: 1) If you greet someone at work and after which there is a long silence, it’s much less awkward than if you hadn’t greeted them at all, 2) When dealing with someone you’re not sure about yet, greeting them will encourage them to help you at work, and 3) Whether or not you greet others at work can have a big impact on the atmosphere, and those who don’t will end up with everyone feeling uneasy around them.

Another similar question on Chiebukuoro was written by an adult honestly wondering, “This is a bit embarrassing, but I still don’t really understand why greetings are so important.” This person added that “I have often heard that aisatsu are very important once you get a job or enter society, but I wonder if they’re really that important.” Explaining his point further, the person wrote, “I get introducing yourself, I suppose,” but continued to say, “I don’t see why people need to stop working for introductions. Or why we ought to go around and introduce ourselves after moving house.”

The answers, we felt, did a good job of explaining how many Japanese people think about greetings. One person responded by saying that “greetings can give a place a happier atmosphere, and that greeting others become an opportunity to talk and get communication between two people.” Another reply added that “greetings are proof that we bear others no ill will and accept them” and that “they improve one’s own image.”

In addition to work and school, greetings play an integral part of the traditional Japanese marriage ceremony – even behind closed doors.

"Shinzoku shoukai,” literally “introduction of relatives,” is a common procedure wherein the families of the bride and groom are formally introduced. This is usually done before the ceremony when both families are brought into a room with a folding screen or sliding doors down the middle. Family members will be seated in a row before the screen or doors are pulled back and allowed to stare at each other uncomfortably for a moment before introduction begin. Depending on the size, either each person will rise and “greet” the other family or the fathers will stand and introduce their family members. This will often happen regardless of whether or not the families have met previously, though it is not necessarily required and may be done in an open room or even outside depending on the timing.

Based on a number of OK Wave discussions, it seems that though these formal greetings and introductions are traditional, they’re not really essential. In fact, one future bride found that her soon-to-be husband wanted to skip the whole thing due to a poor relationship with his own family. We can’t help wondering if maybe he should have been cheerier with his greetings in the morning!

While the importance and rigidity of greetings in Japan may be a bit baffling to foreigners and Japanese people alike, the best option seems to be: Just do it! When in doubt, you can always mimic others and repeat after them–just don’t try showing “Irasshaimase!” back at the workers in stores. Unless you’re aiming for a few thoroughly puzzled looks.

References: Ibaraki Prefectural Board of Education, Yahoo! Japan

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- The top 10 words to describe Japanese people (according to foreigners) -- Monster parents: The bane of teachers -- Taboo behavior abroad according to Japanese travelers

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To receive a greeting means that you have been acknowledged. To give a greeting means that you have acknowledged the other person. Those two actions (even if formalized into a social ritual as they are in Japan--and even if it is a 100 decibel irashaimase) are the base for building rapport and relationship. Even if exchanged between two individuals who otherwise detest each other, the appearance of rapport remains intact. In the service industry, in companies and schools and political organizations that is important.

Travelling in Portland (Washington State, USA) not that long ago I was surprised that locals greeted me as I walked down the street. Teenagers, businessmen, husbands and wives walking together. Coming from a place where that does not happen, let me tell you, after one or two uncomfortable "hellos" it felt great.

14 ( +15 / -1 )

Ohayo gozaimasu!

4 ( +7 / -3 )

90% of the time it is said in a way as if it is a hassle. I know what people are saying but can`t understand them. Just a quick mumble like "aaaasu."

0 ( +6 / -6 )

I like the way new residents or tenants come around and introduce themselves to their neighbors. This happened at my building a few months ago. A young married couple moved in and knocked on my door. They introduced themselves and gave me a box of cakes. It was really quite nice and one of the things that make living in Japan such a pleasure.

4 ( +10 / -6 )

I don't know if this is unique to Japan, there was a time not to long ago in the West when greetings were equally important. People would say hello in your neigborhood, at work and people also just stopped by at your house to say hi. I just think we need to find a little of that back, and great that Japan hasn't lost it all.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

“Aren’t people who don’t offer proper greetings trash?”

And so are the socially awkward and misfits assigned a life of bullying and exclusion.

This whole subject is emblematic of the main problem of Japan: superficiality. Everything must appear to be being dealt with, but actually, behind the scenes either nothing, or the opposite is happening. Don't worry, there's a word for it: Shogainai.

-3 ( +5 / -8 )

Aisatsu is definitely important in my case. If I hadn't rang the next door woman's doorbell to introduce myself and tell her I just moved in, I wouldn't have talked to her at all over the next 4 years, lol.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Arigatoo. Good piece.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Oh this is not true, I think. This is one more thing Japanese people agree to pretend is important but really isn't in a life, like "Kizuna" and we respect elders (but don't offer a seat in a train).

In my office, people always say "Ohayo gozaimasu" when they come in a room in starting time, but nobody answers because all are trying to pretend they are busy.

Even walking in a corridor, they don't give greeting when they pass, only looking some imaginary point like another people isn't there.

In my apart, when meeting in elevator, always big surprise sound, greeting, say "atsui desu ne?" or "samui desu ne?" then absolutely silence until getting out time.

It is so sad I think. We can not talk each other, only aisatsu, like a magic word, make a relationship harmony? I don't think so.

7 ( +15 / -8 )

"90% of the time it is said in a way as if it is a hassle. I know what people are saying but can`t understand them. Just a quick mumble like "aaaasu."" sux where you work! At my job its more like 10%

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

It's fine... until you're in a dept store of some description and you get the obnoxious shouting repetition by the same person every 10 seconds... PUT A SOCK IN IT!

-1 ( +5 / -6 )

wareware, in my mansion people say "oyasuminasai" when get off at night. It give me very warm feeling. But you true Japanese. So you know best, I think.

0 ( +6 / -6 )

I have mixed feelings on this. I grew up in a region in the U.S. where such trivial-seeming greetings are absolutely mandatory, including the acknowledgement of elders/superiors in passing. Once someone finally told me the rules in Japan, life got smoother there.

I think I'm just bitter that it took that long for someone to tell me. I was out of the loop for a while, and my first Japanese workplace was not populated with "classy" people. I couldn't pick it up naturally. However, later, I saw that in SOME places, it really does help take the edge off the morning.

To me, it really all depends on the authenticity of the delivery. If someone, even if cranky and un-caffeinated, genuinely greeted me at work ("Yo!"), I really did feel better. I felt less alienated after that. The obligatory, grumpy "...AHS." often left me feeling cold. Ah, well.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Donno, not every company has those...

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Alex, don't always go against the grain. Sometimes look at the positive aspects of this culture. Let it in and you'll see the beauty in it!

1 ( +3 / -2 )

How is this different than any other country? Can anyone name me a country where schools and offices have folks that don't say hello to each others as a form of a social bond?

-1 ( +7 / -8 )

A mere greeting is not as far-reaching as a greeting that conveys your feeling.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Sorry, but when greetings are mandatory and drilled into society from childhood, that does not make them sincere, and as such, does not make them meaningful, in the least. I'll take a nod in my neighbourhood or a foreign country any day over demanding everyone stand up at chourei and say good morning to each other.

4 ( +9 / -5 )

well I lost my enthusiasm for greetings soon after coming to Japan (used to do them regularly in the US). Why? -people let door slam in my face (other cultures it is common sense to hold door for next guy/gal) -glares of hate from random people I passed and said konnichiwa to. reality is some in the countryside in particular really don't like foreigners this is a fact and indisputable -saying konnichiwa and no response -people seeing me on a train near a seat they were heading to and making an obvious move to other direction -at work, osakinishitureishimasu being a form of peer pressure. you have to say it out loud and announce to the group that you are leaving early. i personally don't feel any need to do so -checking into a hotel and getting asked questions, etc. far beyond what the 20 yo asian next to me is (whether he be chinese, etc.)

1 ( +6 / -5 )

I grew up in the Detroit area of Michigan. It wasn't "unfriendly" necessarily, but it can be a dangerous place. People kept to themselves, talked only to people they had business with or knew (this includes shop staff, etc.) but never to strangers on the street or in their complex.

I moved to Charlotte, NC, and my family was sort of shocked. I'll never forget the first time we drove into our new neighborhood and some guy walking his dog waved to us. My dad pulled over, and asked him if he needed help. The baffled man responded he was just being friendly... and asking us "You're not from around here... are you?" I had to get used to friendly waves and greetings from everyone in the neighborhood, at the store, etc. And friendly questions from shopkeepers, gas station workers, and fast food employees.

I don't know which way I like better, but it just depends on where you are, I guess. It can even be important in the US, too! I think the Southern way is better than the Japanese way, as I feel the Southerners are actually interested as to how you're doing. But, that's just my experience. Good article!

2 ( +4 / -2 )

At my company, the standard greeting when arriving for work is "ohayo gozaimus" - even if you arrive in the afternoon or evening!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

This article fails to mention the 'shaze' (company statement) that must be memorized and recited. some companies have to say it every morning. Others just before meetings or at social gatherings. Personally, I think it just another form bullying by making people say or something just because you are ordered too. very similar to making teachers stand and sing that silly five line poem 'kimigayo'.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I grew up in a rural area where everyone waved at every passing vehicle as you probably knew them. I have since lived in various urban and rural neighborhoods in Japan and Canada and find there's a lot of variety. New factory towns, where everybody is quite new, are cold an uncomfortable. My current old, central Tokyo neighborhood is the warmest I've ever known. I was quite surprised when only a week in, I started to hear, "okaerinasai" (welcome home) when I came back from the office in the evening. At first I thought it was only one old guy, a bit senile assuming I was family, but them I started hearing it from other people. I had at last found my perfect place - a village within a city.

If you haven't found it yet, keep looking or see if you can help create it!

5 ( +5 / -0 )

90% of the time it is said in a way as if it is a hassle. I know what people are saying but can`t understand them. Just a quick mumble like "aaaasu."

Make sure they're just not calling you an "ass" through their teeth.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

silver ha, what connection to this country? greetings are standard procedure in every place in the world its just being theatrically overdone here for the sake of keeping some nonexistent anymore social norm.

I dont feel like I need to say good morning to everyone I see... and I dont think I need to bring sweets every time I move place to everyone around me in the same apt building. A normal greeting on introduction is more than sufficient I reckon

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Oh the shaze... I worked at one company long ago, where all employees stood and recited the company creed every morning. For the first three days I stood there with one eye brow raised and my mouth hanging open. Day four I asked my boss if there was some religious group or cult involved in the business. From Day 5 I was allowed to start and end my work day 15 minutes later than everyone else.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Guys, "Go ni iriba, go ni shita gae" . (When in Rome, do as the Romans.) I always enjoyed the greetings, coming or going. I made sure my own were genuine.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I guess not all Japanese people were listening when they were in kindergarten and school... Around our neighbourhood most everyone I meet will say "Ohayo gozaimasu !" or "Konnichiwa" or "konbanwa" whenever we pass each other but sometimes I come across a grumpy person who doesn't reply to my greeting in which case I usually call after them " shit-tsurei itashimashita" (with emphasis on the first four letters...)

When doing work as an "extra" for TV programmes, it is a custom, whatever the time of day, to say "Ohayo gozamasu !"

2 ( +2 / -0 )

While the importance and rigidity of greetings in Japan may be a bit baffling to foreigners and Japanese people alike, the best option seems to be: Just do it!

Very good article. Growing up, I was fairly reserved and shy, and, after coming to Japan, the fact that there is a more ritualized way of greeting really helped me break out of that. I sensed that many Japanese are also reserved and perhaps the aisatsu has evolved as a way to work through that.

In viewing the French language series, French In Action, I was keenly interested to learn how the French greeted each other. In one scene, a young man was greeting his friend who was sitting at a table with two other people the man did not know. The narrator emphasized how important it was for the man to greet each person individually both on the initial meeting as well as when he parted their company. It seemed very "Japanese" to me.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Concerning greetings in apartments, it depends on what type of apartment. My partner lives in a classy place, with families and people greet each other. At my crappy place, people will only mumble something if I say hello. I gave up with the person living next to me after the first time - said hello 3 times within a space of 10 seconds (the last two hellos were to make sure he was alive). I just ignore him when we open the doors at the same time. I sometimes miss the chit-chat from back home.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I disagree with this. I think the aisatsu system is based on an outdated system of control. Its used to establish heirarchy and control in the rigid sempai / kohai system. When one passed a higher ranking person in old Japan, they had best yell out an aisatsu. An English "good morning" is used to establish a feeling, or indirectly check that everything is ok with a coworker. A "whats up (insert name)" has the same purpose; to establish a bond, maintain a bond, or a warm feeling for the maintenance of a relationship.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

How is this different than any other country? Can anyone name me a country where schools and offices have folks that don't say hello to each others as a form of a social bond?

This likely varies from place to place in all countries. I have worked and lived in places where it was genuine as well as faked. I have worked in toxic places where colleagues ignored and maligned each other. I'd bet that's universal.

I think the aisatsu system is based on an outdated system of control.

A bond is a bond. At its most basic, social control is a form a "bondage." I may have a warm, fuzzy feeling about the granny to whom I give my seat or not. But the respect of recognizing her as my elder (and possibly more frail) obliges me to see her as more entitled to the seat than I. I am obligated. Bound.

This "bondage" is easier to take when its hierarchical nature isn't shoved in my face and when it comes with reciprocity. It's also easier if you enjoy giving (as well as receiving) simple acts of human kindness. The courtesy of a greeting is one of those. And yes, the screeching irashaimase is tedious; however, the job of the poor duck having to do it likely depends on it. I can be a bit forgiving.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

How do you get the next door neighbor lady to acknowledge you when you say "Ohayogozaimasu" when you walk right past her as you take out the trash? I've tried saying it twice, saying it louder the second time, and even "Ohayogozaimasu tteba," lol

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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