The very first time I came to Japan, I got to attend a high school for a week as soon as I arrived. One of my very first impressions I had been the sheer volumes of greetings I could anticipate in a very short trip through the hallway. Ohayou gozaimasu! Ohayo, Buri-chan! Osu!! However they worded a “good morning” I was bowing to each one of them, and when people asked me what I thought of the school, one of the things I said was that I felt I was getting a good ab workout with all the constant bowing, as if it’s aisatsu-undo (greeting exercise).

This goes beyond the halls of a school where people are excited to see an exchange student. It get carried into the work place or out onto the street, out among simple acquaintances and strangers. There are so many set aisatsu that people probably aren’t even aware of how many times they say a single phrase and in how many places. Besides something like konnichiwa, there are the more difficult to translate otsukaresama desu and yoroshiku onegaishimasu everywhere. I had studied Japanese for a few years before that high school experience, but I was still so befuddled why a girl in the club I tried out was saying otsukaresama desu! over and over–even though I insisted I wasn’t tired! You find this phrases is just said signifying the end of a work day or task. You could translate it is as anything from “thanks for your hard work” to the more literal “you seem so tired” or to the more liberal literal translation “Oh you, the great tired one!” I sometimes giggle about this last one my head but probably would just confuse people if I said aloud. Oh, and yoroshiku onegaishimasu? It’s very difficult to translate something like “please (treat me) well” but it works almost everywhere in all kinds of relationships and circumstances.

Before you eat, you proclaim that you will humbly partake.
When you finish eating, you orally express that it was a feast.
When you arrive at your destination, you tell the driver or passengers in your car how tired they must be.

And I’ve gotten so used to this now that it feels very wrong to be other countries have nothing to say sometimes. There must be some predetermined words I need to say at various times of day, and I’ve just forgotten them or something, right? Right!?! Where are my handy aisatsu words??

Aisatsu are part of what make up social harmony, and a fellow American and I have talked about how much importance we see placed on being able to make proper aisatsu. It’s enforced in schools, and one time when I was watching something on the news in which they were interviewing the neighbors of some high school girls who committed a ghastly crime, the things they chose to focus on really stuck out to me: they were chanto aisatsu dekiru ko—“kids who can say proper greetings.” This is not simply a matter of being friendly, it’s a matter of being trustworthy, decent people!

In the interest of being a decent, trustworthy, and friendly person with a foreign-looking face, I make sure to smile at people who I make eye contact with, and more often than not they beat me to the verbalized greeting. Of course, there are plenty of people (especially elementary school kids) who like to address me with the English word they know best, and but most of my interactions are in Japanese, and I like seeing how joyful the old ladies appear after they trade konnichiwa~s on the street.

On this particular walk home one day I passed a lady in the neighborhood who I didn’t recognize, but given the setting, she said Okaerinasai–“Welcome home”–to me, which made me well up with joy too. I was invited back simply as another member of the neighborhood.

There is also an older gentleman in a suit who I usually pass by on my way to naginata lessons, and he typically says a good old otsukaresama desu in recognition of the end of the work day, from one working professional to another. If I’ve been gone for a few weeks, he says “Welcome home” instead.

One of my other favorite people to pass by is a smiley young mother who I always see chatting away with her son as they bike to kindergarten, but when we pass by each other, she always makes eye contact and very cheerfully says, Ohayo gozaimasu! I’ll bet there are many other people who look forward to passing by her, too.

In all of my formal culture training activities (kimono, naginata, and especially the tea ceremony), there is increased formality in how and when to say greetings, but we make say because they are important. However cynical you might be about asking “how are you?” or something, at least in Japanese etiquette, aisatsu establish a bond, call your attention to the people around you, and create a space in time to be acutely appreciative of your meetings and relationships with others, as each time you meet will only come once.

And that’s the end of this entry. Otsukaresama desu.