We Americans do not greet people the same way Japanese people do, and I think it says a lot about our culture.

A typical greeting for Americans might be “Hi!  How are you?”  “I’m fine, and you?”  “Fine!”  “Nice to meet you”  “Nice to meet you too”  “See you later”.

I’ve noticed Japanese courses would translate this to the following dialogue in Japanese, and actually teach it:

“こんいちわ!お元気ですか?” ”元気です、あなたわお元気ですか?” ”元気です!” ”よろしくお願いします” ”よろしくお願いします” ”さようなら”

These are phrases taken from actual beginner courses I took, through Rosetta stone and otherwise.  These are perfectly valid phrases in Japanese.  They mean exactly what the American conversation said above.  And in this context, the Japanese would never, ever say it.

First off, the Japanese are actually generally mystified by the fact that we say “how are you” and the only really appropriate answer is “fine”.  They wouldn’t normally say that.  Second off, “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” doesn’t mean “nice to meet you”, although many beginner courses teach that it does.  It’s actually far more subtle than that, and I’ll get to that in a moment.  Thirdly, “sayounara” is more of a final farewell than a “see you later”.

The difference between “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” and “hajimemashite” (which actually far more literally, but not literally, means “nice to meet you”) is that the first phrase actually means more “please take care of me in the future”.  And this difference in meaning belies a major cultural difference between how the Americans view interpersonal relationships and how Japanese do.  Americans take a personal interest in the well-being of others on first meeting, even if it’s a purely perfunctory greeting.  Japanese take an interest in what the two parties can do for each other.

Trying to translate the words specifically without addressing the cultural differences feels, to me, like a great disservice.

Honestly, I really do like the Japanese approach better.  Even since I was a child, I never understood greeting someone with “how are you” when the greeter is entirely uninterested in the answer.  I get that it’s turned into a perfunctory greeting, but I never liked it.  I appreciate that the Japanese get straight to the point:  “I may need you to do something for me in the future, when I do, please take care of me.”  And, to be perfectly honest, I feel a bit cheated that, for the sake of expedience, resources that purport to teach me Japanese are teaching me this useless bit of greeting that will prove to be utterly useless upon first approach to a real Japanese person.

I never respond with “fine”, by the way.  Generally it’s a noncommittal “eeehh” sound accompanied by a wave of the hand.  Even that people here seem to be amused by.  I think “please take care of me in the future” is far more… honest.

What would Japanese actually say?  Well, I’m not 100% certain, but I think it would go a little more like this:

”はじめまして!”  ”はじめまして” ”松本博士です” ”鈴きカノンです” ”よろしくお願いします、松本ーさん””よろしくお願いします、鈴きーさん” ”おやすみなさい” ”おやすみなさい”

But good luck figuring that out from the Rosetta Stones of the world.

Oh well.

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