[Editorial Tuesday] Learning Japanese from Anime: Basic Greetings

Introduction

The scene takes place at night, where the main character is about to go to sleep. As they leave their family to go to the room, they pause to say one last word for the day, and you, the audience, listen and catch the word: “Oyasumi (おやすみ).” It’s also the same word they text their friend with before they turn off the lights for the night and go to sleep. The subtitle underneath says, “Good night.”

It’s easy to catch these basic greetings and learn them as you watch anime. Subtitles are great helpers in this—some even go out of their way to translate the greetings more than its literal meanings, but takes in also the nuance in these basic greetings. But how do you know which ones you should actually use when you’re about to say something to your favorite Japanese musicians or idols at conventions? How do you know you’re typing the right greetings as you poke your fandom buddy before engaging in this week’s episode discussion? In this article, we try to give you pointers on how to learn basic greetings from anime, and what to pay attention to as you do so!

The basic greetings

If you have been watching subbed anime for years, you’re bound to catch a range of basic Japanese greetings as well as understanding their general meanings. It’s sort of impossible, for example, to watch anime about high school students and hear “ohayou” for perhaps every single episode without remembering that it basically means “good morning”. The combination of hearing the words spoken in anime and reading the sub would, at the very least, leave something in your memory, even if you are not learning Japanese seriously.

So let’s go through the common basic greetings we might hear in anime briefly! Among phrases we often hear in various anime episodes are the daily greetings, which include the three daily phrases of ‘Ohayou (おはよう)’, ‘Konnichiwa (こんにちは)’, and ‘Konbanwa (こんばんは)’. These three phrases, as the subs in your anime have shown, basically translate into ‘Good morning’, ‘Hello’ or ‘Good afternoon’, and ‘Good evening’. And then there are other daily greetings that don’t pertain to the time of day, such as the couple phrase of ‘Tadaima (ただいま)’ and ‘Okaeri (おかえり)’, which basically mean ‘I’m home’ and ‘Welcome home’.

There are several phrases that would baffle English-only speakers because there is no easy, literal translation for the phrases. This happens when the phrases are used in a different cultural context. For example, the phrase ‘Ittekimasu (いってきます)’ is commonly heard in anime when a character is about to leave their house, and the answering phrase ‘Itterasshai (いってらっしゃい)’ is spoken by another character who remained in the house. These phrases are commonly translated to ‘I’m going’ and ‘Take care’. They’re harder to translate into English because a lot of non-Japanese countries have no such customs. Phrases like this also include ‘Itadakimasu (いただきます)’ and ‘Gochisousama (ごちそうさま)’, which are said before and after eating, and are commonly translated in subs as ‘Thank you for the food’ and ‘That was delicious’.

There are some other basic Japanese greetings that you could catch just from watching anime. For those who are seriously learning basic Japanese, watching anime could actually be a really good listening practice, especially because in dialogues in anime, all seiyuu are required to pronounce and enunciate their words clearly, making it easier for early learners to catch and understand more words and sentence patterns!

Watch more anime with slice-of-life or sports genre

Some of you might think anime with slice-of-life genre are pretty boring, especially those who love shounen, action or fantasy, but slice-of-life anime isn’t only great for a relaxing anime marathon on rainy days, they’re also a really great way to learn not only the basics of Japanese language, but what daily life in Japan is like, as well as a short glimpse into their culture. And the best thing about it is this: slice-of-life anime actually portray a rather accurate portrait of daily life in Japan. Another genre that you could safely learn Japanese phrases from is sports anime, though you’d still want to be very careful in double-checking every now and then.

There are cultural things and greetings that we could learn from anime with other genres, but it’s best to be doubtful and double-check all the time if you’re planning to actually say them. For example, when you watch Saint Seiya, you might hear the characters bid one another goodbye by saying ‘Saraba (さらば)’, which yes, it does mean ‘Goodbye’, but it doesn’t mean that Japanese actually say the phrase unironically in daily life. Slice-of-life or sports anime would, instead, give you phrases such as ‘Mata ne (またね),’ which means ‘See you again’, or simply ‘Sayounara (さようなら)’ for goodbyes.

Through slice-of-life and sports anime, it’s not only the phrases we’re learning, but also the nuances and context of such phrases in daily life. Not saying that it’s impossible to learn Japanese basic greetings from anime with other genres—whether it’s magical girl or idol genre, fantasy or historical, the basic greetings really don’t change much—but it’s better to actually learn from anime with accurate portrayals of daily life and culture in Japan. That way, when you decide to travel to Japan or get the chance to say a word or two to your favorite Japanese musicians or seiyuu at a convention, you won’t accidentally embarrass yourself!

Pay attention to pronunciations and spellings

As it was noted above, anime is actually a really good way for beginners to learn basic Japanese because when voicing characters in anime, seiyuu are required to speak very clearly. They pronounce and enunciate their words, and the moderate speed of their speech would actually help you in not only listening practice, but also speaking practice. Basic greetings in Japanese are not actually tricky, but for some languages with different patterns of pronunciations, it might be hard for some of us to pronounce the phrases correctly.

It’s a good idea to try mimicking the way a character says their basic greetings in Japanese. It would accustom your tongue to foreign syllables that might not be in your native tongue, as well as giving you a more physical feel of how syllables are pronounced in Japanese. Japanese is a phonetic language, which means most of pronunciations in this language are pretty straightforward, but there are several pronunciation patterns that might trip you up. For example, in pronouncing ‘Ohayou (おはよう)’, the ‘u (う)’ syllable tends to be pronounced as a longer ‘o’ instead of a clear sounding phonetic ‘u’.

Pronunciation is not the only important point in learning basic greetings though! Spellings are also important, doubly so because Japanese doesn’t use the same alphabets as latin alphabets most of us are more familiar with. You can’t really learn hiragana, katakana, or kanji just from anime, but you could actually learn a little bit of romaji and romanizations from all the lyrics your subbers have provided you with in every OP and ED sequences. Google is also your best friend when you need to double-check on how to spell a Japanese word in romaji for when you want to leave comments or write fictions on the internet.

Nuances of the greetings

And now to the most important part: learning the nuances of those basic greetings. When you’re watching anime and catching all the basic greetings and daily phrases, there are several aspects you should pay close attention to in order to understand the contexts and nuances in which these greetings and phrases are used. One of the easiest examples is to simply say ‘Hello’ in Japanese; while one could use ‘Konnichiwa (こんにちは)’ or other slang greetings when seeing another face-to-face, phones and letters use ‘Moshimoshi (もしもし)’ instead. On top of that, you might see a character jokingly use ‘Moshimoshi (もしもし)’ when trying to get attention of a friend whose head in on the clouds.

This shows how different context could create different nuance for the greetings that basically express the same meaning. This is also why slice-of-life anime are great in showing different context of how the use of the same basic greetings could change in different situations. ‘Ohayou (おはよう)’ generally means ‘Good morning’, but when you watch idol anime like Uta no Prince-sama or anime with cultural drama clubs, you’d probably notice that the characters say the phrase at their workplace all the time, even when it’s not morning. This is a context exclusive to a specific workplace—in Japan, when you’re working in or are part of a drama club, the phrase ‘ohayou (おはよう)’ would be how you greet everyone, regardless of what time of the day it is.

Another point to be careful of in gleaning the nuances of Japanese basic greetings is to note who the greetings are directed to. Japanese language has different patterns when it comes to speaking politely to people with higher dispositions than the speaker. Several greetings could be said differently not only when the ‘polite’ version is used, but also when it changes into the ‘slang’ version people use with their friends or family. A good example is the phrase ‘Ittekimasu (いってきます)’, which is pretty much safe to use with anyone, but you might hear some anime characters, especially male characters, use ‘Ittekuru (いってくる)’ instead, which basically means the same but with a more careless, less refined nuance.

A lot of nuances in non-formal Japanese language also depends on the gender of the speaker. While basic greetings are pretty much the same for everyone and there is always the gender-neutral version of the phrase, some of sentence and verb constructions are more associated to a specific gender. The ones associated with male tend to have rougher, more blunt nuance, but the ones associated with female are usually more polite and gentle. One of the easiest examples to notice in anime you watch is probably the way characters refer to themselves—female characters would usually refer to themselves as ‘watashi (私)’ or ‘atashi (あたし)’ and male characters tend to refer to themselves with ‘ore (俺)’ or ‘boku (僕)’. All of them simply mean ‘I’. What differs is the nuance that follows, indicating what sort of personality the characters have.

It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the setting of the anime. Basic greetings used in anime using older, much formal words such as Arslan Senki would not fit well if you’re using it for our current daily life. The same applies to historical anime set in feudal Japan, for example. You can’t exactly greet someone nowadays the way a samurai would greet their masters—that would only confirm the silly stereotypes and clichés some anime have in portraying foreigners and making them comic relief!


Final Thoughts

When you’ve been watching subbed anime for a very long time, it is not only the basic greetings you’d pick up—you’d probably somehow catch several grammar constructions and various random phrases and words along the way. If you do it right, without learning Japanese properly, you could probably still try and be okay in talking to people in Japanese, albeit with a very broken Japanese skill.

A big part of learning language is about patterns and getting used to said language. Watching anime is a good way to start getting used to Japanese—especially if you are actually interested in the language and culture. Of course it would not be enough to actually be fluent in Japanese—you’d have to actually learn the language properly in order to do so—but it doesn’t change the fact that watching anime is a good medium for beginners to practice and get used to the language.

Roti Susu

Writer

Author: Roti Susu

Roti Susu here! An aspiring writer who has spent more than half of her life actively writing in various fandoms. Currently living in Japan as a student, I'm a fujoshi who enjoys karaoke, watching a wide range of anime, reading manga and playing RPG games, and am also very much into seiyuu.

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