the magic of greeting

あいさつ – aisatsu – 挨拶

greeting, well-wishing, salutation, recognize

挨 – push open, greeting

拶 – be imminent, a message

“…greetings make others feel happy, since it shows that you acknowledge them.”  (Japan Today)

In the four minutes we had between classes in middle school, I don’t recall ever really greeting anyone in any kind of conscious way. Here, in the cushy ten minutes between classes, the greetings, or aisatsu’s, are constant.

When students enter the teacher’s room for any reason, they must leave their bags outside the door and begin with a greeting. “Shitsureishimasu” (excuse me). “I’m [their name] from [their class]. I have business with [this teacher]/I have come to get [this item, e.g. a key to a locked classroom]. Is it okay to enter?”

It’s a little disruptive to hear this constantly before and after classes, but in truly the politest way possible.

In the morning, we greet each other with, “Ohiyogozaimasu” upon entering the teachers’ room. In the afternoon, the teachers and students say, “Konnichiwa.” To each other however, teachers will say, “Otsukaresama desu,” which somehow translates to, “You are a tired person… because you’ve worked hard.”

My teacher friend recently told me that she worked at a company in Kumamoto where they said, “Waku-waku-sama desu,” meaning, “You’re an excited person!” Waku-waku is a local Kumamoto word, which stems from the way in which water comes up from the underground springs in Kumamoto. It’s something of an onomatopoeia – the water is bubbling up making a “waku-waku” sound perhaps, just as a bubbly person is “waku-waku.” The image stuck in my mind when I hear this is a duck blissfully splashing in a puddle. I wouldn’t mind being called a “waku-waku-sama”.

To the students, I say, “Hello!” of course, no matter what time of day. They sometimes forget and will greet me in Japanese and then giggle their way down the hallway at their mistake.

Why is “aisatsu” important? 

As the quoted Japan Today article says, greetings make people happy. Sending greeting cards has always been a fun pastime for me. It’s a simple way to show someone that you are thinking of them.

Clearly we use this concept a great deal in the educational setting. It is part of developing the national language and ethnocultural identity in Japan. Much of this is to develop a proper way of feeling, to learn how to empathize with those around you. If you think about it, these connections are very important to the Japanese way. The society has a strong foundation in consideration and compassion. I believe it is for this reason that the Japanese people, having no trashcans on the street, will carry their trash home with them. They’ll clean up after themselves even if it is someone else’s job. It is all for the greater good of Japanese society. This is the correct way of thinking.

The educational system of course prepares students for the business world as well, where proper greetings carry great importance. The way to properly greet someone in a business conversation is depending on their status and the amount of money (or amount of weight) a deal holds. In this setting and others as well, putting in the effort to address one another properly displays one’s effort to meet the group’s goals. It shows you are working together to move forward.

Not everyone likes this “correct thinking”. There is a lot of heavy social pressure, including the need to greet everyone you encounter. It can be tiring. Many people feel comfortable with this because they know that they are trying to be considerate and those around them are trying to do the same.

I feel that way. It’s like sending a small greeting card with every encounter. And who doesn’t love receiving greeting cards?


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