It might surprise you, but saying goodbye to someone in Japanese follows along much the same rules of etiquette that it would in any other language. Some phrases are more appropriate than others, depending on the situation. While your textbook might suggest さようなら (sayonara) as the catchall farewell, it goes a bit deeper than that.
Are you going to see the person again in the near or distant future?
If you work in a Japanese office, how do your coworkers say goodbye to each other or to their superiors? Should you use a casual -ね (ne) at the end of your phrase or use a more formal form of the word?
These are all things that you should think about before choosing which phrase to use. Sound overwhelming? Nah. You already do it everyday with your native tongue. So I’m sure you can do it, no problem.
How do you say goodbye in Japanese?
The three most useful ways to say goodbye in Japanese are sayonara, ja-mata-ne, and ots’kare-sama-deshita. Use sayonara if you won’t see the person for a while, similar to how you might use “goodbye” in English. Use ja-mata-ne for a casual farewell, similar to “See you later.” And use ots-kare-sama-deshita when leaving work. Adding a simple bow always helps.
Physical body contact, especially outside of the family, is not really a thing in Japan. The classic handshake or the more intimate hug are both replaced with bowing. As for waving…eh. Other people will tell you not to, and technically it’s not traditional etiquette. Yet, Japanese children will wave to each other when they are leaving school. Personally, I will sometimes wave when leaving my favorite restaurants because it makes the workers smile. It’s up to you.
A fond farewell to Sayonara
The year is 1957, 12 years after the end of WWII, and just five after Korea. Itami Air base, located in Osaka prefecture, is occupied under US control (and will remain so until 1959). It is also the location chosen for the box office hit, Sayonara.
The lyrics of Irvin Berlin and lilting voice of Miyoshi Umeki coupled with images of patriotism and romance, racism and prejudice, made this movie a classic. It also helped in familiarizing people around the world with the Japanese phrase for saying farewell.
Whether in lyric, in manga, or other source of media, most people encounter さようなら (sayōnara) at one point or another. The word is recognizable. The pronunciation is straightforward. Most websites offering helpful Japanese phrases only offer sayonara as a means to express goodbye.
Yet as with any language, Japanese has a boat load of phrases that can be used for saying goodbye. And Sayonara is burdened with a sense of finality, as emphasized in the double suicide of the two lovers in the movie mentioned above.
So if you’re leaving the house to grab a carton of milk from the conbini, and were to shout sayonara over your shoulder…well let’s just say you might get a few confused looks from those anxiously waiting for milk for their cereal.
While you may hear it in the day-to-day, there are a ton of other useful phrases for the casual and the studious Japanese language learner.
This might sound a little familiar for English Speakers. And it should. Written in Katakana, the Japanese alphabet used for loan words, バイバイ (bai bai) is taught to young children learning English (a requirement for all Japanese students starting in the third grade). This is one reason why saying bai bai is associated with acting cute.
It’s hard to not crack out a smile as a dozen six year olds waving madly at you all shout “bai bai, sensei!” You will also hear women say it to their friends after sharing coffee at a cafe.
A Japanese person might say it to a foreigner when seeing them off. While there are a couple of variations, bai bai is the most common.
Bye Bye is バイバイ (bai bai)
Goodbye is グッドバイ (guddobai)
G’ bye is グッバイ (gubbai)
Other than English…
Now that we have explored how English speakers usually say goodbye in Japanese…let’s do a deep dive into how goodbye is naturally, most commonly, (and uncommonly) expressed in Japanese.
Let’s start things off casual like. Think for a moment about when you would say goodbye in everyday life. Off the top of my head, I said it to my mother last night before ringing off the telephone.
Then I said it to a coworker after chatting in the break room during lunch. For these cases, if I were to be speaking in Japanese, I would have used じゃあね (jaa ne), the casual equivalent of “see ya”. The -ね (-ne) ending is used, in this case, to make already informal expressions even more casual.
And before you Japanese learners get your undergarments into a twist, ja ne is not the only version of this phrase. Not by a long shot. So let’s make a list…
Ja, ato de.
See you later.
Ja, ato de ne.
See ya later.
ato de ne.
See how close these expressions are to each other? Pretty easy, right?
See you again later…soon!?!
This is another casual common phrase and is used in much the same way as ja ne. The word また(mata) is thrown into sentences to say “again”.
The easiest way to use this as a colloquial phrase is just by adding the -ne ending: またね (mata ne). In this way, it is used to express both “See you again soon” and “See you again later”.
Which totally isn’t confusing at all. Right? Well if you want to be a bit nit picky and make your parting phrase have a more specific meaning, you can add atode after mata. You’ll see that it follows much the same pattern as shown with じゃあね above.
Ja, mata atode.
See you again later.
Mata atode ne.
See you again later.
Mata ato de ne.
Later! (said with the understanding that you will see each other again soon)
Want to add a time-stamp?
As mentioned, the word “again” is in itself rather unspecific. Let’s say you won’t see the person until tomorrow, next week, or even next year! If you just say again…it can sound a little too flippant, especially in a business situation.
While I don’t include the -ne ending here, I have personally only used these phrases with it taped on to the end. This construction is generally more common, especially when these phrases are used on their own (instead of embedded into a sentence).
See you again tomorrow
See you again next week
See you again next year
Let’s say you know for sure that you’ll meet up with someone again, but don’t want to include a more specific time stamp. In this case you can merely adjust your statement to それまで、じゃね. This comes out as “until then”. For memory’s sake, I usually picture two spies concluding a clandestine meeting.
Remember the milk carton example used earlier? Well 行って来ます is what you would actually say (not sayonara). When leaving the house, the person leaving will say ittekimasu to the people staying behind as they head out. This translates roughly as “I’m leaving and will return later.”
The people anxiously waiting for said milk will say 行ってらっしゃい (itterasshai) in response. Itterasshāi translates roughly as “Please go and come back.”
Of course, in practical, everyday use, no Japanese person is thinking about the literal meanings of these words. They function much more closely to an exchange like, “I’m heading out!” and then “Okay, get back safely!” This exchange is the norm among household members coming and going.
You went to a friend’s house to enjoy eating cereal with them for dinner. When you are arriving or departing someone’s house, it’s polite to say お邪魔します (o-jama-shimasu). Literally, this means, “I’m being a nuisance.” More loosely (and kindly) translated it’s, “pardon me for intruding.” O-jama-shimasu is used regardless if you are expected or not.
When you leave, you simply make the statement past tense by adding -した (shita) to the end. Thus it becomes お邪魔しました (o-jama-shimashita). This of it as saying “Thanks for having me over.”
Your friend is leaving late at night. Not only is it nearing the witching hour, it looks like a typhoon is coming on, and you’re feeling slightly worried. In this case, you’ll want to send them off with a 気を付けて. This phrase, ki-o-tsukete, is used to say “take care” or “be safe” when someone might face potential hardship (either due to bad weather or getting mugged late at night by a tanuki).
Before you go snooze
You’re feeling pretty beat after eating a hearty meal of cereal for dinner (Japanese people don’t really eat cereal that much, but it’s my favorite food, so…) and want to turn in. In a normal exchange, you simply say “night night” or “good night”.
It’s much the same in Japanese, in which the person going to sleep will say おやすみ(なさい) (oyasumi(nasai)).
The person staying up a bit longer or going to sleep as well, will respond with oyasumi(nasai). The -nasai is optional. Having another person in the house is optional as well. Sometimes its comforting to say phrases like 行ってきます and おやすみ even when no one else is home.
Friends and coworkers will say お大事に (o-daiji-ni) to someone sick, either in person or over the phone, particularly when the sick person is heading out. This o-daiji-ni is said when they want the person to “feel better soon” or to “take care of yourself.”
Another phrase, one that is slightly more on the polite side, is お元気で (o-genki-de). While this is usually said to someone as they are preparing to leave for a trip, it is also appropriate for when a coworker or friend is down with something. o-genki-de roughly translates to “stay well”, “all the best”, and “good luck!”
Checking out from work
Thankfully you managed to avoid getting the flu this year. It’s march and nearing the end of the fiscal year. It was a long hard day at work. While many of your coworkers are still fiddling away at their keyboards, the clock is three seconds away from heralding the end of the official work day.
Although it is technically okay to leave when the clock strikes the hour, it looks like you are the only one preparing to do so. Here are a few set phrases you can use on your way out the door:
I’m outta here
As mentioned, many of your coworkers are still hard at work. In this case you will want to say お先に失礼します(osaki ni shitsureshimasu). You’re basically saying “Excuse me, I’m leaving ahead of you”. This phrase is used up until the second to last person leaves the office, even if you’re burning the midnight oil.
Such a hard worker…
The person across from you was doing crossword puzzles all day and the potato chip muncher sitting next to you was slugging one down on the sly. Regardless, you will still leave with an all mighty お疲れ様です(o-tsukaresama-desu) directed towards your whole office (even the chip muncher).
No, you don’t have to shout it, but it should be relatively easy to hear across the way. Your coworkers will generally respond in kind with a “great job today”.
You can tailor o-tsukaresama-desu to sound more polite or casual by saying otsukare to friends or o-tsukaresama-deshita to your boss. Even after you leave the physical office room, you will continue to use this phrase if you happen to run across a coworker – be it on your way home or at the local izakaya.
This next one is good for pardoning yourself from a room. 失礼します (shitsureishimasu) is what you say as you head out the door, usually with a bow. This one is used in at least three situations.
If you’re a student and are leaving the teacher’s office. If you’re an underling exiting a higher up’s office. And if you’ve interrupted some sort of meeting. It has the same feel as “Excuse me,” or “Pardon me,” in English.
Wrapping up business
All through flu season, you were up to your neck in worry about an upcoming presentation. And you just finished!!! You presented in front of your boss and long-time clients. Talk about stress. Thankfully, a coworker gave you a hand with it. As the meeting winds down and people are packing up, you will say:
Phew, thanks man
To the coworker who helped put together the presentation, you would definitely want to thank them with お世話になります (osewa ni narimasu). This phrase, osewa ni narimasu, literally means, “I’ve been in your care,” but translates more naturally as “thank you for everything”.
To the client (who hopefully approved of your proposal), you will throw a similar but slightly altered phrase at them. More formal, いつもお世話になっております means “Thank you for always supporting” our business. This is a good phrase to keep in your back pocket for when you are ending an engagement with a client, either in person or on the phone.
Not just your garden variety bye-bye
So far we have covered phrases that are used fairly commonly, at home or in the workplace. There are however phrases that are either outdated, dead, or only apply to specific rare situations.
ほな、バイナラ was the tagline for the 1980s Japanese hit actor, Seiroku Saito. Hona, bainara can be translated as “Then, goodbye.” The first part of this phrase is written in hiragana, the second katakana. It is no longer commonly used, but is really fun to say out loud.
Another phrase that comes out of the 80s, but has recently seen a resurgence in use is バイビー. Especially in Tokyo, baibii- is popular among ギャル(garu) or young women with dyed blond hair who dress themselves in gaudy clothes and accessories.
While the pronunciation of this word sounds like baby, it is synonymous with bainara. Other than among this very select group, this is considered a dead phrase.
Speaking of babies, this is a rather strange one that might actually originate from baby talk. No Joke. あばよ (abayo) is informal and sounds like a mix of baby speech ababa and the english word “Aha!”. Shingo Yanagisawa, a popular actor during the 80s and 90s famously says this phrase when he appears in Ultraman (among other tv shows).
After defeating the enemy, and before disappearing off screen, he shouts this over his shoulder to the hero of the show. Its a pretty popular phrase among younger boys and is considered less than polite.
Unless of course you enjoy singing enka songs during karaoke and are a fan of Ken Naoko’s “Abayo.” Then you might have a different take on the word.
Speaking of phrases not often heard
Japan has several dialects, some more distinguishable than others. The following expressions are used in different parts around Japan. While many of these are still in use today, some dialects are more easy to understand than others.
Off the Coast
The Daito islands are a part of the Okinawan chain of islands. The language there was highly influenced by the people from Hachijo island, located just south of Tokyo.
While standard Japanese is primarily used, there are still several colloquial phrases used among the native population. あばよーい (abayooi) is used to say goodbye and is a cognate of the standard phrase あばよ (abayo). Sound Familiar?
In the West
さいなら (sainara) sounds very similar to sayonara and is used for much of the same purpose. This is a commonly used expression in the Chugoku region, in the city of Hiroshima specifically, for when you are saying farewell.
All the way South
Nagasaki and Kagoshima are two prefectures located in Kyushu, the Southern Region of Japan. さんばよ (sanbayo) is an expressive farewell commonly used in Nagasaki. The -よ yo ending adds emphasis to the expression.
In Kagoshima, the Southernmost prefecture on the main island, people say のっちーよー nocchiiyoo. This word derives from のち nochi (後) or “later”. A more casual, expressive version of this is のっちよ nocchiyo or “bye”.
And a little further down…
You’re working at a cafe with a friend and want to hit the loo. If you’re a millennial, you will probably say something along the lines of “BRB”. In Okinawan, “be right back” or “be back later” is said using the expression んじちゃーびら (njichaabira). Literally, “I’m going and coming,” this expression is derived from the verbs 行く to go and 来ゅーん to come.
Let’s say you’re bartering for something in the middle of Edo, circa 1850. After coming to an agreement, you will begin your parting statement with いざさらば (izasaraba). Written in hiragana, izasaraba would have effectively worked as “well then (shall we)…” or “well then, (I’ll)…”.
A friendly wave goodnight
Well folks we have officially reached the end of our time together. Thanks so much for reading this article. So to do this the right way, I will send you off with a friendly ノシ (noshi). This is how Japanese people *wave goodbye* on the net. Pretty cool, right?!?
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.