“What’s up?” is such a common-place and casual greeting, but it can be surprisingly hard to translate into other languages.
The literal translation in Japanese would be 上に何がある? (ue ni nani ga aru?), which would make no sense to Japanese speakers.
They would probably just look up at the sky confused!
It’s interesting how the word “up” in English has come to refer to “something that is going on”.
In this article, we’ll explore how to say “what’s up?” in a Japanese context.
“What’s up?” as a question
Here are some similar phrases to “what’s up?” in Japanese.
These phrases are questions that should be answered non-rhetorically, but they all express an interest in how the other person is doing, or what’s going on with them.
元気? / 元気ですか？(Genki? / Genki desuka?)
This is a question that can be asked if you haven’t seen the other person in a long time or if they’ve been sick. The word 元気 (genki) translates to something like “good health” or “having energy”.
The kanji for 元気 is unique because 元(gen) means ”origin” and 気(ki) means “feeling”. This word represents the energy and feeling coming from deep within you.
In English, 元気？can be similar to “How have you been?”. It can also be like “What’s up?”.
The person can either answer rhetorically with a 元気です。 or with an elaboration of what they’ve been up to. 元気？ can also be used formally with the addition of ですか.
This question and answer shows how the phrase is used in a casual context, where two friends haven’t seen each other in a while.
Sachi! Hisashiburi, genki?
Sachi! Long time no see, how have you been? (what’s up?)
Genki dayo! Yuri wa?
I’m fine! And you, Yuri?
Alternatively, it can also be used in more formal contexts with the addition of ですか.
In this example, you can also see how the answer to this can be expanded to explain what you’ve been up to.
Tanaka san! Ohisashiburi desu! Genki desuka?
Mr. Tanaka! Long time no see! How have you been?
Hai, genki desu. Demo saikin totemo shigoto ga isogashii desu.
Yes, I’m well. But these days my work has been very busy.
調子どう？/ 調子どうですか？(Choushi dou? / Choushi wa dou desuka?)
This phrase is especially useful if someone has been having a tough time or an important event is coming up.
It literally translates to something like “How’s your condition?”. This phrase can also be used in more formal contexts with ですか.
If you see your friend looking gloomy after a hard day of training for a marathon, you could say:
Kenta, choushi dou?
Kenta, how are you feeling? (what’s up?)
Marason no junbi ga ma ni awanai kigasuru.
I think I’m falling behind with the preparation for the marathon.
This phrase can also be used when someone is feeling sick, to ask about their condition.
Choushi dou? Kaze wa yoku natta?
How are you feeling? Is your cold better?
Choushi daibu yoku natte kita.
I’m starting to feel a lot better.
It can also be used in a more formal way by adding ですか. If you’re asking a professional athlete about how they’re feeling about the game today, you could say:
Ichirou san, kyou no choushi wa dou desuka?
Mr. Ichirou, how’s your condition today?
Yareru koto wa yatta no de, ato wa besuto o tsukushimasu.
I’ve done what I can, so all I can do now is to try my best.
今何してる？(Ima nani shiteru?)
Sometimes when you ask “what’s up?”, you’re trying to find out what the other person is up to. This way, you can make plans with them to do something.
In Japanese, it’s possible to be more direct and ask them “ima nani shiteru?”.
This means “what are you doing now?”. This is better to be used among close friends or family because it is very direct.
If you’re asking what someone’s doing now, it’s commonly asked by either text or phone. Here is an example of a text message you might send:
Sachi, ima nani shiteru? Hima dattara ranchi ikanai?
Sachi, what’s up? If you’re free, wanna go for lunch?
Ima ie de yukkuri shiteru. Ranchi ikou!
I’m just relaxing at home. Let’s go for lunch!
Here is an example in the case of a phone call. You’d likely use it by adding moshi moshi at the beginning of the phrase.
Moshi moshi yuri? Ima nanishiteru?
Hey! Yuri? What’s up?
Moshi moshi, toku ni nanimo shitenaikedo. Saki wa?
Hi! I’m not doing anything in particular. What about you, Saki?
This is similar to 今何してる？but it means “Are you busy right now?”.
This is best used among close friends and family, because it could come across as rude in formal situations. It can be like a casual “what’s up?”, to find out if your friend is free to hang out.
This phrase could work if you bump into your friend at school and you want to know if they might be free to hang out.
Q: 太郎! 今忙しい？飯いかない？
Tarou! Ima isogashii? Meshi ikanai?
Tarou! Are you busy now? (what’s up?) Wanna go for food?
Ima tesuto benkyou shinaito mazui. Mata kondo ikou!
I really have to study for a test right now. Let’s go some other time!
It’s also possible to use this in a phone call. You can make sure the other person isn’t occupied with something, before you start the conversation
Moshi moshi! Sachi? Ima isogashii? Soudan shitai koto ga arunda kedo.
Hey! Sachi? Are you busy now? (what’s up?) I need your advice on something.
Moshi moshi! Ima nani mo shitenai yo! Doushita no?
Hey! I’m not doing anything right now! What happened?
This phrase means “How are you doing these days?”. It can be used like “what’s up?” because it’s a casual way to find out what someone has been up to.
It’s important to note that this should only be used if you haven’t seen or talked with the other person in a while.
Saki chan! Hisashiburi. Saikin dou?
Saki! It’s been a while. How are you doing these days? (What’s up?)
Hontou ni hisashiburi dane. Saikin hikkoshi de isogashikatta.
It’s really been awhile. I was busy with moving these days.
“What’s up?” as a greeting
The previous phrases were all question-based phrases that needed a concrete answer.
Since “what’s up?” can also be a rhetorical question, I’ve also included non-question phrases that give off a similar vibe to “what’s up?”.
These are all informal and the other person will usually respond with the same phrase.
This translates to something like “‘sup”, and it’s mostly used among men. It is a slang that can be used with your close male friends.
In the Japanese language, there is a different style of speech depending on your gender. The use of vocabulary and grammar can be different among men and women.
Ossu! Basuke shinai?
Sup! Wanna go play basketball?
This is a short and casual way to say “what’s up?”. It sounds more masculine so it’s usually used among men.
Yo! Kenta, hisashiburi!
Sup! Kenta, long time no see!
This is a fun way to say “what’s up?” that can be used by both genders. It gives off a friendly and casual vibe. It’s very informal so make sure you only use it with your close friends!
Yahhoo! Rina chan, ima kara ranchi ikukedo, issho ni ikanai?
What’s up? Rina! I’m going to go to lunch now, but wanna come?
This is a popular greeting that is also very casual. You may already be familiar with dōmo kun, the character who’s name comes from this phrase!
Although it can also mean “thank you”, it has come to be used as a “what’s up?” type greeting. It’s usually used by itself and others will reply with the same greeting.
The Japanese culture uses various degrees of bowing or nodding the head as an important part of body language.
For example, a 90-degree head bow is used for a very deep apology, or a 45-degree head bow is used in service industries to show respect to their customers.
In the case of “what’s up?”, it’s also possible to communicate non-verbally by nodding the head slightly.
This could be common among men who are familiar with each other and give off a cool vibe.
“What’s up?” for small talk
The phrase “what’s up?” can be a convenient way to start small talk and open up conversations. It can allow the person being asked to either say something actually going on in their life.
If they’re not feeling it, they can simply answer with a short reply or a “what’s up?” back.
In Japan, there is a different concept of small talk and people don’t ask too many direct or personal questions.
Instead of asking “what’s up?” to an acquaintance or neighbor, it’s probably safer to make general statements about the surroundings.
It’s important to keep in mind that in Japanese, it’s necessary to be more conscious about the levels of closeness and politeness you should be with other people.
In English, it wouldn’t be rude to say “what’s up?” to your next door neighbor when you bump into each other throwing out the trash.
In Japan, if you’re not too close, you should be respectful and make sure to use polite language.
Examples of ways to make small talk without asking “what’s up?” might include statements about the weather:
Kyou no tenki ii desu ne!
Today’s weather is so nice!
Samuku natte kimashitane.
It’s getting very cold these days.
You could also comment on their kids or pets if they’re growing bigger.
Okosan ookiku nari mashitane!
Your child has grown so much!
As you can see, these phrases can invite the other person to respond to the topic without feeling like they have to answer a personal question.
Until you get very close to the other person, it’s best to avoid asking “what’s up?” in the sense of what they’ve been up to.
However, if you haven’t seen the other person in a long time it is still polite to ask 元気ですか or if they have been sick, 調子はどうですか？.
These two phrases use ですか which makes it polite and it shows that you care about the other person!
Why is “what’s up?” difficult to translate?
Ohe of the main reasons why it’s so hard to translate this phrase is because it can be used in a wide variety of contexts.
“What’s up?” can be a rhetorical question, where the person asking isn’t looking for a real answer.
It’s common to answer, “nothing much” or “just chilling”, instead of going through everything that’s literally going on with your life.
This can be a difficult concept for non-English speakers to grasp.
Other than a somewhat rhetorical question, it can be used as a way to find out what the other person is up to, or to check how they are feeling.
Unfortunately, in Japanese there isn’t just one phrase that could capture the meaning of “what’s up?”. Instead, it’s important to use a variety of phrases for different situations.
Listen, practice, and interact!
It can be confusing with so many ways to say “what’s up?”. Figuring out which phrase to use is difficult when there is also a cultural difference.
Be sure to listen to how Japanese native speakers talk with each other to understand how the phrases work in real-life contexts.
Also, don’t forget to practice and interact in Japanese as much as you can!
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.