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The Awkward Art of Saying Goodbye in Japan

In the unspoken world of Japanese etiquette, even saying goodbye requires a little bit of time and finesse.

By 4 min read

A few months ago, I arranged to pick up some tickets from a former student one afternoon on my way into Tokyo. Knowing we both had plans immediately following our meeting, I expected this would be a grab-and-go situation and that I might even have time to squeeze in some much-needed grading before my meeting.

We met, caught up a little bit and then, conscious of time, I tried disengaging from the conversation. “Well, it was nice talking to you!” I said. My student just stared at me expectantly, waiting for me to continue. After a moment of silence, I tried again, “Yeah, it was really good to see you.” A blink. One more time, “I’m looking forward to seeing you on Saturday!” “Yes,” he said. In the end, we went for tea and I was late to my post-meeting plans.

Where had I gone wrong?

This story is but one example of many that highlight the precise reason I hate goodbyes in Japan. They take forever, and despite my attempts to hurry the process along with parting primers, I can never seem to make a timely escape. And then, before you know it, you’re sitting in an after party at karaoke or drinking tea in a Starbucks wondering how exactly this happened.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

As it turns out, these prolonged goodbyes stem from a cultural attitude called nagori oshii, which carries the idea of being reluctant to leave. And surprisingly, it’s an integral part of Japanese social dynamics. The colleague I asked for help explained, “Nagori oshii is important for building and maintaining relationships. It’s how we show appreciation and respect for someone, especially our superiors.” After all, not only does lingering show that you enjoy their company, but also that they’re worthy of your limited amount of time.

But, as my colleague reminded me just as my head was starting to inflate, these days, “it’s often a way of being polite.” In other words, while this reluctance to leave can often be sincere, my students might not be hovering because they love me so much. Point taken.

Is that my cue? 

In fact, this nagori oshii-equals-politeness attitude permeates many areas of daily life. If you’ve ever seen a pair of Japanese bowing at each other repeatedly in front of the station, a group hanging out in front of a bar or a salesperson waiting at the door of the shop until the customer leaves, then you’ve seen it in action. And while custom can make you feel valued and liked by your companion(s), it can also add stress when you know you have a hundred other students to talk to, a mountain of paperwork on your desk or materials to finish for tomorrow’s meeting.

How to cope (instead of mope)

So, how can we deal with this well-intentioned, but perhaps stress-inducing, cultural practice? Here are a few suggestions that may hurry things along:

1. The awkward shuffle

Like the “Cupid Shuffle,” but without the catchy beat. Take careful, timed steps away from the other party — small enough for them not to notice immediately and get offended (or worse, follow), but big enough for them to notice the distance in a couple minutes time and conclude that it must be time to go.

2. Stare back (politely, of course)

After attempting to disengage, mirror your partner’s sparkly-eyed, expectant gaze back to them. Eventually, they’ll realize they either have to continue the conversation or leave. Most likely, they will choose the latter.

3. Ask questions

“You said you have class at 1:30?” “What time was your train again?” “You have to go to cram school soon, right?” Resist the urge to let these questions start a new conversation and instead use it as a segway to bring up the time. You can repeat as necessary until your partner gets the hint.

4. Pair words with action

In America, we often finalize goodbyes with an action — a hug, a wave, a head chuck. The Japanese version is likely a bow, but it’s easy to get stuck trading bows back and forth. If the message isn’t translating, eliminate the need for partner feedback. Do parting primer, action, and farewell all at the same time!

You: “This was fun, Yuki. (Waves.) Let’s do it again soon! (Keeps waving.) See you!”
Yuki: “Yes? Okay… (Waves.) See you!”

5. Hug them

That’ll scare them off. Possibly forever.

6. Flee

If you feel bad for doing this, make for the bathroom or take out your phone and fake an important call. Or just escape fast enough to outrun their judgment.

There are many reasons a person might hover in nagori oshii after you’ve primed them for your exit. But you continuing to linger with them can confuse the issue. Since it’s impossible to know why they’re waiting, I suggest you cover all your bases: prime them for your departure, make an invitation to talk again soon, show adequate regret at parting and then make like #6 and leave.

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