The basic Japanese greetings are so well-known that even people who have never studied Japanese formally probably know こんにちは and こんばんは. At the beginner level, greetings are simply divided depending on the time of day.
こんにちは contains the word にち (Day), so it is usually said during the day. Likewise こんばんは contains the word ばん (Evening) and so is usually said in the evening or night.
Yet even in these simple words there are some tricky parts. One of the stranger things is the ending は (Pronounced わ). Usually は is used to link the subject with a verb and yet in these sentences it is being used by itself!
This used to be strange to me until I went to a lecture about the influence of the Zen religion on Japan. The speaker explains that the literal translation of こんにちは is ‘Today is…’ and the incomplete thought is done intentionally so it is almost like a daily Zen riddle where the listener is expected to fill in for themselves what the day is like.
This is a general rule for the Japanese language: even the simplest things have interesting cultural rules hidden away! Take for example the traditional morning greeting おはよう(ございます). Even though this greeting is usually used to mean ‘good morning’, it is sometimes used later in the evening, especially before sports or performing.
This appears strange until you consider that the greeting supposedly comes from 歌舞伎 (Japanese performing arts) where performances would often last all night. Because of this unsocial schedule, the performers started using おはよう the first time they met the members of their group regardless of what time it actually was and the custom spread.
Of course the performers are not the only Japanese group reinventing the language in their own unique way. Japanese is a living language and as such is being constantly reinvented by each generation. Even a greeting as simple as こんにちは can be changed to こんちわっす, ちわっす and even ちわ depending on how young the speaker is.
As well as these contractions, you will also hear the similar おっす (‘Sup?) used between men in casual situations. The female equivalent is ヤっホー which you have probably heard used by junior high school girls. よっ！, やあ and ういっす are other short, casual greetings.
While most of these greetings are general use, there are plenty of greetings that are only used in specific situations. (お)久しぶり(ですね), for example, is a common way to say ‘long time, no see’ in Japanese. Other situation-specific examples include いらっしゃい which is used to welcome people to their stores and もしもし which is used on the phone.
One of the problems with most of the greetings mentioned so far is that they elicit brief responses. In order to start a conversation many Japanese use short questions such as 最近どう？ (How are things lately?), なんかあった? (What’s happening?) and 変わったことある? (Anything new with you?).
Of course, these are just the most common introductions. On top of these, most regions have their own local greetings too. Living in downtown Osaka, I hear おはようさん(です) being grunted by elderly people as a variation of おはよう. Other ones from Kansai include 毎度 (Thank you for each time you have come to this company) and the Kyoto greeting おいでやす (Thank you for coming to my business).
Using the right greeting can be a vital part of making friends and maintaining business relationships. By learning all of these different greetings, learners can start to talk to people in ways that they are more familiar with instead of the typical textbook phrases.
Next time you are out and about, take a second to listen to the people around you and you might just be surprised by what variations on even this simple vocabulary are being used in your area.