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The Secrets of Sayonara

Saying goodbye in Japanese is a lot more complicated than simply saying ‘sayonara’.

By 4 min read 15

Probably the first Japanese word that most people learn is さようなら (Often written さよなら). Because of most visitors’ familiarity with the word, it is easy to imagine that it is a multi-purpose farewell suitable for all occasions. The only problem is that, like most words you learn in a textbook, when you actually use it in a real interaction, さようなら is often used differently to how most people would expect.

The problem is that さようなら has a hidden meaning that the departure will be for a long time or possibly even final. Add to that the fact that this word is towards the formal end of the spectrum and is it is to see how it could be inappropriate or even offensive in a number of situations. Expect to get into a fight if you use さようなら with a new girlfriend/ boyfriend, for example!

Instead, in most casual situations またね or じゃあね are more appropriate. The ね-ending on both of these words is a cute way to suggest that you expect the listener will agree with you. Therefore またね could be understood as meaning ‘See you later, right?’ You can even use both together to create じゃあ、またね.

また is particularly interesting as it can be combined with a defined time period to mean ‘See you in ~’s time’. Therefore, また明日(あした) means ‘See you tomorrow’ and また来週(らいしゅう) means ‘See you in a week’s time’.

Of course, you may not know exactly when you will meet the listener next, so some people simply use the all-purpose また あとで (see you later) to cover this. If you are talking to someone that you go to bars or clubs with, you can also use また(あそ) (let’s have some fun together later) which suggests that you will meet again when there is ‘fun’ to be had!

While またあとで is appropriate for talking to someone you will meet later, the phrase is very casual and so isn’t good for all situations. At your office or school, you will instead find that ()ってきます is more common. This is a compound word made up of the words for go (行く) and come back (来る), so the meaning is ‘I will go and come back later’ and is often used when taking a break or going for lunch.

The common reply to 行って来ます is 行ってらっしゃい. This phrase consists the same 行く-stem, but this time instead of 来る, the ending is the shortened form of the verb いらっしゃる (An honorific verb meaning come/ be somewhere). Therefore this phrase could be understood as meaning ‘Do go and come back/ be here later’.

For longer periods of time, such as when someone is going on a trip, you will often use ()をつけて which is similar to the English phrase ‘Take care’. If that person will be undergoing a significant change in their life, such as moving home, 元気(げんき)(keep your spirit up) is common instead. Another variation is the Japanese version of ‘Get well soon’ (お大事(だいじ)に) which is used when someone is sick or recovering from an operation.

With Japan absorbing influences from other countries, it is not surprising that a lot of foreign goodbyes have made their way into Japanese. On the phone especially young women are very fond of finishing their conversations with the loanword バイバイ (bye-bye). Similarly, グッバイ, グッドバイ (two versions of the word goodbye) and シーヤ (see ya) have made their way into Japanese.

Of course, with Japanese culture being constantly reinvented by artistic people, it is not surprising that Manga artists seem to enjoy creating original words and ideas all the time. If you want to make your friends laugh hysterically, use あばよ, バイナラ and ばいちゃ in a real world conversation, as these forms are usually only found in manga. As a joke, I used バイナラ in an email and the reply was simply ‘本当にダサい (笑)’ (That is seriously lame, lol).

With some many variations on a simple idea out there, it is not surprising that most regions in Japan have their own variation of goodbye. In the downtown Kansai-area where I live, elderly people use local terms like ほな また (Anyway, see you later) or さいなら (Goodbye). This can be a great way to learn more about your local area.

Wherever you are, listen carefully to the people speaking around you and see if you can pick out some of the local words used for parting company. Even if you can’t use them because of your age or status, it will still be a fascinating piece in solving the language puzzle.

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  • Jinhan Davis says:

    I think that most people who can read those phrases in Japanese would already understand how to use them. Although if they were written in romaji, I’d probably dislike that as well… Anyway, good graphic.

  • Transmillion says:

    Somewhat off topic but another loan word I’ve heard with younger people is simply the English word for “sorry” instead of sumimasen

  • Eiji Kai says:

    The question here is… When, so, do you use Sayounara?

    • Rei says:

      The only time I ever hear it is between students and teachers when leaving the school at the end of the day.

      • Anthony says:

        Sorry to chime in but I have only ever heard teachers and students say “さようなら” at the end of a semester. 僕の日本語のせんせい (my Japanese teacher) would always remind us to say ”じゃあ、またね”、or “See you later, ok?” because saying “さようなら” would be sad, it would mean we were leaving and did not expect to return for some time, as in dropping the class. Perhaps there are different nuances depending on where you’re from.

    • Transmillion says:

      I was taught in school that it’s mainly for someone you expect to not either not see for a long time or ever again, as in for the departed.

  • Stardog says:

    You forgot one: When leaving work for the day, the accepted phrase is “o-saki ni shitsurei shimasu (お先に失礼します–Basically, saying “I’m sorry for leaving so early,” whether it actually is early or not), and the accepted response is “otsukare-sama deshita” (お疲れ様でした, which basically means “Thanks for your hard work”) .

  • Paul says:

    とても おもしろいです!

  • SaeNz says:

    Something is missing with one of the sentences また遊ぼう is the completed sentence.
    Also as a woman I only hear either お元気で(polite) or 元気でね(casual) need to wait for men’s opinion if they use 元気で

  • Funk House says:

    How do you say goodbye when you leave a shop, a hotel or a restaurant?

  • Cool breakdown. While I was aware of the differences already, I really appreciated the deconstruction and explanation. ありがとうな!

    • Anthony says:

      Sorry, but I’ve never seen ”ありがとうな”, and can’t seem to find a translation. What does the “な” indicate?

  • Anon says:

    *行ってきます (typo on my last comment)

  • Anon says:

    Actually, when leaving work, the most common words are お疲れ様です or お先に失礼します. 行ってらっしゃい is more “I’ll be back”.



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