Cannot Say Arigato in Japan When You Want to Thank Someone?

Even if you have never studied Japanese, many people know that the Japanese word for thank you is arigato. When you come to Japan to travel or live in Japan and want to express your gratitude to Japanese people, you will naturally say arigato. But the truth is, if you want to say thank you, sometimes you can’t say arigato.

Japanese has honorifics, polite language, and casual talk

Japanese is a language that requires a change in wording depending on who you are speaking to. For example, if you are talking to family/close friends, you can use casual talk(peer language) to appear less formal and more intimate, but if you are dealing with superiors, elders, or people you don’t know, you would use polite language to show courtesy and respect, and on some occasions you would need to go up to honorific language to show the highest level of respect for the speaker. If you choose the wrong phrase, you will look very rude.

For example, what we often say as arigato(thank you) is written as ありがとう in Japanese, which is actually a type of casual talk. Therefore, if you say it with your family or close friends, it’s fine, but if you say it in front of a store clerk, a train employee, or a stranger you don’t know, it can seem very rude and condescending.

For people who are not close and want to say a thank you, consider adding a trailing note after the arigato to become

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ありがとうございます
arigatou gozaimasu

That would be a polite language/honorific language, and it wouldn’t seem rude.

You can’t say thank you when expressing gratitude in Japanese?

But saying ありがとうございます sometimes doesn’t work either.

Suppose there is a situation where you ask a person to do something for you and he agrees readily. You would thank the person and say “thank you” to him, wouldn’t you? However, in a Japanese context, instead of saying ありがとう/ありがとうございます, you would say

お願いします / よろしくお願いします
おねがいします / よろしくおねがいします
onegai shimasu / yoroshiku onegai shimasu
MEANING: Please / counting on you

The Japanese people believe that the word “thank you” is used when expressing gratitude to someone after receiving a favor from them. If you say “thank you” when someone has only promised to do something, it has the feeling of “I said thank you so you have to help me”, which makes Japanese people feel uncomfortable.

Therefore, when someone is just verbally responding, you can say “お願いします / よろしくお願いします” and there will be no such sense of compulsion. The phrase itself is a form of honorific, so you can say it to anyone. it’s a little more formal between close friends, but that’s fine.

Japanese actually uses apology to express gratitude

If you live in Japan, have you ever held the door button for someone else when you were riding in an elevator? Have you ever noticed what Japanese people say?

When you do the “press the door button” thing for them, it seems like they should say ありがとうございます to express their gratitude, but in reality most Japanese people say:

すみません
sumimasen
MEANING: I’m sorry

Some people will also add the phrase ありがとうございます afterwards.

But what’s going on here? Why do Japanese people use apologies as a way of saying thank you?

The Japanese believe that when someone’s action brings benefits to you and causes trouble to the person himself, you should use “すみません” to express your gratitude to the other person, while also showing embarrassed for bothering them. For example, in the scene of the above mentioned pressing the elevator door button, you spend your time waiting for someone to enter/exit the elevator and press the door button for them, which fits the scenario of “bothering yourself and helping others”, so Japanese people say “Sumimasen” to express their gratitude.

This also affects many Japanese people who leave Japan to live in other countries. For example, Japanese people who learn English often say “I’m sorry” instead of “Thank you” when expressing their gratitude, while people in Europe and the United States will ask, “What are you sorry for?”

Language is an interesting thing.

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