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How to Say "Thank You" in Japanese - Not Just "Arigatou"

You might think that saying “thank you” in Japanese is pretty easy, but it really isn't. I can't say which Japanese phrase I use more often every day: "Sumimasen" or "Arigatou", where the former means "I'm sorry" and the latter means "Thank you". In Japanese, the line between these two phrases is a gray area, as I'll explain to you in more detail later.

As mentioned in a previous article, apologizing is more of a custom than an admission of wrongdoing in Japaneseas most of us would probably expect. Sometimes the Japanese use “Sumimasen” (I'm sorry) instead of “Thank you”, as in “Thank you for allowing me to disturb you”. "Arigatou" or saying “Thank you” in German is a little easier than apologizing, and yet it is an art in itself.

What does “Arigatou” mean?

Let's start with the Origin of the Japanese word for thank you, “Arigatou” (有 り 難 う), begin.

The word "Arigatou" is often spelled using the Japanese syllabary hiragana (あ り が と う), and many of us are likely familiar with the longer variant “Arigatou gozaimasu” (あ り が と う ご ざ い ま す), which is a more formal way of thanking someone. When separating the Chinese characters named Kanjiwhich represent "Arigatou" means "ari" (有 り) "have" and "gatou" (難 う) means "difficult" (katai, 難 い). Together, the phrase can be translated as follows: "It's difficult to have, so I'm grateful".

The origin of "Arigatou"

It is believed that the concept behind the Japanese word for "thank you" out Buddhist teachings stems from the fact that one should always be grateful that everything happens for a reason and that nothing should be taken for granted. According to written records it was "Arigatou" however after the Heian period (8th-12th century AD) to what it means today. There is also the interesting theory that the word of "Obrigado" could be derived from the Portuguese word for thank you given by the influence of the Portuguese Catholic missionaries in Japanese history.

4 ways to say "thank you" in Japanese

In Japanese, “thank you” can be used in different ways, depending on the formality of the situation. Let's start with the more casual variants:

  • Domo (ど う も)
  • Arigato (あ り が と う)
  • Arigato gozaimasu (あ り が と う ご ざ い ま す)
  • Doumo arigato gozaimasu (ど う も あ り が と う ご ざ い ま す)

The term “doumo” literally means “very”, while “gozaimasu” means the polite form of “have” (aru, あ る) is. It can be confusing, but just keep this in mind, the longer the phrase, the more formal it is.

Doumo

An easy "Doumo" as a short form of thanks can be used casually, for example when you leave a shop that you have just visited.

Arigatou / Arigatou gozaimasu

Either "Arigatou" as well as "Arigatou gozaimasu" can be used to thank someone who does something for you, such as a waitress who refills you with water and "Doumo arigatou gozaimasu"to thank someone for a bigger favor or when you received a gift.

Arigatou / Arigatou gozaimashita

The past tense “Arigatou gozaimashita“(あ り が と う ご ざ い ま し た) is used when you have received a service or a favor, or for something that has already happened. As mentioned above, adding “doumo” at the beginning further emphasizes your appreciation or expresses it more formally.

Polite phrases for business relationships

In business relationships will still be more polite expressions that go beyond the basic phrases used to express gratitude to people of higher rank or social class:

  • Sumimasen (す み ま せ ん)
  • Osore-irimasu (恐 れ 入 り ま す)

Although both of the above phrases look more like an apology, they become more like "I apologize for the inconvenience and thank you" interpreted. Note, however, that these sorry phrases don't make much sense on their own, so you'll often hear them in conjunction with the following words:

  • Sumimasen, doumo arigatou gozaimashita.
  • Osore-irimasu ga, makoto ni * arigatou gozaimasu. (* Makoto ni = cordial)

Remember, the latter two thank you gifts listed above are seldom used in everyday life unless you are in the customer service industry or have a habit of getting into serious trouble. Honestly expressing appreciation is the key here instead of mastering big, fancy words. So remember, whether you choose the easy option or not - it depends on whether you mean your gratitude! And always remember that a polite bow expresses your gratitude even more than words alone!

Translation by Yvonne.