Japanese Learning Scenario:
How Do You Do? Hello! How Are Ya? Appropriate Social Discourse

Author: Chizuko Bolinger & Helen Nakamoto
Level: Novice/Intermediate Low

An important aspect of Japanese culture is a highly refined consciousness of social relationships. This strong sense of hierarchy, rank, and position is present at all times, and language is used to establish and reinforce the relationship between speakers. In the area of greetings, for example, the speaker chooses from a number of possible forms depending on such factors as relative age of the interlocutors, gender, relative social status, and group consciousness (e.g., family, peer, business associate). In this unit, students learn formulaic greetings and other polite expressions associated with good manners and customs in the home. In doing so, they learn about three levels of formality in Japanese interactions and practice how to use them properly. They develop an awareness of the similarities and differences in greetings in Japan and the United States, and they demonstrate their understanding of the cultural significance of the proper usage in the different Japanese social settings.

ACTIVITY SET 1: Greetings
Students are introduced to the various levels of formality in greetings through Japanese comic books and videos. First, working in pairs, students examine a Manga to identify how certain phrases are used, depending on the person addressed. Here, the teacher can give helpful hints to the students about the language of comic books, which tend to be written in an informal level of speech. Pairs take turns reporting their findings on the greetings in their Manga to the whole group. The class hypothesizes (in English) about the levels of formality and their significance.

Once learners are familiar with certain phrases, they see people using them in videos. Students watch video clips from Nihongo with the sound off and try to imagine—based on who is speaking—what expressions are being used. Then, they watch the clip with sound to confirm their guesses. As they listen again (as often as needed), students write down the various expressions they hear used and by whom they are used. They hear youngsters say, “Arigatoo” to each other, but the sales person at the department store says, “Arigatoo gozaimasu” to a customer, and a host uses the very polite and formal, “Yoku irasshaimashita” to welcome a guest.

Next, students watch another video clip from Yookoso, this time with the sound on for novice-level learners since there are some greeting phrases with which they are not familiar. (Intermediate students can use the process described above: sound off, sound on.) Again, students listen and write down the expressions that they hear and who uses them with whom. In addition, their attention is directed to kinesics, the body language accompanying the expressions. They notice that Japanese people almost always bow when they are greeting someone.

Cultural comparisons are a part of this activity set also. The class notes differences and similarities in greetings in Japan and the United States including the variety of expressions, body language, and greetings among young people. They note the influence of English on Japanese as they observe Japanese young people and children saying, “Bai, Bai!” instead of, “Sayoonara!” or “Ja, mata!

ACTIVITY SET 2: Acting it Out
To illustrate their understanding of the various levels of formality in greetings, students work in groups to develop a short situational skit that includes greetings. Each group may be assigned different “characters” for their skit based on age, gender, and social status: children and parents, teacher and student, company president and employee, etc. They use the list of Japanese greeting expressions provided by the teacher along with those that they compiled based on the Mangas and videos. Groups use their artistic ability to create stick puppets for the characters, and they use the puppets to practice and present their skit to their classmates.

ACTIVITY SET 3: Nenga-joo
This activity set introduces another instance of various levels of formality used in greetings. To begin, students examine several examples of Japanese New Year’s greeting cards, Nenga-joo. They note that the cards include a New Year’s greeting, the date, and one of the twelve signs of the Oriental zodiac (depending on the year): the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, or wild boar. These are compared with a variety of American seasonal greeting cards. The most common greetings corresponding to “Happy New Year!” are Shinnen omedetoo-gozaimasu and Akemashite omedetoo-gozaimasu, both of which may be sent to someone who is older. Shorter forms (without –gozaimasu) are more appropriate for close friends of the sender or someone who is younger. Students note that these distinctions are mostly absent in American greeting cards and infer, once again, that recognition of status plays a much greater role in Japanese society.

Once cultural comparisons have been completed, students have an opportunity to design their own Nenga-joo. They include a greeting appropriate for the person to whom they wish to send the card, the date and the appropriate sign of the zodiac. The cards are collected for assessment purposes and/or the teacher may give awards for the most creative, funniest, most original, etc. Students may also enjoy determining categories and voting on the awards themselves.

ACTIVITY SET 4: Manners and Customs
To delve further into the importance of clearly acknowledging the social hierarchy in Japanese culture, the class is divided into four groups for research purposes. Each group uses the Internet to investigate related topics (see Resources) such as bowing, non-verbal communication, good manners, customs in the home, etc. Research groups share their findings with classmates in any way they choose: oral presentation, pantomime, PowerPoint slide show, graphic organizer, etc. Most important is that they reflect on the target culture perspective implicit in the manners, customs, etc.

ACTIVITY SET 5: Creating a Guidebook for American Tourists
To demonstrate what they have learned about Japanese greetings and politeness, each student prepares a phrase book designed for American tourists traveling in Japan. They should present examples appropriate for use in each of the contexts studied. They may illustrate the book themselves or cut out pictures to use that exemplify the situations in which each expression is appropriate.

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Targeted Standards

  • Communication: Interpersonal, Interpretative, & Presentational Modes
  • Cultures: Practices & Perspectives, Products & Perspectives
  • Connections: Access to Information, Other Subject Areas
  • Comparisons: Concept of Culture, Influence of Language & Culture
  • Communities: Within & Beyond the School Setting, Personal Enrichment & Career Development

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  • A list of Japanese greeting phrases with English translations
  • Videotapes of Japanese daily life (see Resources) and a television/VCR
  • Photocopies of Japanese comic books (Manga)
  • Art supplies for stick dolls and New Year’s greeting cards (Nenga-joo): tongue depressor, color pencils, paper etc.
  • Samples of several Nenga-joo and American greeting cards
  • Computer with Internet access

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Reflections on How the Standards Are Met


Communication: Interpersonal mode is used in group work to write a skit and practice performing it. The interpretive mode is used as students watch videos and read comics. The presentational mode is used in performing skits, making Nenga-joo, and creating phrase books.

Cultures: Students learn about the practice of using language to express social relationships and the perspectives behind those practices. They study how the practice manifests itself in products such as greeting cards.

Comparisons: Students demonstrate an understanding of the nature of language and the concept of culture as they compare and contrast the practice of greetings in American and Japanese society. They also note the influence of English on the Japanese language.

Communities: Students can practice their learned Japanese phrases with students from Japan. They can also visit their homes; students may want to develop their careers along international relations using the Japanese language.

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Expansion Ideas

  • Students find opportunities to use appropriate greetings in a real context by visiting the home of Japanese friends, the Japanese Educational Institute, and the Consulate-General of Japan (in Houston).
  • Students visit local Japanese restaurants, order food from menus in Japanese, and use set phrases before and after eating ( e.g., Onegaishimasu, Itadakimasu, and Gochisoosama.)

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Association for Japanese-Language Teaching. (1999). Japanese for busy people. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co., Ltd. (1985). Japanese language know-how. Tokyo: Gakusei-sha.

Mizutani, O. & Mizutani, N. (1977). Nihongo notes 1: Speaking and living in Japan. Tokyo: Japan Times.

Mizutani, O. & Mizutani, N. (1979). Nihongo notes 2: Expressing oneself in Japanese. Tokyo: Japan Times.


  • Nihongo. (Tapes 1, 3, 4, 7 which accompany the textbook Japanese for Busy People.)
  • Yookoso! (1999). (Tapes #1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12 which accompany textbook of the same name). New York: McGraw-Hill.


NOTE: These Internet resources may have changed since publication or no longer be available. Active links should be carefully screened before recommending to students.

  • http://www.learn-japanese.info/sayings.html
  • http://www2.tokai.or.jp/yuki/greetings.htm