Why I Say Konnichwa

May 14, 2018

I’ve been in Japan and teaching at my high school for a little over a year now. Though we just had several hundred students depart and new ones take their place, there’s one pattern of behavior I’ve seen consistently from both those who have known me the longest and those who are still somewhat nervous when I’m walking towards them: how they choose to greet me.

“Do I speak English, or Japanese? Oh god, he’s coming…” I imagine this sentiment or something like it goes through their minds, but one thing I am consistent about is being the first to speak, and always in Japanese: a stout ohayou gozaimasu in the morning, a konnichiwa after 10 AM, and konbanwa… well, actually I’ve never seen any students at night.

Naturally, this throws some students, while others just instinctively incline their heads and belt out konnichiwa like they would for any other Japanese teacher. Among those who hesitate, I always hear the same muted argument as to whether they should reply in English when I’ve already addressed them in Japanese. I could probably avoid making these students uncomfortable if I were to simply give a stereotypical foreigner “HELLO!” on every occasion, but there are good reasons I don’t.

For one, by speaking Japanese – and I would dare say speaking it well, at least for something as simple as konnichiwa – I’m dispelling the idea that not all foreigners in Japan are English speakers, and it would be a mistake to approach one saying “hello” as opposed to “hola”, “guten tag”, or even “Здравствуйте”.

Secondly, it shows them that foreigners in Japan are capable of speaking Japanese, and shouldn’t be mocked for it. I have no patience for kids who practically jump up and down shouting “HELLOHELLOHELLO!” addressing me, when I know perfectly well they would never do so for any other Japanese adult.

The third reason is a little more subtle, and it’s also why I start my classes in the traditional Japanese fashion – greeting and bow – rather than the way I see many other Japanese English teachers doing, with an English greeting and no bow. Although I have no doubt that fully immersing students in the English language would lead to greater fluency, I happen to believe just bringing up a random word – especially one they already know by heart – only throws off their minds from the task at hand. In other words, by letting them start from a familiar place, they’ll be more likely to be comfortable learning something new.

I have to admit this hasn’t made a significant difference so far because the English level of most of my students is very poor. Would you say konnichiwa or hello if you were in my shoes?

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