How to Say 'Welcome' in Japanese
Context is king in the Japanese language!
How do you say “welcome!” in Japanese? What better topic to start a blog about Japan. :-)
Let’s explore the three main ways of welcoming people and some of their variations. We’ll see how context plays an important role, and the subtle differences that exist between different expressions.
The three expressions are:
- いらっしゃいませ irasshaimase;
- 上がってください agatte kudasai;
- ようこそ yōkoso.
The Commercial Way: Irasshaimase!
いらっしゃいませ irasshaimase is a polite form for “welcome”. It comes from the word いらっしゃる irassharu, which means ‘to come’, or ‘to be somewhere’. The ancient form is いらっしゃりませ irassharimase, which is derived from 入る iru, which means ‘to go in’.
This expression is used in restaurants and shops by clerks and waiters when a customer enters the premises.
Depending on the type of business you just entered, you may be greeted with a full いらっしゃいませ！ irasshaimase!, or just an いらっしゃい！ irasshai!, which is slightly less formal but puts less distance between the welcoming party and the welcomed.
That is to say, it is warmer.
The shorter form いらっしゃい！ irasshai! is used where the customer expects a more direct and genuine social interaction with his host. This kind of interaction often takes place in restaurants such as 寿司 sushi or ラーメン rāmen places.
Consider that in a 寿司屋 sushiya (sushi restaurant) you can order your food by asking directly the 板前 itamae, the chef, as he slices raw fish before your eyes while you sit at your table.
An even shorter (and warmer) version is らっしゃい！ rasshai!
Something to be aware of is that the “commercial welcome” will be shouted (very loud) by every person working in the shop, in quick succession, starting from the first person who notices a new customer walk in.
Every year, thousands of tourists who visit Japan are being made to startle by the sudden, generalised shouting madness, as they innocently step into a restaurant.
“Why are they shouting?"
This is the typical question after the surprise has subdued.
The Domestic Way: Agatte Kudasai!
Another way to say “welcome” in Japanese is the domestic one. When someone visits your house, the expression that you want to use is:
The first word is a form of the verb 上がる agaru, meaning ‘to go up’ or ‘to come up’, and suggests that one is invited to come up to your house.
To go up to someone’s house makes perfect sense in Japan, where a traditional house is always at a higher level than the ground.
After you go through the door there is a small area at the ground level, called 玄関 genkan, where you take off your shoes, and then a step that will take you to the floor level of the habitation.
That step could be interpreted as the demarcation between そと soto, the outside, and うち uchi, the inside. Anyone is allowed to stand outside, but not everyone is allowed to step inside. This fundamental distinction exists in every aspect of Japanese society.
上がってください agatte kudasai simply means “please come up”, and is the proper welcoming expression. If you want be more formal, you could (or should?) add どうぞ dōzo before the expression, like so:
dōzo agatte kudasai! (neutral/formal)
どうぞ dōzo means ‘please’, or ‘go ahead’, and reinforces the ください kudasai, which already means ‘please’, somehow.
The above expressions should be used with people who are your social peers/equals, such as acquaintances, colleagues, and your average stranger. You are formal, but not overly.
If you want to be very formal (your guest is your boss or some other person that commands particular respect), you should say:
dōzo oagari kudasai (very formal)
お上がり oagari is the union of the honorific prefix お o, which is a prefix used for politeness, and 上がり agari, which is a form of the verb 上がる agaru.
Let’s now see two colloquial expressions.
If your guest is an old friend or a family member, just say:
“Come up!” (colloquial)
You can be a little warmer by repeating it twice:
Agatte agatte! (colloquial)
In this context, the “commercial welcome” in the form いらっしゃい irasshai can also be used.
The Institutional Way: Yōkoso!
ようこそ yōkoso is another expression that means “welcome” in Japanese.
Because of its formality, is quite an impersonal way of saying “welcome”. Let’s see an example.
(JAL stands for Japan Airlines; it is pronounced ジャル Jaru.)
JAL e yōkoso!
“Welcome to JAL!”
If you are welcoming someone with these words, you are obviously not doing it personally, as if JAL was your own home or business. Instead, you are most definitely welcoming someone into a bigger organisation you belong to, as an employee of Japan Airlines. You are JAL’s borrowed mouth, speaking on its behalf.
ようこそ yōkoso is often used in the following premises or contexts:
- a company;
- a country, town or other defined geographical area;
- an institution, private or public;
- public or private transport;
- a circus or amusement park;
- a resort or hotel (but usually not small, family-run ones);
- a website/blog.
The expression is ___ e yōkoso. The particle へ e expresses “going to a certain place”; eg:
Kotoshi nihon e ikimasu.
“This year I will go to Japan”.
The expression can be inverted. The inverted form is emphatic, ie it is stronger.
JAL e yōkoso!
“Welcome to JAL!”
Yōkoso JAL e.
“Welcome to JAL!”
Just for fun, this is how you could pompously welcome someone into your humble abode. People would certainly laught if you welcomed them like this, knowing you are trying to be funny.
Yōkoso waga ya e!
“Welcome to my home!”
There is an anime called NHK ni yōkoso!, the featured image of this post. They used the に ni particle instead of へ e.
に ni is another particle that indicates location. So we have a third expression:
NHK ni yōkoso!
“Welcome to the NHK!”
NHK is the acronym for 日本放送協会 Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation. The institutional welcome is mandatory here!
If you paid attention you noticed that I listed websites and blogs among the contexts where ようこそ yōkoso is required. In fact it is not strictly required, just preferred.
You may ask why? After all, a blog is something personal. An answer to this question could be that a website is a virtual space.
いらっしゃい irasshai conveys the idea that you are physically entering somewhere (入る iru/hairu), but visiting a website doesn’t require you to enter anywhere. But I may be wrong.
And now for homework: translate the following sentence.
Welcome to my blog. :-)