Otsukaresama Deshita: The Most Commonly Used Phrase in Japan

I now find myself with one of those rare moments where I actually have enough time to sit down and write about my time in Japan, which as you may have noticed only happens about once every few months. In theory, I had time over the winter break, but I was quite busy lying in bed and enjoying the wide variety of Japan’s cup noodles. So the moment escaped me and before I knew it, I was back to walking across the freezing hellscape that is the path to class.

It is only about 40 degrees most days (in Fahrenheit of course, since I still don’t understand Celcius) and coming from the Northeast that is lovely weather for early January. But the long path that leads from the dorms to the classrooms seems to have been perfectly designed to funnel the constant and powerful wind directly into our faces as we trudge to class, making it feel well below zero. I have recently taken to wearing about 20 articles of clothing at any given time, which I assure you is the height of fashion here at APU.

This brings me to the title of this post: Otsukaresama deshita. Recently, the meaning of this common Japanese phrase has become essentially “Congrats on surviving another day without losing any appendages to frostbite,” but it actually means something along the lines of “you have worked hard today.” This is a phrase you will here approximately 30 times a day, so if you ever plan on coming to Japan, even just for a visit, it is definitely an important one to know.

Coming from America, hearing this phrase took a little getting used to. In America, I would never just call out to my friends “good work today!” as they walk home from class; it’s just not done. But here, it is a totally different story. Basically anytime people are headed back to the dorms, you are bound to hear a chorus of otsukares following in their wake. At first, this took a little getting used to, and I would just kind of smile, nod, and continue on my way, but after a few months of this I am tossing out otsukares left and right.

oprah otsukare
live footage of me walking back from class.

For a few months, I was in a temporary theatre circle which put on a production of Les Miserables, where I got to play Cossette. This is probably when I got the most used to hearing this phrase because, at the end of every rehearsal, the whole cast would say it to each other, and then as soon as you got back to the dorms you would hear it from everyone who you pass. After this experience, otsukare is probably one of my favorite phrases.

This slight acknowledgment that yes, you have worked hard today and people are aware of it is surprisingly comforting. I would never have expected it or needed it in America, but now that I am used to it, it means a lot to hear it at the end of the day. Some days, I will be busy from 8:30 in the morning to almost midnight, but having that fact acknowledged every time I walk back onto the floor gives me a sense of relief that I did not know I needed.

I think that in a society such as Japan, where people are frequently expected to work far past overtime without complaint, it is only natural that this phrase would have come to be used so commonly. It is hard to explain, but hearing this after a long day gives you the energy to do it again the next day and the day after and so on. It makes sense how the Japanese are seen as one of the most hardworking societies, because everyone around them gives their support, no matter how small the endeavor.

Otsukaresama deshita!” after the English performance of Les Miserables. (That’s me in the huge white dress.)

I remember that right around the time I arrived in Japan, a student who works for the APU blog had written a post entitled “The Most Useful Japanese Phrase You Should Learn,” and now I understand why.  I originally read this blog post before classes had started, so it did not hit me until later just how right she was. If you do not understand this phrase, not only will you not understand the most common greeting after 5 pm, you will also be missing out on an important aspect of Japanese culture.



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