The interesting origins of “Sayonara(さよなら)”

Sayonara is one of the most known and commonly used Japanese words even by people who don’t speak Japanese. There is even an old American drama movie from 1957 titled “Sayonara.” It is because of all this that it is commonly known that sayonara is a farewell greeting used to express departure after meeting with someone or marking the end of a conversation. Even in the US, it is used as an alternative for “goodbye” by some people, no matter their origins nor Japanese fluency, just to show uniqueness or a slight “spice” to their way of talking.

How it came to be

While most people know that “Sayonara” is used as a concluding greeting in this time and age, but it is the way how sayonara came to be what what makes it special from other concluding greetings. That is because, “Sayonara” didn’t mean “goodbye” in the past.

For starters,  there are various common types of concluding greetings, some being:

  • “To god”  Such as “Adios” in Spanish
  • “to reunite”  Such as “See you later” or “Au Revoir” in French
  • “For wellness” Such as “Farewell” or “Cuidate mucho” in Spanish

Then, to which type is sayonara part of? Well, in fact, it is none of them.

Sayonara originates from a conjunction word, such as “And,” “or” or “but” in English. This makes sayonara a special case compared to other concluding greetings in other languages. Then for someone with a like for the origins of language, it even more intriguing to know how a conjunction word became a greeting and what was Sayonara’s original meaning and use.

Sayonara comes from a variation of the conjunction word 左様ならば (Sayounaraba) that had a similar meaning to other conjunction words in Japanese, such as それでは (Soredewa)、それならば (Sorenaraba). That are used when trying to change a conversation from one topic to another, such as “Well” or “Well then” in English. It is thought that in the past, Sayonara was used as a conjunction together with an actual departure greeting such as ごきげんよう “Gokigenyou” That would translate to English as “I wish you stay well” that now by itself is considered to be a very formal and feminine-like greeting, that has become less popular staying in use only by elderly women and specially in the kansai region that Kyoto and Osaka are part of. It is thought that in the past, It was common to hear 左様ならばごきげんよう “Sayounaraba Gokigenyou” That would become, “Well then, I wish you stay well” as a concluding greeting.

Other examples of the use of this old conjunction word would be:

左様ならば明日会いましょう(Sayounaraba Ashita aimashou) ”Well then, let’s meet again tomorrow”

左様ならばこれで失礼します (Sayounaraba kore de shitsureishimasu) ”Well then, with this I will excuse myself.”

Then it is thought that little by little, it got shortened, and that in the latter part of the Edo period, it lost the ば ”Ba” from the end and it was then, that Sayonara became a greeting on its own. 

But a question would arrive with this explanation, why is it that the conjunction itself became a greeting instead of cutting the conjunction from the actual greeting?  

One explanation is that as any conjunction word in any language, the conjunction word itself, while not carrying a meaning, it carries an intent, such as how “but” in English carries the intent that the following sentence will become a negation or an opposite view to the expression that came before it without even knowing what is coming after it. It is in this way that 左様ならば ”Sayounaraba” carried the intention, that the next phrase to come after will be a positive one, even when not being followed with a greeting.

「今日は一緒に着々仕事すすみました。左様ならば、明日も同じように着々進みましょう。」

(Kyou ha Issho ni chakuchaku shigoto susumimashita. Sayounaraba, Ashita mo Onajiyouni

Chakuchaku Susumimashou.)

“Today, we advanced at a great pace with our work. Well, Let’s keep up this same pace tomorrow.”

As the example above shows; after 左様ならば(Sayounaraba)it continues with another positive sentence related to the previous sentence. And in Japan, one can notice that some phrases in advertisements, phrases and instructions booklets end in the particles へ(E)、に(Ni)、は(Wa). That from a non-native point of view would feel a bit odd, as they look like unfinished sentences. But in fact, that is just that what is being attempted for with those sentences, consciously or unconsciously by the writers themselves! The reason is that, in Japan, there is a cultural notion that there is no need to say the entirety of a sentence if just a part of it is enough to imply what is next. This is why some Japanese language scholars believe that, this is the reason why so many conjunction words (more examples explained below) became words with a meaning on their own without the need of a following sentence. That is because everyone already expects what is about to come after it so there is no need to actually say it all. This could be another example of the Japanese ideology of just expressing as much as is needed to be understood, that gives their beauty to Haiku poems between other artistic writting structures in Japan. There are even some similar examples in English, such as how “See you later” has become just “See you,” as one can imply the rest.

The Present Condition of “Sayonara” as a greeting in Japanese culture.

in contrast to one’s thoughts, the use of “Sayonara” is unexpectedly not that common in today’s spoken Japanese, specially between the younger generations but this is widespread between all ages.

One could say that it is because it feels “old,” “dry,” or even “lame,” as it used when saying goodbye to a teacher in elementary school. It is uncommon to hear a Japanese teenager use “Sayonara,” and itself presents a feeling of 二度と会えない (Nidoto Aenai) “We won’t be meeting again from now on” to some of them. So, when using “Sayonara,” it carries a long departure or at least that the user of “Sayonara” feels like your reencounter could be In the far future or not even plausible at all. It might be because it has been a word that was repeated a lot in their childhood or that the media has been using “Sayonara” more on deeply moving and or character departure scenes more than everything else.

Some Alternatives for Sayonara

As explained above, Sayonara is not as commonly used in everyday life as it was once before. And as it is the same in most countries, including the US, the younger generations try to get their own taste or “flip” to common words to show their originality and uniqueness to their vocabulary, this to show more closeness or avoid monotony when speaking to the people that surround them. This is not an exception in Japan, as it takes less than what should be expected to notice how “Sayonara” is not said as much as one would imagine.

Some of the al words that can be used instead of Sayonara as a departure greeting are explained below:

Informal alternatives

また // またね (Mata ne) // またな (Mata na)

   また (Mata)is another conjunction that carries the meaning of “again” or “and.” It is considered to also be an abbreviation of a variation of longer greetings, such as また会うまで (Mata Au made) “Until we meet up again.” Keeping only the conjunction and optionally adding a ね (Ne) or な (Na) to give it a feeling of familiarity to the receiver of it. ね (Ne) Gives it a slight cuteness, and な (Na)gives it a slight feeling of coolness.

バイバイ  (Bai Bai)

 It is the phonetic writing of “Bye-bye” in Japanese. It is important to denote that it carries a slight cuteness in Japanese, so its use is more widespread among young women. 

さらば。(Saraba)

    Actually, being older than Sayonara as a greeting, it comes from the conjunction form of an archaic word 然り(Sari)” So” and a ば (Ba) *Conjunction modifier* so it ends as さらば(Saraba), It had a similar meaning to  そうであるならば (Sou de Aru Naraba) “If it is like that, then….” In the present times, when used as a greeting, it is sometimes used with slight humor or liveliness.

おつぅー (Otsuu)

  It is an informal way of abbreviating お疲れ様 (Otsukaresama), it is normally used when finished working, doing homework, or finishing an activity with someone that you are close to.

それでは (Sore Dewa)

 It is literally translated as “well then,” It presents a feeling that you are planning on meeting them promptly and that you still have some business with them. It is also used as a conjunction word, so it is not uncommon to hear it together with another greeting after it.  それでは、さようなら (Sore dewa, Sayonara ) “Well then, Sayonara.” 

それじゃ (Soreja)

 An even more informal or familiar expression of それでは (Sore Dewa) simply presenting the informal transformation of では (Dewa) to じゃ“Ja” That is commonly used in informal spoken Japanese. 

じゃあね (Jaa ne)

 It is considered to come from the opposite abbreviation of それじゃ (Soreja) to only keeping the じゃ (Ja) and adding an あ sound extension and the ね finisher, adding it a slight cuteness and familiarity to it. It is used by everyone but is commonly used by women. It also has a slight variation of changing the ね (Ne) with a な (Na); じゃあな (Jaa na)  making it sound slightly “cooler,” making it more common between young males. 

Formal alternatives

Now that we are showing some words that are used instead of sayonara in situations where even more formality is needed, such as work or talking with a teacher would be

お先に失礼します。(Osakini shiturei shimasu)

This one is common to be said when you are leaving a place before it has been concluded or you are leaving while some other people stay behind. It could be used when you finish your shift, but someone you worked with is staying or to the ones that will take your place after you.

お疲れ様でした。 (Otsukaresama Deshita)

This one is also a popular or known word among people that have been in contact with the Japanese media. Its direct translation would be “ It was tiring,” but is commonly translated as “Thanks for the hard work” It is used when an event is finished and that you and the one listening to also finished their part of it. It could be combined with any other greeting, too, but it is also used by itself as a departure. One example would be when you finish your shift with someone else, and it is good manners to say お疲れ様でした (Otsukaresamadeshita) when parting ways from each other.

ご苦労様。(Gokurou Sama)

This one is used by a person that is of higher rank than the receiver to it. It literally translates to “It was a hard work” and is commonly translated as the same as お疲れ様でした to “Thanks for your hard work.” It is commonly used by a boss or a teacher when addressing their subordinates or students after a shift or a lecture respectively.   

失礼しました。 (Shitsurei Shimashita ) // 失礼いたしました。(Shitsurei Itashimashita)

 Used before or while exiting a room with someone you want to give respect to, such as an interviewer or a teacher. It translates to “excuse me” And can also be used in the same situations that one would use in English.

ありがとうございました。(Arigatou Gozaimashita)

The known “Thank you” in Japanese can also be used as a departure work when addressed to someone in a higher position or someone you want to give respect to, especially when being taught or trained in something, such as a martial arts leader or a teacher after a class.

To finalize

To finalize, as it can be read in this article; the Japanese language possesses a distinctive type of departure greetings and the most commonly known international; Sayonara possesses a deep history and background that puts it on a particular kind from most other greetings in other languages. It also shows how an iconic word as Sayonara, at the start was just one slang that was used to abbreviate an extended departure greeting that with time became the norm and even know feels too stoic and proper to be used as an informal greeting, this gives us a look at how language evolves with the different styles and how much culture affects in how a language adopts new words and terms into its vocabulary.

About Alejandro Hernandez 9 Articles
Hello, My name is Alejandro H. I am an international student currently residing in the Tochigi prefecture and majoring in Biological Engineering. My hobbies round from cycling, traveling, practicing martial arts to studying languages and cooking. And have always been intrigued by the singularity of the Japanese culture and language. In my opinion, to be able to understand a culture; the two best ways is through its idioms and its culinary delights!  When it comes to the Japanese language, my curiosity has brought me to study the different origins and ideas conveyed through those now considered normal or even filler words in everyday Japanese, such as greetings and slangs. In addition to my ample variety of hobbies and tastes, I am always open to interact with new people and their way of seeing and living the world.