Sep 13, 2017

The "irasshaimase" story

I think just about every expat living in Japan has a story (or several) that they'd refer to as awkward gaijin moments. Whether it's a miscommunication or a lost in translation moment, or perhaps a lapse (or just complete lack of knowledge) in remembering what the cultural norms are here, there seem to be plenty of opportunities to accidentally goof up. I hope that I'm not alone in that sentiment! Sometimes I feel like I have an encyclopedia edition of awkward gaijin moments – but here's a bit of a sweet (or naïve, depending on perspective) one for you.

One of the first things that I wanted to do when we moved to Japan was shop. Of course, enjoying the cuisine and exploring some of the neat historical and cultural sites was of an utmost priority as well – but I'd heard so many great things about Japan being a retail therapy paradise, so I was intrigued.

The "irasshaimase" story photo

One of my favorite shopping spots in Tokyo - around Shibuya!

Something that I noticed when I checked out my local mall was just how polite and friendly the assistants in each store were. If I headed there as soon as they opened, there would literally be an assistant from every single store waiting at the front of their shop to greet customers. “How lovely!”, I thought! One thing that I didn't think about though, was exactly what they were saying.

If you've been here a while you'll know by now that irasshaimase is basically the equivalent of the staff member saying to you “welcome to the store!” or “come on in!”. Super newbie gaijin me assumed that irasshaimase actually was a greeting similar to “good morning!”. I already knew ohayo gozaimasu, but you know – my grasp on Japanese is not great (and at the point of moving here it was very, very basic). So in each store that I went into, when I'd be greeted with an enthusiastic “irasshaimase!”, I'd smile at the store attendant and say back to them (with usually the same amount of gusto) “irasshaimase!”.

The "irasshaimase" story photo

As well as goofing up the irasshaimase, I also used to make the peace sign in just about every picture I took for the first year in Japan...

Now, I can't remember how long I kept up with this awkward assumption that I was simply saying good morning back to the shop attendants. Probably about the first 6-8 weeks of living here? On one occasion where my husband was actually with me at the mall, he literally had to explain to me (in the nicest way possible, of course) “oh, no – you don't say irasshaimase back to them! They're welcoming you to the store, not saying hello!”

You can bet that at that point my face had turned bright red. I'm sure I was mentally replaying all the instances where the shop assistants just gave me a blank stare and a polite smile back, probably thinking to themselves “oh, bless her heart...she thinks irasshaimase means hello!”

I try not to get too embarrassed these days by the awkward gaijin moments. It's part of living in a new place, and embracing a new culture that is different to the one I grew up in. I remind myself that it's natural to make mistakes along the way, and as long as you're making a conscious effort to learn then I say embrace the awkward gaijin moments, with a smile and a sumimasen!

The "irasshaimase" story photo

Shopping in Japan is fun - but does come with some cultural challenges!


After spending the last several years in the beating heart of Tokyo, I will be spending the next three in the countryside of Japan. I adore this country and all it has to offer - and I'm always learning more and more about life here as I go along!