Arigato; Thankfulness in the World of the Japanese

What is The Word for “Arigato” When Translated from Japanese to English?

Arigato, sometimes spelled as Arigatou (ah-ree-gah-toh) ありがとう is the Japanese interjection that means thank you. As for the literal meaning of the word itself, it directly translates to something being impossible or difficult. To explain why this is, arigato is used to address a thank you to the person who has done something impossible for you.

“Obrigado” and “Arigato” – Are They Similar for A Reason?

Many people automatically that the word arigato comes from the Portuguese word “Obrigado”. “Obrigado”, meaning obligated, is used by the Portuguese to denote a duty to thank that person for a favor given or done.

It’s understandable why people think that both words are related. After all, the Portuguese had been the first European nation to enter Japan in 1542 – and they brought with them their culture; Christianity, food, and language. Their influence on the way of life and culture of the Japanese was notable. Plus, Obrigado and arigato sound almost the same.

The rumor, however, is false. Long before the Portuguese came, the Japanese had long been using the word "arigatai"(有り難い)”, as well as Arigatou; the more courteous evolved word that came from the word arigatai.

The Etymology of Arigato

The word arigato can be divided into two root words, “ari/aru” which is Japanese for the idea of existing, and “gatai” meaning difficult and/or rare. Put those two together, and you have arigatai; the word that acknowledges that it was difficult to obtain this existing rare thing.

Alright - it may not mean “I am grateful for this” directly, but the Japanese are more poetic than that. The gratefulness of someone who has a reason to say arigato is implied in the humility of the fact that this rarity of a favor is acknowledged, and someone just made things a little easier/better for them.

The Japanese culture has a tendency of showing respect with their words – too much respect, sometimes. This is where the word arigato comes from; over-thanking or showing excessive gratitude. It is such an often occurrence in their culture that they have the corresponding words to show it.

The History of Arigato

You’ll find traces of the word arigato as far back as the 794-1192, or the Heian period. You can even find it in the Pillow Book, also known as “Makura no Soshi”. The Pillow Book is comprised of a bunch of entries written by court lady Sei Shonagon. It was finished in 1002, and Shonagon included excerpts of musings and bits of her life; poems, quotes, passages, message bits, essays, etcetera. She also happened to write down “Arigatakimono”, which expressed some sentiments that she found it hard to exist in this world.

The word would later evolve with the widespread religion of Buddhism in Japan. People connected arigato with the idea of gratefulness of the blessings given by Buddha, instead of acknowledging the rarity or difficulty of doing the favor or obtaining/giving the gift. To this day, this is still the way people perceive the gratitude behind arigato.

Other Words Besides Arigato You May Use

Aside from Arigatou, there is the word “Orei” (お礼) which also conveys gratitude. Then, there is “Kansha” (かんしゃ ) which also means appreciation and thankfulness. “Sumimasen” (すみません) is also a polite way to say thank you (but it can also mean “excuse me” and/or “I’m sorry”.

Again, the reason it is both an apology and a sign of gratitude is that the one who is thanking the person who did the favor also acknowledges the hassle they had to go through to accomplish that favor. Lastly, another way to say thanks is the even more cordial “Osoreirimasu” (恐れ入ります.) This is a much more formal, respectful variety of sumimasen.

When and How to Use Arigato

As for specific term “arigato”, there are various versions on when and how arigato is applied. Some are more formal, while others are more casual. It all depends on the occasion/situation, as well as the people they are thanking. Although it’s the most popular word used to express thanks, there are other ways besides arigato to convey your intentions the proper way.

Usually, Japanese manners that accompany arigato are a nod or a bow, or with hands clasped. To show humility in body language, even while saying something already humbling, is still necessary. In the Western world, a simple “thank you” would be sufficient - but the ever-courteous Japanese have many ways and words to show their gratefulness. The following are the different words and phrases Japanese use to show they’re thankful. The characters beside these words are in Hiragana.

The Japanese Character forms of Arigato

  • Arigatou ありがとう (thank you) is used casually among family and friend circles. This word can be applied to both past and present situations.
  • Duomo どうも (thanks) is midway between casual and formal. It can have many meanings, but literally, it means "very much", and it is applied when a thank you is intended. This can be applied also to both past and present situations.
  • Duomo Arigatou どうもありがとう (Thanks a lot) is a very casual term used among friends or co-workers. It’s bet this word is avoided for use during formal occasions.
  • Arigatou Gozaimasu ありがとうございます (Thank you very much) is used more often when more politeness and formality is needed than just plain arigato. It is used when addressing people who are superior in rank compared to you (Japan is a big fan of the honorific system) like family elders, teachers, or strangers you need to show respect to. You may also use this phrase when trying to express deep gratitude towards someone close to you.
  • Duomo Arigatou Gozaimasu どうもございまずいます (Thank you very much) a much politer and much more formal and much more intense thank you than just arigato gozaimasu
  • Arigatou gozaimashita ありがとうございました (thank you) used when you are thanking for a past favor or deed.  Usually addressed to teachers after class or waiters addressing customers when they leave said most often by salesmen in a store, waiters or waitresses in restaurants when you leave. This is used when the act of receiving has already occurred.

Other Examples of Phrases That Use Arigato

Arigato does not necessarily have to be used by itself. It is mixed with other phrases to form different thanking sentences.

  • So there’s shoutai arigatou;  招待ありがとう (Thank you for the invitation.)
  • tonikaku arigatou.  とにかく有難う (Thanks just the same.)
  • iroiro arigatou.色々ありがとう  (Thank you once again for everything.)
  • O, arigatou. Ki ga kiku ne. お、ありがと。気が利くね。 (Oh, thank you! How considerate.)
  • Kyou wa arigatou 今日はありがとう (Thank you for today.) 
  • Hontou-ni arigatou (gozaimasu) 本当にありがとう(ございます)(Thank you so very much.)

Replying to Arigato

Naturally, one would want to respond politely when being thanked, and “you’re welcome” in can be said 3 ways in Japanese. The first is “Douitashimashite”. Douitashimashite is how to respond warmly and politely to arigato in general. Because it is also very gracious, means that this is best said to those who are close to you, such as friends, family, and colleagues.

Next is “Iiyo”. Iiyo is not as nice well-mannered as the previously mentioned Douitashimashite, as it doesn’t really translate to “you’re welcome” as much as it translates to “it’s okay”. While others may find this perfectly fine, some people may find it rude that you’re acknowledging that doing the favor could have been a hassle, but wasn’t. This is best used when being chummy around friends, or when you don’t need to show as much respect as usual (young siblings, lowerclassmen, etcetera.)

If you mean to say, “it’s no problem”, as a reply to a thank, then the Japanese term you’re looking for is “ie-ie”. It literally translates to someone saying “no, no”, because “ie” is no in Japanese. It’s akin to saying that the person doesn’t need to thank you for what you did.

Picking the right way to reply to “arigato” is important – but you know what else is important? Body language. What you say is just as important as how you say it. Make sure that you’re smiling and friendly while replying with “you’re welcome” so people don’t think you’re being sarcastic, or making a joke.

“Arigato” and Globalization

Ever since the dawn of globalization, people have shared their language and words with each other. The first thing people do, in fact, is learning the basics of a language when entering that country. “Hello”, “Goodbye”, and “Thank you” are some of the most basic words one can learn, and while you’ve learned that there are many ways to say, “thank you” in Japanese, Arigato is a favorite among foreigners to summarize general gratefulness. People around the world are now familiar with arigato, despite not know any other word in Japanese.

The Use of Arigato in Pop Culture

In the name of both art and culture, arigato has been used to title works that range from songs to graphic novels. It’s printed on T-shirts to show solidarity with Japanese culture, and is even a shoe brand. There are many ways that this word has been stretched to fit the products of culture, and here are a few.

Arigato, A Manga Series

Arigato, the Manga (a Japanese comic) is authored by Naoki Yamamoto. It is about the Suzuki family with an overprotective father, an alcoholic mother, one know-it-all rebellious daughter, and her emotionally deprived sister. The show is full of violence and has lots of sexual content. It ranked 7.19 among its users. It dramatically depicts how a family just breaks apart when a lot of things scandalously go wrong. It has 4 volumes with 47 chapters and was published from October 1, 1994. The series lasted for eight months, ending on June 1, 1995.

Arigato, A Song by Japanese Singer Kokia

A top hit in Hong Kong during 1998 was a song called “Arigato” by Kokia, a famous Japanese singer. It was so popular, that it was covered by Sammi Cheng, and won an award in 1999 for hitting second place in pop charts. Arigato is one of the biggest hits of Kokia’s career. The song is written in Japanese and is about someone losing someone they loved very much. It talks about the happiness shared with someone being taken away, and the singer feels like she took it for granted and wishes she could thank the person one more time.

The lyric of the song that appears most often talks about wanting to see the person she loves one last time, followed by “arigato”, which implies that even though it’s been hard for her, she still acknowledges the great memories they had and is thankful that they happened.

Arigato and Other Basic Words in Japanese: Learn Them

Visiting Japan soon? There is no excuse that you should have for not knowing basic Japanese words such as arigato. You can pick up a course online to help you familiarize yourself with the Japanese language – in fact, the Duolingo application just recently added Japanese to their set of languages you can study.

The Japanese are a very helpful and kind community and are very understanding of foreigners who can’t speak their language. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t take the time to try. The Japanese really appreciate it when you speak to them in their language, because not everyone there is fluent in English. Although they may not be able to reply in your native language, asking for something in Japanese (or even just doing something as simple as saying arigato after someone has done you a service) will speak mountains about your character to them.