Japanese can be a difficult language - the US State Department calls it one of the 3 hardest in the world. But there are words so familiar that plenty of Americans know them. Some of them are foods like “Sushi", some of them are notorious, like “Tsunami", and some are the basics, like “Sayonara."
But even though almost everyone knows this simple word and its basic meaning (“Goodbye”), do you know it’s true meaning and its history? Most people think that it means “Farewell,” and even most Japanese people nowadays avoid saying it because of its air of finality. But it turns out that originally, the phrase implied the hope of return.
The phrase used to be a much longer phrase. To learn its origins, let’s break the word up into two parts. First, ”さよう” is a truncated version of ”そのよう”、which means “so” or "that way.” Next, ”なら” is short for “ならば” meaning “if”. So the whole phrase “さようならば“ means “if that” or “if so.” The Kanji "然様なら” or "佐様なら” are also pronounced “さよう” and are also translated as “like that” or “so that.” But what is that supposed to mean? Well, that phrase is essentially short for “well, if that’s all, I really must go,” or "そうならなければならないなら.” But that’s not the end of the story.
It turns out that in olden times, after you would say “well then, if that is all...”, you would follow with a wish that you would return by saying “かえります.” In total, the phrase was “左様ならば” followed by "帰ります” or “さようならば、かえります”. Ironically, then, “sayonara” was part of a goodbye that held the hope of return. However, slowly people first dropped the “帰ります” and later dropped the “ば”, and thus we are left with “Sayonara”.
That story also should help you understand why some people say goodbye by saying “それじゃあ”。Sound familiar now? When saying that, a person is saying “if it’s that”, only this time, more casually.
Of course, if you are just starting out with Japanese, you are probably just having trouble remembering to put the “う” sound in when you spell ”さようなら.” But you aren’t alone - plenty of Japanese people make this mistake too! It doesn’t help that when they anglicized the word ”さようなら”, the Japanese spelled it “Sayonara” which is literally written “サヨナラ.” For example, here’s the sign Japan posted for the departing athletes at the 1964 Olympics.
Nowadays, many Japanese people spell the word ”さよなら.” Which just means that even today, this word, just like all of Japan, is still changing!
** Special thanks to the Japanese Table’s founder, John Berryman, for turning me on to this topic. :)
The Ricoh Communications Club