In the Land of the Rising Sun, there is an expression that is often uttered by both employees and employers alike: ¨otsukaresama¨. If you like watching Japanese animation movies and dramas in their original language, you might have heard it before. But do you know what it really means? 

In this article, we will explore the meaning and origins of this expression, as well as how it should be used. We will also take a look at the difference between otsukaresama and another similar expression : ¨gokurosama¨. Let’s get started!

Meaning Of Otsukaresama

The approximate translation of otsukaresama is “thank you for your hard work“. There exist other variations of the same expression such as ¨otsukare¨ or ¨otsukaresama desu¨ which are used differently depending on who you are talking to. 

Otsukaresama is a term used to express gratitude to someone who has put in a lot of effort, either recently or over the course of their career. For example, otsukaresama can be used as an expression of appreciation by superiors to their employees for a job well done. 

Japanese society greatly emphasizes the importance of doing your best no matter the task you are given. Sometimes, it is considered even more important than the results themselves. Otsukeresama is the Japanese’s way of recognizing the work you put forth and is hence a very important expression, especially in the working environment. 

Otsukare can also be seen as a term of greetings. According to the Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (famous Japanese language dictionary in Japan), otsukaresama is used to greet people in the late afternoon and evening in certain prefectures like Niigata, Nagano and Yamanashi. 

Origin Of The Expression

Otsukaresama (お疲れ様) is composed of 3 elements :

  • ¨o¨ (お) : it is called an honorific ¨o¨ in Japanese and is meant to elevate the level of politeness of the word. 
  • ¨tsukare¨ (疲れ) : it means tiredness in Japanese and is derived from the verb ¨tsukaremasu¨ (疲れます), which means ¨being tired¨. This makes sense, as the expression is often used when someone looks exhausted after a long day at work.
  • ¨sama¨ (様) : like ¨o¨, sama is meant to address your counterpart in a formal and respectful way. 

The historical origins of the expression though are a bit unclear. It seems Japanese used to say ¨gokurosama¨(a similar expression) instead of ¨otsukaresama¨ in the past. 

From around the mid-20th century onwards however; the use of otsukaresama spread throughout Japan and became increasingly common among the people, surpassing gokurosama in popularity.

The Japanese language specialist Iima Hiroaki thinks otsukaresama was originally used by comedians in the entertainment world to greet each other. After the war, famous comedians on TV shows also started using otsukaresama, which might have helped spread the phrase outside of the entertainment world. 

When And How To Use Otsukaresama ?

How To Use Ostukaresama’s Variations

Before starting using otsukaresama, it is important to understand the difference between all the variations of this expression. 

Always remember that Japan is a country that values hierarchy and seniority. Therefore, the level of politeness you use will change depending on the status of your interlocutor. In general, the longer the word is the politer it becomes :

  • ¨otsukaresama desu¨ or ¨otsukaresama deshita¨ (past time) is used when talking to people above you (superior) or who have more seniority than you (senpai)
  • ¨otsukaresama¨ can be used both for people below you or equal to you in terms of status (colleagues, subordinates, younger kohai)
  • ¨otsukare¨ (sometimes even just ¨ottsu¨) is informal and can be used only when addressing familiar people (friends, family) 

Note that superiors could also say ¨otsukare¨ to their subordinates because they are higher in the hierarchy. 

When Do You Say Otsukaresama? 

The expression otsukaresama can be used in a variety of situations, but the main one would be at work : 

  • A manager could say to his team members ¨otsukaresama¨ after they finished a difficult work project to congratulate them. The team members would then reciprocate by saying ¨otsukaresama desu¨. 
  • Workers usually utter ¨otsukaresama¨ when leaving their workplace to say goodbye to their colleagues still working. They say ¨otsukaresama desu¨ to a superior and ¨otsukaremasa¨ or simply ¨otsukare¨ to a subordinate. 
  • When answering the phone call of someone from the same company, it is typical to start the conversation with ¨otsukaresama desu¨ as a way of greeting.
  • It can be uttered as a farewell message to someone who is leaving a company.

There are also other occasions where it can be appropriate. For example :

  • You might say otsukaresama to someone who has just ran a marathon or accomplished some other great feats.
  • A mother and father could say ¨otsukare¨ to their child after he or she finished passing important school exams.
  • It is used in the martial art of Aikido and other sports to congratulate one’s opponent on a well-fought match.

In short, otsukaresama is a good way to express feelings of appreciation (thank you for all your efforts) and words of congratulation (you did well, good job). 

What Is The Difference Between Otsukaresama And Gokurosama?

Those two expressions are pretty close in terms of meaning. Gokurosama (ご苦労様) is derived from the word kurô (苦労) that stands for hardship. It shows a person had to face difficulties to complete a certain task. The same goes for ostukaresama which shows a person got tired while trying to complete this task. 

To put it simply, the difference between otsukaresama and gokurosama is that the former can be used by anybody regardless of their status, while the latter is specifically used by superiors. Indeed, saying ¨gokurosama¨ to your boss is considered rude in Japan. 

However, it was not always the case. It seems that both expressions were used the same way until the 80’s. Although there might be a number of reasons as to why it progressively changed, the Japanese linguist Toda Tatsuhiko has come up with an original theory. 

In his opinion, young Japanese today do not like to use words implying extensive work and hardships like ¨kurô¨ towards their seniors. They feel like their position does not allow them the right to admit their boss is having a hard time… 

Interestingly, they don’t see any problem with tiredness because anyone gets tired when working hard no matter the age. They are thus more inclined to use otsukaresama instead of gokurosama.  

To Sum Up

Otsukaresama is the kind of word you will hear everywhere in Japan, just like ¨yoroshiku onegai shimasu¨ (meaning ¨nice to meet you¨ or ¨please, treat me kindly¨). As mentioned earlier, it is a very dear expression to Japanese people and you need to know how to use it if you plan on living in Japan one day. 

If you have any questions or would like to share your own experiences using this word, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below! 

Commonly Asked Questions About the Meaning of Otsukaresama

What is the response to Otsukaresama?

When someone says otsukaresama desu to you you can just say it back. When you say otsukaresama deshita to your boss they may reply “otsukare”. This is the informal version of the otsukaresama desu.

What is Otsukaresama Deshita meaning?

Otsukaresama deshita literally means “you’re tired” even though there is no proper English equivalent to this very Japanese expression.

What is Gokurosama?

Gokurosama is a greeting similar as Otsukaresama deshita but the difference is it can only be used by superiors. It would be considered rude to say Gokurosama to your boss.