Do you remember the first day of Japanese class or the first day you resolved to finally learn the language on your own? What about the very first Japanese words you ever learned? There’s a good chance arigatō gozaimasu (ありがとうございます) were those first words and/or you learned them on that first day of study. Of course the Japanese words for “thank you” are so widely known that you may not even have needed to “learn” them — they might have been something you were already aware of.
Unfortunately, however, many students’ ability to express their appreciation never expands beyond this single phrase. Learning how to diversify the ways of saying “thanks” will allow you to be appreciative more naturally in many different situations.
Sure, we can attach the all-purpose adverb dōmo (どうも; to a great extent) to the front to give us dōmo arigatō gozaimasu (どうもありがとうございま; thank you very much), thereby drawing out the number of syllables and, thus, the level of politeness just slightly, and dōmo arigatō alone is serviceable in more casual situations. But these variations don’t really give us anything beyond what we already know.
We can also turn the phrase into past tense: arigatō gozaimashita (ありがとうございました). This is useful after someone has completed something for you. For example, an audience has politely attended a conference until the very end, you have completed a phone call with a service representative or someone has returned a dropped wallet to you. However, this should be used with caution in a business atmosphere as some companies ask workers to use present tense so as not to imply a completion of their relationship with a client — they are hoping for continued happy returns in the future.
Dōmo will do fine in casual situations to express a quick thanks, but it also latches on easily to sumimasen (すみません) as well. While dōmo sumimasen is often used to mean “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry,” it is also used when receiving unexpected favors, such as when someone holds the door or otherwise goes out of their way to be helpful.
In this same sense, the word kyōshuku (恐縮; to be obliged or to trouble) also has a split personality. It has a negative quality to it, and used at the front of a sentence it can be a great way to apologize before making a request of someone: “Kyōshuku desu ga, gomeiwaku de nakereba, chotto tesudatte itadakemasen deshō ka?” (「恐縮ですが、ご迷惑でなければちょっと手伝っていただけませんでしょうか」; “It’s terrible of me, but if it isn’t too much trouble, could I ask you to help me for a minute?”)
As with sumimasen, kyōshuku can be considered an extremely polite and respectful way to show appreciation for an unexpected situation, in this case unexpected praise. When I taught at a Japanese junior high school, the woman who helped organize and serve the town’s kyūshoku (給食, school lunches) was a wonderful person, a hard worker and legitimately interested in making sure the students had a diverse selection of delicious, healthy meals.
At one point, she was recognized unexpectedly for her work in front of the school during a meeting. At the mention of her name, she turned bright red and was clearly a little embarrassed. The first words out of her mouth were “Kyōshuku desu” (「恐縮です」; “I’m terribly obliged”). This is a great way to humbly accept praise and express your appreciation for it. Note that kyōshuku and kyūshoku are remarkably similar — just with the first o and u swapped around — so be sure not to mistake them.
A more direct variation of thank you is tasukarimasu (助かります), which literally means “I am/will be helped.” This is most frequently expressed in the past tense tasukarimashita (助かりました), which should be used right after someone has helped you in some way and means something along the lines of “I appreciate the help” or “That was a big help.” You can use present tense tasukarimasu when someone is agreeing to do a favor to express that you will really appreciate what they are about to do.
And if you want to thank people like Solid Snake from the “Metal Gear Solid” video-game franchise, the phrase you are looking for is kari ga dekita (借りができた; I owe you one). A search in Google shows over 84,000 hits for this phrase, but only 21,000 for the more polite distal form kari ga dekimashita, which suggests that this phrase is quite casual and not something you should bust out in front of the boss man. Save it for your comrades in arms.
Of course, you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel every time you say thank you. This is proven by karaoke classics that feature arigatō.
Yujiro Ishihara’s “Yogiri yo konya mo arigatō” (「夜霧よ今夜もありがとう」; literally, “Thank you Again, Tonight, Night Fog”) is a classic that is slow enough for beginners and perfect for those of us cursed with hikui koe (低い声, deep voices). In the song, two lovebirds thank the yogiri (夜霧, night fog) for covering the pain while they’re apart.
And Yoshi Ikuzo, the man with the best stage name in all of Japan (it’s a homonym for “Here we go!”), has the more epic song “Arigatō no Uta” (「ありがとうの唄」; “The thank you song”) in which Ikuzo thanks things for giving him courage. It’s a great song that helps students note how the particle wo (を) is used to mark something for which someone is thankful, in this case “Yūki wo arigatō” (「勇気をありがとう」; “Thank you for the courage”). You can copy this structure in your everyday life with phrases such as messēji wo arigatō (メッセージをありがとう; thank you for the message).
Varying the way you say “thank you” is an easy way to sound more natural and native with Japanese. These are a good start, but language students should always aim to be gluttons for punishment: You should never be satisfied with what you have; continue to tease out another fifty shades of arigatō that aren’t yet in your arsenal.