Like Japanese, French people do not like to say, “Goodbye”. Instead of “Adieu” (goodbye) they would rather say “Au revoir”, meaning roughly, “till we meet again”.

The French have the famous saying: “To say ‘Goodbye’ is to die a little.” This became a song, popularized by Ella Fitzgerald, among others. That French expression is attractively poetic; it says much in very few words. English people admire the French for their ability to invent such sayings. We are not so clever at making them. The proof is, that we British have to use a French phrase to describe them: “mot juste”. That means: “exactly the right word for it”. What an awkward English phrase for the neat French “mot juste”! In such things we feel a cultural inferiority to our French neighbours across the Channel. To save our pride, we say to ourselves: “After all, these are only small things: the French are clever in small things.” But secretly, we envy them. So, the French do not like to say “Goodbye”, because that means, a final parting* They prefer to say, “Till we meet again”. The Germans say the same thing: ‘Auf wiedersehen’, “Till we see each other again”. Over the telephone the Germans sometimes say: “Auf wiederhoren” – “Till we hear each other again”. (They like to be scientifically exact.) In any case, they do not want a final parting.

But the British seem to be a bit different. We do not hesitate to say,

“Goodbye”, when we do not expect to meet again. The word “goodbye” has a very wide meaning, apart from people. “When the company went bankrupt, it was goodbye to his hopes of a good career, and goodbye also to her dreams of an easy life.” Such phrases are quite common. Fifty years ago, it was usual for BBC announcers, and in fact educated people generally, to address each other as “Mr. So- and-so”. But after the Labour Government came into power in 1946, they began to call each other by their Christian names. Today even Cabinet Ministers call each other John and Ken. “It was goodbye to all that formality”. The older generation just accept it, occasionally with a wry smile. But we know that everything changes; everything ends in ‘Goodbye to all that’. We try to invent something new which will be good, or even better. I think that many British are very practical in our attitude to parting and separation. When we meet ‘ someone, we know that, inevitably, we shall be parted. Of course, the Japanese and French too know that parting is inevitable. The difference is, that often they seem to hold on to personal relationships as long as possible, and they can be very sad when the relationships end.

When I first went to live abroad, aged 22, I was surprised to find so many foreigners were upset at partings. Then I was surprised again, when I realized that I was not. The British can say “Goodbye” without being so upset. That is why the Continental people think that the British are cold-hearted, and why the British think the Continentals are sentimental.

I have often wondered about the difference. Before I went to the Far  East, I used to suppose that the British calm was because we are great gardeners. We see the seasons change each year. When we plant the roses, we know that they will bloom, and then die. Next year new ones will bloom, but after a few years, the tree will die. We accept the cycle of birth, growth and death, calmly, because it comes from our instinct as gardeners. The Continental people in general are not interested in gardens to the same extent.

I was satisfied with this explanation till I went to Japan two or three years later. The Japanese, though great gardeners like my own people, were so reluctant to say, “Goodbye”. Their farewells took a long time. Just when I thought, “At last we are going”, someone would begin a new conversation. They hated to part, even when they were not particularly good friends. On this point, British women are more like Japanese: women here sometimes talk for fifteen minutes in the hall when the visitor has already put on her coat to leave. Neither of them wants to end the visit.

I think that popular songs can tell us something about the basic feelings of a nation. As far as my experience goes, nearly all the Japanese songs about separation are sad, often very sad  and there are words in them which are difficult to translate into English. In the case of European languages, there is a common background of history, and so we can generally translate German or French words easily in English. Sometimes we have to use more words, but we can do it. In the case of Japanese, however, it may be very hard. When I first went to Japan, early in Showa, there was a popular song called Manshu Musume. I liked the tune, and wanted to learn it. So I got a copy of it, and learnt it. I asked a Japanese teacher to translate it. He did this easily, till we came to the lines where the separation is described: “Miren no debune – A – a -ah! Kane a naru. “He could not find an English word for Mi-ren. He had to give a long explanation describing the feelings of regret and sadness at the passing away of things. I suppose it was difficult for him because I was young then, and did not have this feeling much. I was always thinking: “Something new – let me see something new! Let me do something new!” And when they have separated for some years, they like to go back to the place and live nostalgically in their memories. British people do not do this nearly so much.

If we look at the British songs of separation, there are many sad ones, but we may be surprised to find some very cheerful ones, even among old folk-songs. For instance, there is a very popular one called; “There is a Tavern in the Town”. The melody is a vigorous pulsing rhythm, full of cheerful rising phrases. The words differ slightly in different parts of the country, but here is a typical verse:

“Now farewell for I must leave you,

Do not let this parting grieve you,

                      For the best of friends – as you and I – Must part, part, part.

Oh I’ll hang my heart on a weeping willow tree,

         and may good fortune go with thee, go with thee.”


The willow tree was traditionally called weeping, because it looks like a woman, hanging her head in grief, with her hair falling all round her. Here it is plainly used ironically. The repetitions, “must part, part, part” and “go with thee, go with thee”, seem to imply that he is glad to get away.

Perhaps this phrase “may good fortune go with thee” comes from the Roman thinking, which had such a deep impression on the English. The Romans did not have sad farewells. Their word for Goodbye was “Vale”, which just means: “keep well” or “be strong”. The Romans were a warlike people. They were always losing friends in war, and they did not make sad farewells. They just said: “Go, and be strong, like a true Roman! Vale!” I suspect, as an outsider, that there are traces of this attitude in Japan also; after all, mi-ren has also an association with weakness. I noticed this in some Kabuki plays. Perhaps the bushi tradition in Japan corresponds to the Roman tradition with us.

But there is another element of cheerful goodbye in some of our Sea songs, which were sung by the sailors. Britain is an island, and we have a long tradition of sea-faring. There is a famous one called ‘Spanish Ladies’, and it is supposed to be sung when the British ship is leaving the Spanish port of Cadiz. This is the chorus:


“It’s away, and farewell to you, you Spanish ladies,

It’s away and farewell to you, ladies of Spain;

For we’re sailing away past the bar of Cadiz,

And we’ll never, no never, come back to you again.”


Here again the repetition of the words “farewell” and “never” give the impression of the adventurous sailor who does not want to stay, but wants to go on somewhere new. After all, that is his profession. A sailor who is always sad at leaving will not enjoy being a sailor.

Japan too is an island. Though in this century Japan has had some wonderful sailors, the ordinary people have only comparatively recently been able to travel freely abroad. So my impression is, as a foreigner, that the sailor spirit is not yet general in Japan. But this is changing, I think. When the sailor spirit does develop strongly, the songs of separation will not all be sad. Some will look forward to the new experiences that are waiting. And then you will be accused of being cold and heartless, just as we British are accused today. But inside, you will feel rather cheerful.

© Trevor Leggett

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