Once upon a time, when I was back in Ibaraki-ken learning my way through Japanese the hard way, I discovered the common phrase お気をつけて (O-ki o tsukete). Usually, people drop the first part and just shout out, “気をつけて!” Often people said this to me as a general goodbye right after “さようなら(Sayonara)!”
So I started using it as another version of goodbye. For about two months I used it that way, but sometimes I’d get that face. If you’re an ex-pat, you know that face, the one where the Japanese person in front of you freezes to keep their facial features devoid of making themselves smile or giggle at your mistake because that would be extremely rude. I would try to ask what I did wrong, but I’d get waved away as if it wasn’t a big deal.
Finally, I said this one day after work, and my co-worker who was known for being a bit more direct than other teachers said outright in English, “Why are you saying 気をつけて? I’m not doing anything.”
Turns out that 気をつけて isn’t exactly used as a goodbye. Instead, it’s a way of saying “Take care!” or the original meaning as “Be careful!” Mothers will often say this phrase to their children before they go off to school.
When people leave your house you should say something like, “気をつけて帰ってね。(Ki o tsukete kaette ne.) Be careful going home.” Often you’ll hear teachers shout out to students before a typhoon, “みんな,台風お気をつけて! (Mina(san), taifu o-ki o tsukete!) Everyone, be careful of the typhoon!
In other words, it’s more often used when people are leaving you to go somewhere or do something, such as driving, walking to/back home, etc. Often it’s implied that there might be danger or challenges ahead, so you’re wishing for someone to stay aware of their surroundings or what’s going on.
You shouldn’t use it when you are leaving someone, because you’re telling them “Be careful (here in this obviously safe place where you’re not doing anything, and that’s kind of weird).” If there are no dangers or challenges, then there’s no point in telling someone this phrase, because they’re going to be just fine sitting at a desk, staying at home, etc.
Now, to get a bit tricky, you can use it for certain other circumstances. For example, if you’re leaving someone’s house and you know they’re going to go on a trip, you can tell them, “フランス旅行, 気をつけて帰ってね! (Fransu ryoko, ki o tsukete ne!) Be careful on your trip to France!” Because here you know this person will encounter possible trouble on their journey in the near future, so you’re wanting them to have safe travels.
Basically, when someone is going away or leaving you, you should use this phrase. Otherwise, it’s fine to simply say “さようなら(Sayonara)! ” or the more informal
“じゃあね (jaa ne)!” as goodbyes.
Hopefully now you’ll know how to utilize this phrase effectively! If you want to learn more Japanese conversation tips, I’m going to start putting up some posts every Tuesday. Please follow to get more tips and tricks!
*It should be noted that misusing this phrase isn’t seen as a big deal for most Japanese people, they often appreciate the effort in trying to use it in the first place. First time learners are encouraged to use it often!