In the English-speaking world, Japanese is famous for being a difficult language to learn. One particularly challenging aspect is that English and Japanese just don’t match up. While many concrete words like eat or vegetables are easy to look up, sometimes the dictionary can be unclear, or downright deceiving. You can study that moyamoya means “hazy, misty, or feeling sad”, but it isn’t until you hear someone complain of feeling moyamoya after seeing a magic trick that you really understand how it’s the feeling of something left frustratingly unresolved. They want to know how the trick was done, so they can feel sukkiri (“clear, refreshed, neat, refined, clean”). Other words just have too many meanings for the dictionary entry to be useful. Kakeru (掛ける) can mean to hang, sit, take (time), cost (money), multiply, put on (glasses), to name a few of the Japanese Dictionary (JED) mobile app’s twenty-five entries.
Another challenge when it comes to learning Japanese is its formality and its formulaic nature. There’s a right and a wrong way to address superiors, and an appropriate phrase for almost any situation. Here are five absolutely essential phrases where these two areas overlap. They’re all everyday expressions that we don’t really use the same way in English, so they have some nuances that the dictionary doesn’t quite cover.
This is the classic example of untranslatable Japanese. Here, JED just says “please”, which is not a bad place to start. Negai means favor, so the literal meaning is “I’m asking a favor”. It’s commonly used when making a request, for example, “Take these books down to the office, onegai shimasu”. However, this please is used with actions in particular. With nouns, it’s more common to use kudasai for please. For example, “one donut kudasai” literally means “Please give me one donut”.
However, please is just the beginning. When you meet someone, you attach a “yoroshiku” to the beginning and the end of your self-introduction, where an English speaker might say “nice to meet you”. You’ll hear it before a competition, for example when elementary students start a game of Twister the teacher makes them bow and say “onegai shimasu”. In a TV drama when a character gets down on their knees and implores another (“Please! I beg of you!”), they yell it over and over. In romantic situations, if one person confesses having feelings for the other and asks if they’d like to start dating, the exchange might finish with a self-conscious “onegai shimasu”. Whenever you confirm future plans with another person, whether it’s a ride to a work event or personal plans, the conversation often ends with an exchange of “onegai shimasu”s.
Its range of use is quite broad, but there is one common thread connecting all these situations. It’s a spoken confirmation of a social contract. When a relationship begins, or changes in nature, you say it. When you make plans, you say it. When you want someone to help you with something you say it. It expresses your appreciation for the other person and your hope that your mutual undertaking will go well whether it’s a relationship, a favor, or a game of tic tac toe.
This pair is a little bit easier. Person A says “ittekimasu” and person B says “itterashai” in response. The dictionary does a pretty decent job of translating these as “I’m off” and “See you later” respectively. However, the Japanese version is used in a wider range of contexts than its English counterpart.
The most common example is when a person leaves the house in the morning, they say “ittekimasu” (I’m leaving). The person staying behind responds with “itterashai” (Have a good day). It’s used almost identically when someone leaves on a trip (“I’m off.” / “Have a good trip.”). You may also see it on Facebook, accompanied by a picture of a plane, airport, or ticket.
It starts to differ from English when used in cases where the “trip” is much too small to be a proper trip or commute to work. For example, at work, you might use it to end a conversation with your desk neighbor when you have to head off to a meeting. If you’re at a party and you leave a conversation to go get a snack or refill your drink, it’s also a good fit. In these cases, it comes off more like “be right back, or be back later”.
Literally “I’m being rude”, the dictionary goes with “Excuse me”. Common uses include when entering a room, leaving a room (used in the past tense), ending a telephone call, approaching someone’s desk, and exiting a group conversation. People also use it to correct themselves when they misspeak, for example when giving a speech with a set script, or in conversation if they’ve gone too far and think they might have offended the other person. It serves to cover potential embarrassment, whether you’ve made a verbal slip or entered / exited some social space or circle.
“To receive favor. To be much obliged to someone. To be indebted. To be grateful”. In some ways “osewa ni narimashita” functions as the complement to “onegai shimasu”. If the latter began a social contract, the former marks its end and thanks the other person for the part they played. Often used to say goodbye to someone at work, it expresses gratitude for all the help they may have given you while you worked together. It’s often accompanied by a phrase mentioning how long you were together, “two years, osewa ni narimashita”. My preferred translation, in this case, is “Thank you for everything.”
You can also use it to thank someone for a favor. If someone gave you a ride or cooked dinner for you, the next time you see them you can say something like “last week (for example), osewa ni narimashita.” Or you can just say “senjitsu, osewa ni narimashita”. Thanks for the other day. In this case too, it continues to work as the closing of a previously opened “onegai shimasu”.
Finally, it isn’t limited just to people who have helped you out personally. It can also be said to people who have helped your close friends or family members. Parents use it to thank teachers for teaching their students, and when you meet a friend’s significant other, you might use it in place of “I’ve heard so much about you!”
Appropriately bringing up the rear, “otsukaresama” comes from the verb meaning “to feel tired”. The dictionary really lets us down here with “thank you, much appreciated, and that’s enough for today”. While it does often carry the connotation of gratitude, the main feeling being communicated is sympathy. Basically, it’s used as an expression of rapport anytime the speaker is addressing a person who’s done something that might make them tired. The applications are vast. A woefully incomplete list includes…
- An event organizer to a speaker after the speaker finishes a presentation (“Good job!”)
- An emcee to an audience at the end of listening to a number of speakers. (“Thank you for coming today!”)
- A bus driver to a passenger at the end of a long trip (“Have a nice day!”)
- A haircutter to a customer after a haircut (“All finished!”)
- One coworker to another who’s leaving work (“See you tomorrow!”)
- One friend to another who has just finished cleaning their apartment (“Good job!”)
- A boss to a team who just finished a project (“Good work everybody!”)
- A greeting between two friends meeting up after work (“Hey!”)
- A group of friends having their first drink after work (“Cheers!”)
There are many, many more examples, but that’s the basic idea. It’s hard to overstate how important this word is in Japanese society, which emphasizes the value of both hard work and recognition of effort.
One thing all these phrases have in common is the wide range of contexts in which they are used. This is one of the reasons they’re so hard to translate. Since direct English equivalents are generally lacking, English speakers use a whole range of expressions to cover these situations. Some of them are so broad that they’re essentially meaningless, merely communicating a vague sense of emotion. Nevertheless, these words are essential parts of the linguistic glue that hold Japanese conversations together. These set phrases act as the social lubricant to smooth over moments of discomfort, such as when one has to express gratitude or impose on someone else. Pay attention to how and when they’re used, and your Japanese will start sounding more natural in no time. Thanks for reading, otsukaresama!