On the Trail of the Wild Onegaishimasu

If there is one word that you hear every day, every hour, maybe even every minute in Japan, it is Onegaishimasu(お願いします). You hear it when you meet someone. You hear it when someone asks you to do something. You hear it thrown on the end of a sentence when someone isn’t entirely sure what they should say next. If in doubt, Onegaishimasu will get you through the day unharmed.

There is however a big problem with this word.  It is an elephant in the room that is so large that it long ago crushed the room and has moved onto obscuring the entirety of Japan in its vague shadow. No one seems to really know what it means.

The word does of course have a meaning, but it seems to have become rather unclear with the passing of time and excessive overuse. Onegai (お願い), without the shimasu on the end roughly gets used to mean ‘a favour’

A quick Google search didn’t much help on this one. The featured answer was entertainingly specific and raised its own questions. It jumped straight to usage of Onegaishimasu in the game Go. Apparently even when Go is played properly in English, you start the game with a well meant Onegaishimasu. See, to me this seems pretty ridiculous as I can’t see the word being a particularly integral ritual of the game. In, let’s say, Mahjong, you build a wall out of your pieces because it symbolises…a very great wall.

Turning onegaishimasu into an essential part of English Go seems to me a bit like making the phrase “lovely weather today”, even when it’s absolutely pissing it down, a ritual at the start of all football games. Imagine it’s the world cup for a moment. The pitch is a quagmire, the players resemble washing up sponges before the game has even begun, yet they turn to the skies in unison and cheer “LOVELY WEATHER TODAY” and the game begins.

No. It just won’t do. And neither should onegaishimasu be considered special to Go. The two players are essentially sitting down to a table, nodding, then saying a long, drawn out, awkward ‘so…’.

So… let me look to personal experience to try and understand that mysterious onegaishimasu. It was the 7:40 am in the office and one of the teachers came over show me her English lesson plan for the day.

“hello Timothy, onegaishimasu”.

Onegaishimasu number 1.

“This is the lesson plan for today, Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number 2.

*runs through lesson plan, with numerous onegaishimasu-es along the way*

“Is that lesson ok? Onegaishimasu.”

Onegaishimasu number nn

“thank you, Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number (nn)+1

“yoroshiku Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number (nn)+2

*teacher exit right*

Apologies for using the word, as I’m sure you’re very bored of it by now, but Onegaishimasu is certainly very polite. It exists to be polite. The problem is it’s clearly more than a mere thank you.

Thinking of the word as a thank you has after all led to some rather odd English usage in Japan. Japanese textbooks teach kids nice and early to say thank you all the time. That’s no bad thing. It would just be better if they use thank you when you would use thank you. Say, for example, when you are giving thanks. Instead, the most common usage in Japan’s English textbooks is as an ending phrase for longer texts. A text may look something like this:

Hello, my name is ben. I am 13 years old. I am from America. I like tennis. Thank you!

Yes, the English is accurate (more than can be said for some English blips in the elementary school materials), but plain odd. Who is being thanked? Why? The answer, I believe, lies somewhere in the dark mysteries of that pesky onegaishimasu. An Onegaishimasu would fit very comfortably there, if Ben had spoken in Japanese. Part of me wants to try using ‘thank you’ in English conversations whenever a Japanese person would use Onegaishimasu, but I fear the world would think me a madman.

So let’s move on from that. Thank you.

Seeing as the word seems to mean more than simple polite gesturing or thanksgiving, we need to go back to the drawing board. Enlisting the aid of locals should help. That definitely can’t just confuse the situation, right?

One day, a co-worker had just, naturally, said Onegaishimasu.

Afterwards she turned to me and asked me how best to say Onegaishimasu in English. It’s worth noting that she is an excellent English speaker with a native English speaking husband. My first reaction was to claim we don’t really say onegaishimasu in English, but it just wasn’t a satisfying answer, so we continued trying to get to the bottom of the conundrum. I asked her how she would explain the phrase.

“please be kind to me” was the tentative answer, but she hadn’t convinced herself. Japan is already a kind place, so there is no need to ask for more kindness every twenty seconds. That would just be greedy.

She added that when she asked her husband the same question, he philosophically answered “Onegaishimasu is… Onegaishimasu.” and left it at that. Clearly the novelty of the world had long worn out the poor man.

So I took a different angle and asked how she would explain Onegaishimasu using Japanese. Stumped. There she came to a horrible realisation. All these years and she literally hadn’t known what she was saying. In such dark times as these, there is probably only one phrase to use. Only one phrase that can console, or at the very least fill the ensuing awkward, impenetrable silence. お願いします。

Given all this, there can only be one answer to the mystery. There isn’t one. Nobody knows what on earth an Onegaishimasu is. Because of this, I will be forced to the same radical measures as many have been when trying to understand the Scottish delicacy of haggis -to hunt the hills for a wild Onegaishimasu, because it definitely doesn’t exist logically in the language.