Japan Today

Is the Japanese word for 'thank you' losing its meaning?

By Philip Kendall

As linguists and scholarly types routinely profess, language is something that is continually evolving. It is a living, breathing entity that twists, turns and grows on an almost daily basis. As our lives change, so too does language. We don’t always like the changes, but, realising that the amount of time we spend on this earth is a mere blink of the eye compared to how long language itself has existed, we come to accept that words are no more ours than the valleys and hills we trek over. (Although I must confess that I still face-palm whenever I hear someone utter the phrase “I could care less” to suggest that they do not care an iota about something.)

Nevertheless, when changes in language begin to occur, people notice them. The first time we heard the word “Facebook” used as a verb or saw our first “LOL”, many of us likely furrowed out brows and thought, “Is that right?” In much the same way, in July and August last year Japanese broadcasting giant NHK launched an online survey asking the people of Japan whether they had noticed the rather peculiar use of the word “arigatou” (thank you) cropping up in conversation in recent times.

Although now usually written in entirely phonetic hiragana script, "arigatou" was once routinely written using kanji characters: 有り難う. Itself born of the phrase「有り難い」 "arigatai," which is composed of the words “becoming/existence” and “difficult”, the term was in a sense a way of expressing humility and to suggest thanks for making “the difficult thing I asked you to do” happen.

Of course, like all language, meaning is often lost as we use it frequently, and, with the word "arigatou" once voted as Japan’s most loved word, it is little wonder that the deeper meaning of the word has slowly come to be forgotten. Much like the English term “thank you”, "arigatou" is now a simple stock phrase that we use dozens of time each day - provided, of course, that our parents tapped the backs of our heads enough when we kids and forgot to say it.

So, in the scenario of a boss waving a document at an office worker and saying “I need 50 copies of this by lunchtime,” we might not usually expect said subordinate to respond by saying “thank you!” and grabbing the sheet of paper with both hands. (Unless, perhaps, it is followed by “-sir, may I have another!?” in the voice of a Dickensian schoolboy.) But believe it or not, this somewhat awkward back-and-forth is, according to the boffins at NHK’s research center, becoming commonplace in Japanese offices.

In its online survey, NHK asked a total of 343 people of various ages whether they had heard conversations in their workplace wherein a member of staff had responded to a request from their boss or superior with the phrase "arigatou," or, to be more precise, "arigatou gozaimasu" (thank you very much).

A staggering 18% of the people surveyed, including 37% of those in their 20s, responded that they had heard the word “thank you” used in such a way at work.

Asked why this might be, researchers suggested that, especially among younger members of staff, set phrases like “kashikomarimashita” and “shouchi itashimashita“, which equate to “certainly” or “very well” in English, might be considered a little labored or unnatural. Furthermore, “ryoukai shimashita” (Understood!) puts us in danger of coming across as unfeeling robots, which leaves us with the softer, yet equally polite, phrase “Thank you very much!” to fall back on.

“By using the word in this fashion,” researchers suggest, “staff may be suggesting to their boss that even odd jobs like making photocopies come as vital work experience to them; something to be thankful for.” They also suggest that the language used in modern-day chain pubs and bars across Japan, wherein waiters and waitresses often shout “arigatou gozaimasu” and “with pleasure!” upon taking orders may have had an effect on younger people’s understanding and use of the word. As a Brit who routinely uses the word “cheers”- which can only have come from the cry given moments before gulping down some form of alcohol – in place of the word thank you, I think they may well be on to something with the latter hypothesis.

Source: NHK ニュース

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Learning Language Through Nonsense -- Survey About Employees’ “Ideal Boss” among Japanese and Chinese -- “You’re Very Good at Using Chopsticks”

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Of course, like all language, meaning is often lost as we use it frequently, and, with the word “arigatou” once voted as Japan’s most loved word, it is little wonder that the deeper meaning of the word has slowly come to be forgotten.

So what's the point of a piece entitled "Is the Japanese word for 'thank you' losing its meaning?

Furthermore, office workers using 'arigatou' instead of the perhaps more traditional 'kashikomarimashita' or 'schouchi itashimashita' or 'ryoukai shimashita,' according to your theory, is NOT the result of 'arigatou' losing its meaning but rather the result of these three alternatives feeling "unnatural" or "labored." Arigatou remains the soft and lovely word it has always been, as you point out, so again, what's the point of your essay?

5 ( +8 / -3 )

Very insightful and eloquently written . . .. .. I hadn't thought of 'arigatou' from that frame . . . . .

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

I agree with the comment about "I could care less", it doesn't even make sense. The phrase used in UK is "I couldn't care less" which does makes sense. As for arigatou, yes, I have heard it used by people when receiving instructions and by bar/restaurant staff when receiving orders, alongside kashikomarimashita.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

They also suggest that the language used in modern-day chain pubs and bars across Japan, wherein waiters and waitresses often shout “arigatou gozaimasu” and “with pleasure!” upon taking orders may have had an effect on younger people’s understanding and use of the word.

I don't linger in shops or restaurants where the staff shout all the time. They lose my custom, and actually that of a good number of my Japanese friends too. This robotic blaring at people has definitely got worse in the past 25 years. Everyone is treated like a first time customer and simply shouted at. Whatever the words, "Arigatou" or not, they are being stripped of meaning by their manualised and insincere delivery so I can see how the headline here makes sense.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

WORD...!!! domo...

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

I'm with domo also.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Seriously? A straight answer directly from the question ...Yes, it is losing its meaning?? To add, gomenasai is another word ...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The word thank you means more than just an appreciation of peoples kindness. It means received with love. It's letting love flow like we would with cash in our economic system. If we want a healthy economy, we let the cash flow within the city, for instance. We don't keep the cash. Spending the cash so that the city will benefit from the flow of the asset is very important to the economy to stay robust. Thus love isn't love until it is given away until it flows over to others like giving thanks is a familiar saying. Therefore thank you is not static word like all other words about receiving love. It's not just a word but a responsibility to pass on the love received. However, I agree there are times when it is inappropriate to say thank you to a customer such as being insincere about it over blowing it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Experience in dozens of convenience stores and supermarkets over the last few years has demonstrated that many Japanese are unable to iterate any form of 'thank you' or indeed any recognition to store clerks and staff. Items are placed in baskets, the said basket is placed by the till, cash or a card may be offered, change is given, and they leave without anything being said or even a gesture made. If they are lucky, a grunt may be heard!

2 ( +2 / -1 )

I agree with you, ben4short. I am self-employed, so whenever I am given work, I deeply appreciate it. This same attitude borne by office workers is a positive thing: "Thank you for requesting my service" - even if it is for something as mundane as making copies.

Unless, perhaps, it is followed by “-sir, may I have another!?” in the voice of a Dickensian schoolboy.

Of course, this implies mutual respect; if not, it is less Dickensian than Kevin Bacon in Animal House.


2 ( +2 / -0 )

Wanderlust - I've noticed that also. A lot of people appear to be afraid to even speak to each other at all. I'm sure that's why masks are so ubiquitous, as they give the less socially-adept a quick and easy way to hide in public. When the cashier asks a "Would you like" or "Do you have" question, there's a "Hnnh?" followed by a rapid waft hand across face. I don't understand - it must be easier to say words in your own language, surely.

And from what I've learned here, there are quite a few words which have lost any meaning.

"Umai" and "oooishii" seem to be reflex terms whenever somebody puts anything in their mouth, particularly on TV.

And I was once on my way out of a lavatory cubicle when I was greeted with a cheery "Otsukaresama deshita" from the 4'11" cleaning lady. I don't know why she assumed I'd exerted a lot of energy in my evacuation.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

うっす!is usually heard over here in okinawa..

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

i was in brazil a couple years ago and learned their thank you is "obrigado". one of my best friends in the world and the best man at my wedding who is from japan, once told me "arigatou" is a japanese derivation of the portuguese since they came to kyushu long ago and have had a major influence. he's a wise man and i have a feeling he is right. no matter what, though, it's definitely one of the most important phrases learned in any language. deep down, we're all ONE.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

I have also heard that 'arigatou' comes from 'obrigado', as it even implies the same same of 'I am in your debt'. I personally have never felt it being used inappropriately. In fact, I have found the various forms of 'thank you' quite charming, my favorite being 'sumimasen'. If anything, this article more likely reflects the authors own (cultural) bias or limitations. To clarify: being thankful is an emotional state, whereas most Japanese expressions translated as 'thank you' relate more to the situation resolved or created by the act.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

I have also heard that 'arigatou' comes from 'obrigado

Didn't Japanese people have their own word for 'thank you'?

'Goodbye' is another word that's lost it's original meaning in English. Not as obvious as dia duit.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

For people who are not self-employed and not necessarily grateful for the (usually extra) work they are given by demanding bosses, a sweet "arigatou" might be sarcastic. No one can take offense, but the person saying it may be flipping a verbal bird. You never know.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Although I do like and respect a lot of things Portuguese brought to Japan, this "obrigado = arigato" argument is one thing that always gives me funny and absurd feeling... especially as so many Portuguese(speakers) seem to really believe in that story. Just like Pukey2 suggests, do they really imagine that a whole nation of people stayed without a word for gratitude up until 16 century?... Not to mention that they may or may not have ever studied into the origin of the word arigato, which is pretty Buddhist... And they may also find it interesting that, actually some Japanese argue that obrigado came from arigato LOL.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Lots of phrases besides "arigatou" have lost their meanings due to the robotic, insincere nature of the Japanese. If I get surprised, I automatically must say "bikkuri shita." Anytime I associate with another person, I must automatically say "yoroshiku onegaishimasu." The list of midless and automatic Japanese responses that have rendered the words devoid of meaning goes on.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

krumh310- you got me digging for more and thought you might enjoy this phonological idea from wiki: The full derivation is arigatō < arigatau < arigataku < arigatashi < ari + katashi. The medial -k- drops out from -aku- resulting in /au/. This then becomes /oː/ via regular phonological rules. Ari is a verb meaning "to be" and katashi is an adjective meaning "difficult". The original meaning of "arigatashi" was "difficult to be", i.e. "rare" and thus "special". This derivation tries to stem the word to its structural meanings and does not consider the current word's sentimental development and appreciated meaning. Even considering structural Japanese origin, the current usage and appreciated meaning could originate in the phonological similarity and meaning of the Portuguese "obrigado". we never truly know but it's interesting to consider

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Maybe it has, maybe it hasn't, but what does it matter in the long run? Japan and some Japanese people are finally loosening their tight panties and learning that not everything everyday has to be formal and rigid.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Calling Japanese insincere or robotic is wholly ignorant of how the Japanese (or humans, for that matter) work. Most of our externalized emotions tie directly in to (enhanced) body & mental functionality. Japanese are using our G-d-given gifts to the fullest, whilst minimizing the potential for misunderstanding. Robo(t)s?, no; but LOBOs maybe... ;)

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

I think each nation has it's own words for "thank you", may be even different forms for different situations. Those words have their meaning, special energy and they have been used for ages. IMHO, such words should be used with great respect.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I am never saying 'Thank you' ever again.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

OK, you do that then.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I am going to start saying thank-you more often......tizameh......pronounced......tih-zhuh-may ......is how you say thank you in my native tounge, or language...Wyandotte Native American....so TIZAMEH to all of you who read my post...

Nov 10, 2012 ,The community mourns with the Wyandotte Nation in hearing of the ... Chief Bearskin ended his remarks that day by saying,"I want to say thank you, thank you a thousand times". I am the proudest Indian in the whole country.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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