Let’s admit the truth: phone calls belong to the dark ages. Who doesn’t dread having to make a phone call, when texting would be so much less stressful?
In fact, fear of the phone is a real thing with a fancy scientific name, “telephonophobia,” to denote the feeling of anxiety whenever you hear a phone ringing.
Now picture yourself making a phone call in Japanese
For many Japanese language learners, making a phone call is the ultimate leap of faith in their language skills. Phone calls in Japan typically involve a furious onslaught of incomprehensible Keigo punctuated with an angry “ka?” question particle to signal that it’s your turn to speak.
But the toughest part of navigating a phone call in Japanese? It has to be distinguishing between Japanese homophones—words that sound exactly the same but have different meanings.
Unfortunately, the existence of a very large number of homophones plays an important role in the overall complexity of Japanese. Even for professional translators and native speakers, variations between several homophones are sometimes too subtle. While in writing, kanji solves some (but not all) of the ambiguity of homophones, in speaking, it’s much harder to tell the difference.
This tweet proves that homophones cause confusion even for Japanese people. While you probably wouldn’t use the word “parasite” (kiseichuu) as much as the verb “be home for the holidays” (kiseichuu) in your conversations, that’s not the case for this parasitology lab.
— 神戸大学大学院 保健学研究科 寄生虫学 (@kobe_para) September 17, 2019
= At the parasitology laboratory, we respond “yes, this is parasite” when we get an internal phone call.
Phone extension: *ring ring*
Laboratory: “Yes, this is parasite.”
Caller: “I would like to speak to Mr. A.”
Laboratory: “He is parasite (back home on holidays).”
Inside: “… What? (Confused)”
With kiseichuu also meaning “under regulation/regulated” (規制中) you quickly understand how context is crucial for both speakers to stay on the same page!
How to answer a phone call in Japanese
Because ignoring your phone ringing for the fifth time today won’t get you anywhere, prepare yourself with this quick list of words and expressions to know.
In Japan, people answer the phone saying もしもし or はい, following with their name.
- もしもし、ジョンです。= Hello, this is Jon.
- はい、マリです。= Yes, this is Mary.
もしもし is a little bit casual, so if the caller could be a business relation, you’d better go with はい.
Alas, we cannot cover all the phone situations you might find yourself in, but here are some expressions you should keep in your hat to ask the speaker to repeat or speak slowly.
- すみません、もう一度お願いします。= Excuse me, could you say this one more time?
- すみません、もっとゆっくり話してくださいませんか。= Sorry, could you speak slowly, please?
Keep in mind that speaking at a slower pace might not always help you understand what’s being said. So you can maybe ask for the person on the other end of the phone to speak with easier words, or even if they can switch to English.
- すみません、易しい 日本語で話してくださいませんか。= Sorry, could you use easier Japanese, please?
- すみません、英語でお願いします。= Excuse-me, could you speak English?
Can’t hear the person on the other end (or just want to pretend that you can’t so you can get the phone call over with)? Use these phrases below.
- お電話が遠いです。= Literally, the “phone is far,” meaning you don’t clearly hear the speaker.
- すみません、聞こえません。= Sorry, I can’t hear.
- すみません、わかりません。= Sorry, I don’t understand.
- Finally, to end a call, you’ll either use ではまた (very casual) or 失礼します.
|寄生虫学研究室||kiseichuu gakukenkyuushitsu||parasitology laboratory|
|かかる||kakaru||come (phone call)|
|対応する||taiou suru||answer to|
|ことがある||koto ga aru||has happened in the past, it happens|
|プルルルル||pururururu||onomatopoeia for a ringing phone|
|お願いします||o negai shimasu||please|
|帰省中||kiseichuu||be back home (= hometown, country…) for the holidays|
|もしもし||moshi moshi||hello (on the phone)|
|もう一度||mou ichido||one more|
|…くださいませんか。||…kudasaimasen ka||Could you…? Would you…? (more polite than the request form ください)|
|易しい日本語||yasashii nihongo||literally “kind Japanese”|
|ではまた||dewa mata||see you later|
|失礼します||shitsurei shimasu||goodbye (on the phone)|
For more on learning Japanese
- Learn Japanese with our original study materials on GaijinPot Study
- Questions about studying Japanese in Japan? Take a look at the Japan 101 section on Higher Education and Studying Japanese
- Join our GaijinPot Study Facebook group to connect with fellow learners
- Learn more about the GaijinPot Study Placement Program